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Harrison Walsh

Harrison Walsh goes into the Tokyo Games as the world record holder in his main event

Ex-prop Walsh has Paralympic gold set in his sights

Welsh rugby was able to celebrate a gold medal winning achievement by Robbie Davies at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio and five years on in Tokyo another former player will have gold in his sights.

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Where Davies, the former Brecon hooker led, former Wales U16 and U18 prop Harrison Walsh is hoping to follow in the F44 discus in Japan having successfully transferred to track and field after a knee leg injury playing for Swansea in 2015 wrecked his rugby ambitions.

Now 25, the Cardiff Met student will go into the Tokyo Games as the world record holder in his main event and among the favourites to strike gold. The Games begin today and Wales also has a representative in the Wheelchair Rugby tournament in Welshpool’s Jim Roberts.

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Walsh was good enough to play for his country at U16 and U18 level and was in the U18 squad that went to South Africa in 2014. A prop, he was teammates with future internationals Seb Davies and Owen Watkin on that trip and had fellow aspiring Ospreys Luke Price, Jon Fox, Matthew Aubrey and Joe Gage touring with him.

In 2014, along with Wales and British & Irish Lions lock Adam Beared, he was handed a development contract with the Ospreys. The rugby world appeared to be at his feet, especially when he was selected to play against England in the 2015 Under 20 Six Nations championship.

But then disaster struck and his sporting dreams were turned upside down on 24 January. Coming on as a late replacement for Swansea in 64-8 win over Tata Steel in a Championship match after a player had been red carded, he suffered a leg injury in the last play of the game. This is how he recalled the fateful incident in an interview with BBC Wales:

“I had just come off the bench in a nothing game and in the last play jarred my knee and it completely collapsed under me. Unfortunately, I dislocated my knee, pretty much tore everything you can tear in it and tore my nerve which left me with no ability to move my foot. I knew it was something bad because I could not move my foot and my knee was facing the wrong way. There was no gas and air so the best way I can describe the pain is jumping into the coldest water you have ever done. You get a sharp breath and you can hyperventilate. It was so odd and an all-over body experience. That was my last game so I did not walk off the field, I was carried off.”

He couldn’t have done any more damage to his leg. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) and lateral collateral ligament (LCL). He also tore his bicep femoris (hamstring), popliteus, the lateral head of the gastrocnemius and the common peroneal nerve, which controls how you move your foot.

A week after undergoing five hours of surgery he was given the devastating news that he would never be able to play rugby again. If that was hard enough to handle, he was also told he would never be able to run again and might struggle to walk.

“Essentially, I now have no feeling in my right foot, especially on the top where I have no movement in it. It is one of the worst knee injuries you can have,” he added.

For someone who had dreamt all his life of one day playing for Wales and the British & Irish Lions it was a bitter blow. He remains fiercely proud of the caps he won for Wales at U16 and U18 levels and has now filled the void of not being able to carry on playing with a new sporting career:

“I went from this big strong Welsh rugby player to this guy who could not move his foot or get out of bed. I lost close to 20kg and I was not myself for probably a year. Your sport becomes your identity and it was hard for me to watch a couple of years ago,” he recalls.

“The Ospreys physios helped me so much and I was so lucky to be in that system. I am walking because of them. At first it was just learning to walk again, it was looking at maybe running and even playing again. That didn’t happen because of the extent of the injury so I had to officially retire at 20. I could still lift weights and I threw myself into it with the same energy I did when I played rugby.”

He signed up for a three year course in strength conditioning, rehab and massage at Cardiff Met University and also turned his hand to coaching with the Ospreys U16s. That’s when a fellow coach, and a sport and health manager with the local authority, suggested he try out Para Athletics.

He met up with Disability Sport Wales and suddenly found there was a whole new sporting field opening up for him in athletics.

“I realised I had an impairment which stopped me doing things, but I never saw myself as being disabled,” admitted Walsh.

Walsh is classed in the F44 category, but also competes in able-bodied meetings. He started out just for the fun of it, but quickly realised there are World Championships, Paralympics and Commonwealth Games to aim for.

So far, so good. He has already clinched an F44 shot putt world record of 15.73m at the Para-athletics Grand Prix in Grosseto, Italy, and improved that mark to 16.21m on home soil. He also throws the discus a long, long way in the F64 class, the event in which he will be chasing gold in Tokyo.

“I started throwing and I was having fun. It is a very different sport strength wise to rugby. It was the process of learning something new in sport again that I took to. The front row in rugby is very static and you have to be very strong but it’s not dynamic like throwing. It’s taken me a long time to get that dynamic power.

“That’s the hard bit, but it’s coming. You have got to be an athlete before you are strong. I don’t think I realised how important that was. I’m rubbish now compared to where I will hopefully be in 10 years’ time but, I have the raw power and experience of how to be professional.”

Walsh has marked down Tokyo as the starting point in his competitive career at the major championships. From there he wants to climb to the top of the podium and conquer the world.

“I don’t regret what happened to me. In rugby, everybody wants to play for Wales and the Lions. In athletics, I am now representing Great Britain and could compete for Wales at the Commonwealth Games in 2022. It’s not what I dreamed of growing-up, but I now have goosebumps thinking of it.”

 

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