Living and guiding American dreams

Colorado Springs casts a long shadow in American sports. The city is home to the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame and the US Air Force Academy (Go Falcons!) as well as the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame. And the US Olympic Team.
Living and guiding American dreams
Put ‘em up! Billy Walsh believes postponing the Olympics will not necessarily prove a bad thing for the US boxing squad which has five or six team members who could do with another year’s experience. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Put ‘em up! Billy Walsh believes postponing the Olympics will not necessarily prove a bad thing for the US boxing squad which has five or six team members who could do with another year’s experience. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Colorado Springs casts a long shadow in American sports. The city is home to the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame and the US Air Force Academy (Go Falcons!) as well as the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame. And the US Olympic Team.

Only one of those organisations interests the man on the end of the phone and it isn’t the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.

Five years living at the foot of the Rocky Mountains hasn’t dulled the Wexford edge in Billy Walsh’s voice.

It hasn’t made him blasé, either.

“Sometimes when you’d get off the rollercoaster you’d want to pinch yourselves. It’s 70 degrees here today (21 degrees celsius), tomorrow it’s supposed to be 30 (-1 degrees celsius) and snowy.

“When I think of being head coach of USA Boxing... I’m on a development course with other coaches here at the moment, 16 Olympic coaches from different disciplines, and we have seminars, webinars, we go away together for a few days and work together on various issues we have — or we did before the pandemic.

“It’s been fantastic in that sense, the development. No matter what level you’re at, you need to keep developing to improve at your job. You might be selling the same message but you’re dealing with a huge variety of people.

“Sometimes you have to pinch yourself to think you’re seen as an equal to these people, to have them coming for the benefit of your experience in different cultures.”

Equal? Walsh is being modest: He was named International Boxing Association (AIBA) world coach of the year after the 2016 Olympics, when he steered the US to three medals, but the enthusiasm for life in Colorado Springs is unfeigned.

“I’m not in the team base, I have my own place — a little townhouse, or a condo — about 10 minutes’ drive from the training centre.

"I lived there when I came here first, but then I realised that I’d have to make a life for myself outside of the centre.

“I haven’t been back there since we shut everything down and sent the teams home, though.

“At that stage we were due to head to Buenos Aires for an Olympic qualifier — we’d have been due back just a couple of days ago — but the plug was pulled on that so we decided to send the athletes home because we didn’t know when we’d be back in action.

“So they’re all at home, and we’re working with them remotely.

"Back then they were just ready to compete, they’d been working pretty hard, so we gave them a couple of weeks off and we started back working with them this week with general preparation, giving them training programmes to work on and keeping them up to date on where we’re at.

“The thinking is that when we get them back together, which will hopefully be around June — the centre is due to open on May 1 but we feel that’s probably a bit too early, that it’ll be extended — we’ll be in a better position.

“But we have coaches’ corner on the website, fielding questions from other coaches around the country and building connections with them, to have a relationship with them in order to help them tactically, physically, in other ways with the training.

"So we’re having a lot of meetings to touch base.”

Walsh admits he’s still adjusting to life in lockdown.

“There’s still a bit of craziness here, with people going out and so on. In any crisis you have people who’ll make money out of it, and the supermarkets here are doing well, they’re trying to get people to work there because they’re so busy.

“You’re trying to pick a time to go to the supermarket because it can be very busy, but a couple of weeks ago I went in and got a load of groceries, enough to last me a couple of weeks, so I’m well stocked up.

"I have to go out the odd day for a loaf of bread or whatever but I’m self-contained enough.

“I’ve learned to cook as well.”

Is that news?

“Well, make sure it goes in the piece, put it that way.”

994702[#embed3]Postponing the Olympics to next year has caused headaches for coaches and athletes all over the world, but Walsh can see the opportunity in the crisis.“In terms of coaching, we probably have five or six team members who could do with another year’s experience. They have no international experience so it could be a blessing in disguise for some of them.“The other guys, the experienced guys, will be ready anyway. They’ll get stronger and more mature, but this gap is the best thing for the rookies, because it gives them more experience as soon as this kicks off again.”What does that experience mean exactly, though? What’s the quantifiable difference that improves a boxer?“Going to somewhere like Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan and having to put in a performance in a very hostile environment against a local favourite... you can’t beat that.“Getting a performance out of yourself at that level, to deal with someone in a hugely different environment, where you may have to eat horse for breakfast, dinner and tea, where you don’t have the same facilities, where you’re dealing with six feet of snow when you step outside. "That can’t be replicated anywhere outside of the place itself.“There’s also the issue of style, or styles — there’s a different style on each continent and you have to adapt to that. 

In America there’s also the focus on professional boxing. There’s no money for amateur boxing so the focus is always on becoming a professional world champion.

