Hometown Heroes: Cork Olympian Donie was born to run

After a scholarship to the US in 1968, Donie Walsh competed for Ireland in the marathon in Munich in 1972. He gives back by coaching, he tells Roisin Burke
Hometown Heroes: Cork Olympian Donie was born to run

Donie Walsh, Leevale AC, with an image of current Olympian Michelle Finn. (wearing Leevale AC coloured hat knitted by current Olympian Michelle Finn)

AN Olympian, a coach, and a friend to many, Donie Walsh is one of the founding members, from 1967, of the Leevale Athletics Club.

A stalwart volunteer with the club, Donie has seen many Cork athletes progress to scholarships, racing success, and Olympic qualification, but he said the best thing about the club is it keeps him busy.

The club was born of the amalgamation of a city centre and a southside club, and under Donie’s care it has become a source of athletes for the Olympic Games.

Donie began running seriously at 16, after giving up GAA, earning a scholarship to Villanova University, in the US, in 1968.

Donie was born Daniel Christopher Walsh, but known as Donie, and had to get his passport changed because of the confusion at airports.

“I was travelling a lot to races and that and everyone called me Donie; my bags were labelled Donie: It caused a lot of confusion,” Donie says.

Donie has dedicated his life to sport, athletics, and coaching.

Speaking to The Echo, Donie says it had been his lifelong dream to compete in the Olympics and that when he achieved that, he wanted to help other athletes to reach their goals.

In the 1970s, Donie was a formidable force at the starting line, winning five 10,000m national championships in six years, running the marathon for Ireland in the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, and winning numerous other cross-country and track-and-field titles.

 Donie Walsh, Leevale AC, with his World Cross Country Silver Team Medal from 1979 and his first Winning trophy from the half marathon in Delaware, 1971.
Donie Walsh, Leevale AC, with his World Cross Country Silver Team Medal from 1979 and his first Winning trophy from the half marathon in Delaware, 1971.

Chatting about his work with Leevale, Donie says that volunteering as a coach keeps him busy, and gives him a purpose, and that he enjoys seeing members develop and progress.

“When I was growing up, people helped me, so it is my turn to return the favour and help others,” Donie says.

Donie says coaching is not straightforward and there are a number of variables to consider with each individual athlete.

“Coaching is not as simple as giving someone a schedule,” Donie says. 

“Everyone is different; you have to realise everyone has different problems, stresses, and responsibilities and you have to work with that. It is the easiest thing in the world to coach an athlete running well. The hard part is when an athlete is not running well and you have to figure out why.”

Over the years, wind, rain, sunshine, or snow, Donie has been found at the University College Cork Mardyke track, coaching Leevale athletes and working with the young talent in Cork’s athletics circle.

“I don’t mind the weather: It doesn’t bother me; you just have to get out and enjoy it. You get used to the elements.”

The club has sessions on a Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday and Donie is at every one.

As well as being a prominent character on the athletics circuit, Donie also spent some time coaching GAA and soccer.

“I took a break from athletics for a few years: I wanted to try other things, other sport.”

While Donie enjoyed working with team sports, he returned to athletics after a few years.

During the lockdowns, Donie kept up his coaching with his runners, over the phone and through social media.

“It was a killer: Never again. I missed the sessions, but I did keep up coaching over the phone.”

Donie says he was on the phone “all day, every day”, but he was still delighted to get back to physical sessions.

“We were always connected, but it is a little easier through the club sessions.”

Offering advice to any young athletes that might have aspirations and dreams on the track or field, Donie says: “The most important thing is to enjoy it. That is the most important thing, but you have to remember, there is no magic formula. It is not easy and you have to work hard.”

For more information on Leevale Athletic Club, log onto their website on Leevale.org, or their Facebook page: Leevale Athletic Club.

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