A host of local athletes are chasing a medal in Tokyo at the weekend
It could be ‘Super Sunday’ for Northern Ireland at the Olympics as four athletes from the region go for glory in Tokyo.
Rory McIlroy, Rhys McClenaghan, Aidan Walsh and Kurt Walker will all compete for medals for Team Ireland on one of the biggest sporting days in recent times.
The action starts in the early hours of Sunday morning, with boxer Walker first in the ring at 3.30am UK time.
Belfast boxer Walsh has already guaranteed Ireland a medal at the Games after his performance in the welterweight quarter-finals against Merven Clair of Mauritius, leading on three of the five judges’ cards from the first round.
"This is going to be with me for the rest of my life. I can't thank everyone enough for their support," Walsh told the BBC after his win. ”It hasn't even sunk in that I'm at the Olympics. You don't know until the referee puts your hand up."
His coach at Monkstown Amateur Boxing Club Paul Johnston said he believes the 24-year-old is on track for the top prize when he meets Britain’s Pat McCormack at 4.03am on Sunday for a place in the final.
“I think he’s in a really good position, he’s coming in as much of an unknown in terms of Olympic boxing so there’s very little pressure on him. If he boxes to his ability the way he has been, we’re very confident that he can progress into the final,” he said.
Michaela Walsh, Aidan’s sister, also qualified for Tokyo 2020, where she lost out to Italy’s Irma Testa. She tweeted on Friday: “When me and him qualified for the Olympic Games on the same day, it was the most special day of my life, but watching him win an Olympic medal brings a joy to me I’ve never felt.”
The siblings made Irish boxing history by becoming the first brother and sister to qualify for the Games and Mr Johnston said Aidan has been trying to “follow in the footsteps” of his big sister since he was a child.
“This success is not just luck, it’s down to raw, hard yards of dedication, training twice a day 365 days a year, he’d be in the gym here on Christmas Day.”
There were fears Aidan had suffered an injury as he celebrated his most recent victory in the ring and Team Ireland later confirmed the boxer suffered a “slight strain” but “they’re looking forward to the fight on Sunday”.
Michaela also confirmed he would be fine to take to the ring.
Mr Johnston said it is Aidan’s fighting style that has brought him this far.
He added: “If you threw a bag of rice at him you still couldn’t hit him. His style, his height, his reach and with his speed, it’s very difficult for an opponent to get their head around. Tactically, it’s very hard to plan against Aidan.”
He will be watching the fight with Aidan and Michaela’s parents Damian and Martine at their home on Black’s Road in west Belfast. “It’s very emotional,” he said.
Newtownards man and gymnast McClenaghan is one of the medal favourites ahead of the pommel horse final on Sunday, as his qualifying score of 15.266 was the joint second highest overall. He and coach Luke Carson “couldn’t be more ready”, he said.
He said on Friday: “This has been the best competition build up I have ever completed. And what a time to do it for my first Olympic Games.
“I know I have put 100% into this, no regrets. Now let’s compete in an Olympic Final.”
Speaking to the BBC on Friday, Rhys’ mother Tracy said the family is “a bundle of nervous energy” before his appearance at 10.30am on Sunday. “We’re happy to hold Rhys’s nerves as well so he can stay calm,” she said.
"We will be watching in our back garden with some friends and family. He’s been saying everything’s been going well and going to plan. We always knew he would be an Olympian some day — and we knew one day he would be — we believe in him.”
In golf, Co Down’s Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry, who won the 148th Open at Royal Portrush in 2019, are both in the mix for Olympic medals.
The pair are now on seven-under after playing their second rounds at Kasumigaseki Country Club.
McIlroy went into day two six shots off the lead, with Lowry a further shot back, leaving them tied for sixth. The pair are now four shots behind leader Xander Schauffele of Team USA.
Lisburn fighter Walker will face US featherweight Ragan Duke in a quarter-final on Sunday after beating world featherweight champion Miriazizbek Mirzakhalilov from Uzbekistan.
Walker said the win was “indescribable” but maintained he wasn’t fazed ahead of the fight, coming out on top in a 4-1 majority decision.
“I just need to get my head level again and try and relax and recover. But I am buzzing,” he said. “We have the best coaches in the world. I was delighted to see them so happy because it brings me on. It will be hard to better beating the world champion. It is is like a fairy tale.”
Carl Frampton spurred the fighter on, saying: “What a win for Kurt Walker — beating the current world champion.
“One win away from a medal, three wins away from a gold! No reason he can’t do it. Go and change you and your family’s life, son.”
The 26-year-old suffered a shock defeat in the Olympic qualifiers in London in March 2020 shortly before the three month premature birth of his daughter Layla (1) when he and girlfriend Ria didn’t know whether she would survive. The baby was later brought home in August.
It put everything in perspective, he told the Irish Mirror earlier this year. “I was devastated to lose that qualifier in March. But then I found out there are more important things. I realised that boxing isn’t everything.”
But there has been disappointment for some Northern Ireland athletes.
In swimming, Larne’s Danielle Hill finished with a time of 25.70 seconds and sixth place in her women’s 50m freestyle heat, outside the top-16 to qualify for the semi-finals.
Meanwhile, Daniel Wiffen from Lisburn missed out on the final of the men’s 1,500m despite winning his heat. He came home in 15:07.69 but he was passed out with only the top eight advancing to the final.
And in athletics, there will be plenty to look forward to on Sunday with Eilish Flanagan taking part in the heats of the Women’s 3,000m Steeplechase, beginning at 1.40am.
Friday was a medal-laden day for Team GB too. Bethany Shriever claimed a thrilling BMX gold and Duncan Scott extended his streak in the pool as Great Britain won six medals.