“We try to change that mindset, to show them that going to the Olympics is what all the greats did back in the day; we’ve tried to put that on the radar for the boxers — to get to the Olympics first, and then to move on to try to become a professional world champion.”The difference between pro and amateur can be broken down in two ways. Ever the coach, Walsh deals with the nuts and bolts first: “Professional and amateur boxing are like two different sports. It’s like saying a guy is an athlete, but is he a sprinter or a marathon runner? "You need two completely different engines for those disciplines, two different skill sets.“Some guys are okay doing 10 rounds of sparring — you can do 10 rounds of sparring at a low pace — but the three rounds we do, having tested our guys at a heart rate of 93 to 100% max for the full duration of those nine minutes, or three rounds? That means it’s a sprint.“That’s the type of heart rate you’ll have in a sprint, and it’s the preparation you need. You’re up against the best in the world, and they’re attacking you every three seconds. "That means one, two, a guy is attacking; one, two, a guy is attacking.“To withstand that requires a hell of an engine, a different engine to the endurance a professional has.“If you’re not training at that level you can’t just go in and turn it on: You’ll go in and blow a gasket in the first minute. And that’s been one of the big challenges, changing that attitude to focus on the Olympics.”Attitude is the second factor. And in America the pull of the pro game must be more of a factor than it ever was in Walsh’s time with Ireland.“Absolutely, there were issues with that before I got here — fellas would get on the national team and get to a continental or world championships and then turn professional.“Pro boxing is such a big business here. 

People don’t realise it at home, but there are so many boxers needed to fill all the cards, and everyone is looking for the next Floyd Mayweather... and they got a lot of the boxers cheap from the amateur ranks because those boxers hadn’t won anything at that level.

“If they get to the Olympics their brand becomes more marketable — that’s how we sold it to the guys, and they get a level of funding that’ll help them to stay amateurs.“Now, they’re not going to become millionaires on that funding, but at least they can stay boxing with us. It’s not costing them money to box as an amateur.“That’s really helped. Most of the team we’ve had for four years, some of them since youth boxing, so we’re beginning to see the fruits of having a talent pipeline from the junior and youth teams.“In Ireland we’d always tell the boxers that they’d need two Olympic games to fulfil their potential in terms of experience, but we’re quite happy here to get one Olympics out of them, to keep them for four years — that way they’ll get experience, they’ll travel to other countries, judges around the world will get to know them.“After the Games they participate in we wish them the best and send them on their merry way to the professional ranks.”

Anyone who spends time in America picks up on one aspect of the national character: The positivity.

Sweeping statement though it is, the level of self-belief in the States can take an Irish cynic aback. Surely that self-belief is even stronger among Olympic-level athletes?

“That’s a very fair comment about the attitude. When I got here I found people to be so positive, that great belief — they felt they were the best in the world, absolutely.

“I look at someone like Claressa Shields, twice an Olympic gold medallist, and when she gets in the ring no-one else but her is going to win, even if sometimes her preparation mightn’t be at the very highest level.

“I’d be looking at her and thinking: ‘Where is this confidence coming from, when A or B or C mightn’t have been done in training?’ But it’s there, absolutely.

“I think it’s the way they’re brought up, that sense that you can be whatever you want to be.

“And of course there’s a long history of people coming to America from all over the world — and making it.

“And the kids here have that, it’s pumped into them by their parents — who are often their coaches as well — and I’m here, then, the critical Irish guy who’s coming from a ‘don’t get too big for your boots’ culture, a bit more sceptical.

“But it’s great to see that positivity, that belief they’ll be the best in the world. I feed off it.

“Sometimes you might think ‘how do they believe they’ll be the best’, but that belief is key.

That said, sometimes they might believe the US is the world, that nothing else exists — sometimes I have to remind them there are a few more countries out there they might need to consider.

Ws spoke ahead of the Easter Weekend.

Walsh was due for Sunday lunch with the US Olympic Committee senior director of high performance, though at the time of writing it’s unclear whether said director — Corkman Finbarr Kirwan — came through with the promised leg of lamb in gravy.

“We’ll be observing social distancing,” said Walsh.

“That’s no big deal, though. In the last two weeks we’ve had to readjust our programmes, change everything, and that’s been a big deal. That’s been a challenge.

“For me, sport has been my life since I was six or seven years old, playing hurling and football and soccer and boxing, and I’ve ended up working at it as a career.

“But at the end of the day it means absolutely nothing. Sure, it brings us together in many ways but life is far more than that, and it’s a much better game to be involved in.

“Living a long life is an ambition for all of us, and while it might be hard for people not to have sport on the television or no games to go to, this is far more important.

“And nobody can change it only ourselves.

"We’ll be judged by future generations on what we did, and we don’t want them to judge us as having done the wrong thing — that we had the opportunity to do something and didn’t do it, something as simple as staying away from each other.

“We have to act. We have to do the right thing.”

Well said. By a man who always did the right thing

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