The Malta Independent 5 December 2020, Saturday

50 Shades of Greats: ‘Sport was my greatest educator’ - Carol Walsh

Simon Farrugia Sunday, 15 November 2020, 10:32 Last update: about 19 days ago

Carol Walsh was born in October 1962 together with her twin brother David. She was the first offspring of Maria Stella Cachia and Edgar Urpani. Within the next six years another three siblings followed. “People must have been extremely fertile in those days! Mum had five children in six-and-a-half years! This helped give me a lovely and very active childhood. My mother was a teacher and my father was a printing press manager. My mother was a bookworm and not the sporty type. On the other hand my father loved sport. He used to play tennis, ice skating which he practised in England, football, diving and swimming.”

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From a very early age Carol was interested in sports. “On my 11th birthday my father gave me the best birthday present ever – he bought my twin brother and I a membership at a Tennis club. In summer we would spend as much as six hours a day on the tennis courts. We would go to the public library and borrow books about Tennis. We would discuss tactics at home and compare muscles and watched tennis tournaments on TV whenever there was one. We took training very seriously.”

“However the seed for competitive sport was planted inside me well before that. As a six-year-old child watching the 1968 Olympic Games, I remember thinking 'I would like to be an athlete like these people'. That desire never left me. Summer Olympics happened every four years and I would be looking forward to each and every edition.”

As a little child Carol used to walk everywhere. For this I can vouch myself , since we lived opposite each other with our respective families. Even though we lived in the same street, across the road from each other, Carol lived in Paola and yours truly in Fgura. “When in primary school I used to walk over two miles to go to school and back every day. In the evening I used to walk another two miles to go to doctrine lessons. Being the eldest of five children, mum would send me shopping for 11 pints of milk (milk came in glass bottles in those days) and five loaves of bread every day. I was already doing weights and endurance training without knowing. I used to go to school one hour early so that I could spend time playing lasktu with my school mates before lessons started. I was always tireless.”

During the 70s and 80s life was much different from the life that we know today. “Coming from a working family of seven, were only my father worked outside the home, we did not have the luxuries today's kids enjoy. We had one bicycle between five and had to fight for our turn to ride it. Our parents did not have any spare cash to waste on junk food or unnecessary stuff. My mum was a very good cook and she always prepared good genuine homemade meals with plenty of fresh fruit to follow. We always had books and magazines such as the Readers Digest and National Geographic around the house. We also bought a local English newspaper every day. As a treat, sometimes my dad would rent movies for us to watch and also buy us a long play record every now and again.”

Interesting to note is that Carol was also a good table tennis player before focusing entirely on athletics. “One fine day my father sold mum's dining room and bought us a table tennis table instead. That was another very good move. We used to hold tournaments between us. Then one Sunday morning dad asked me to put on a pair of comfortable shorts, t-shirt and sports shoes because he was taking me somewhere. He had written me down to take part in the table tennis championships which were being held in a big hall in San Girgor Parish in Sliema. I did very well and managed to progress to the final. It was the first time I had played table tennis outside the house and against strangers. Then I was approached by an official from Sliema Juventus 76 sports and social club and was asked to join them. I loved those years training and playing for this club. Soon after I became part of the national table tennis team and was getting coached by a Chinese coach. Although he gave me punishments for not being able to perform the number of push ups he asked me to, I still loved training with him and never missed a session.”

As Carol’s life progressed from childhood to adolescence she had new responsabilities. Time passed and I came to the age when hormones dictate your life and the opposite sex became as important as sport. I got married at a very young age and had two lovely boys within two years. I loved motherhood but still made time for myself and started running 10km every day at 5am before the kids woke up.”

But things started to change in 1987. “One fine morning, I happened to read in the newspaper that there was a 5km race in Bugibba that afternoon. I thought I would give it a go. I went for it and won it. For the next three years I kept running on my own and taking part in a race here and there. In September 1990 I joined a Running Club for the first time. In 1991 I started to break national records. In 1992 I was chosen to represent Malta in my first Olympic Games in Barcelona. It is worth mentioning that the Olympic Games were my first international competition. I was literally thrown into the deep end!”

Carol achieved notable success both domestically and internationally. “I dominated the local scene from 1991 until my last race in 2012. Internationally I can say that when it came to track racing, I was only competitive at Small Nations level. However, when it came to the longer distances on the road I was competitive at higher key races like the Mediterranean Games and Commonwealth Games. I was ranked 88th in Europe (including Russia) at marathon distance in 1996/1997. I won the Dublin marathon in 1997, came second and third in Dublin on another three occasions, came second in Florence in 1996 with a national best time of 2:36.53 (record still stands), won a silver medal at the 1997 Mediterranean Games in Bari, placed fourth in the Stockholm marathon in 2000 and many more similar achievements at long distance events.”

The international stage is something that everyone aims for and Carol was no exception. “I represented Malta internationally for 18 years and can say that my biggest disappointment was tearing a hamstring and not being able to finish the Atlanta Olympic Games marathon in 1996. That was a terrible experience. Just 5km into the race I knew that something was wrong with me on that day. The running was not flowing and my blood was not circulating as well as usual; my muscles did not feel right and they were not firing. They did not feel nice and supple as usual and I knew I would be running into a problem soon. Sure enough at the 22km mark my legs felt like they were made of wood instead of flesh and consequentially I tore my left hamstring.

As an athlete, looking back on my personal best times in all the distances I competed at, I can say I am greatly satisfied. My personal best times are as follows: 800m – 1:15.16, 1500m – 4:33.41, 3000m – 9:37, 5000m – 16:43, 10,000m – 34:25, Half Marathon 1:14.19 and Full Marathon 2:36:53.”

In an athlete’s career there is going to be a fair share of ups and downs. “When it comes to good experiences I have had many. My debut marathon was something my coach and I never expected that it would be that good. I had never raced 42.2km in my life and to cover that distance in 2 hours 40 minutes and place 11th in the Rotterdam marathon on my first attempt was very encouraging to say the least.”

“Being voted National Sportswoman of the Year seven times in my career was also an achievement. Although I think the greatest recognition was when I was awarded the Qadi Tar-Repubblika medal for serving my country, by the then President of Malta Dr Ugo Mifsud Bonnici.”

Carol recalls other wonderful experiences that she passed through during her distinguished career. “One other good experience I cherish is when I won gold at the World Veterans Non Stadia Half Marathon Championships in Algarve, Spain and my mother was present for the medal presentation ceremony. While standing on the highest step of the podium and listening to the Maltese national anthem being played and the Maltese flag being raised, I spotted mum in the crowd crying with pride and joy.”

The last time that Carol Walsh raced was in May 2012. “After that I decided to close the chapter of competitive running in my life. I wanted to find the pure and simple joy of recreational sport once again. This might come as a shock to some people, but, I assure you that competitive sport at a high level is not all fun and glory! It can be mentally very stressful at times. I still get nightmares when I dream I am on a start line and I forgot to wear my number or my running shoes, or else I did not manage to get to the venue on time, or missed a plane or a bus.... Nowadays I walk very long distances, I jog a little bit off road, I cycle, I swim, I kayak... but all for fun without wearing a heart rate monitor or a stop watch! All I want now is to relax, enjoy the outdoors and keep as fit and healthy as possible for the rest of my life.”

As a semi-professional athlete Carol’s diet was very controlled so as to provide enough energy and substance to aid recovery and enhance her immune system as much as possible. “My choice of food is still very important to me. I love vegetables both raw and cooked, fish, rice, some cheeses, natural yoghurt, fruit, nuts and seeds most of all. I like a glass of red wine now and again especially if I am in good company. I have never smoked in my life, I never got drunk in my life and I certainly never took any recreational or performance enhancing drugs. I fail to understand why some people think that they need to use harmful substances to enhance their moods, when all they need to do is exercise outdoors. Exercise is proven to release the happy hormone serotonin!

Given Carol’s local and international experience in Sports, she has a firm opinion regarding the future of the Sport in Malta. “I believe and hope that now that the gene pool in Malta is getting more diverse, we stand a better chance of producing good athletes to represent our country.”

One final message from a local sports legend addressed to those who want to further their careers. “Sport has given me a lot more than good results in competitions. Sports has taught me to set immediate and long term targets, to plan, to work hard, to persevere, to be consistent, to respect my body, to be fair, to never cheat, to endure pain, to be humble, to be proud of my hard-earned achievements, to be grateful to everyone who helped me realize my dreams and also to be graceful in the face of defeat as well as victory. Sport was my greatest educator.

All the lessons I learned through sport have come in handy at various stages and areas of my life. I have applied them to help me get through difficult and challenging times. It always worked. Sport really helps you grow as a person. Sport helps you become physically, mentally and emotionally stronger.”

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