Harrison Walsh saw his hopes of representing Wales at the sport he loved most wrecked by a freak injury playing the game that had given him so much joy. But, rather than being bitter, Mumbles-born Harrison switched his focus and is now targeting pulling on the famous red vest at the Commonwealth Games and a British one at the Paralympics. Feature by Ian Gordon. Video Credit – Mica Moore, Cardiff Met Sport TV.
When Harrison Walsh lists the injuries he suffered in a freak accident playing rugby even seasoned medical professionals wince.
“I tore my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) and lateral collateral ligament (LCL). And I tore my bicep femoris,” said the 23-year-old.
“I also tore my popliteus, the lateral head of the gastrocnemius and the common peroneal nerve. Essentially, I 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 and every time I see a physio they are really squeamish when I tell them the extent of the damage.”
The irony is that Walsh, a loose head prop with the Ospreys, was not due to play in the game in January 2015 where he sustained the injuries in a tackle that would end his dream of playing rugby for Wales but put him on a different sporting path.
Due to play for Wales U20s against England the following week, he was set to have the weekend off but answered a call from Swansea RFC to play for them. Starting on the bench he only came on after a team-mate was red carded with Swansea winning easily.
“It was the last play of the game,” added Mumbles-born Walsh, a former pupil at Bishop Gore School. “I was carrying the ball and as I ran over someone they just came under my leg. It was a freak injury, nothing I could do about it. But I’m not bitter about it at all.
“Rugby was my first love and If I had to do it all again and get all those experiences I would. Hopefully at some point they will be able to fix the leg, but unfortunately, that can’t happen at the moment.”
Walsh, who wears a velcro boot to aid his balance having gone through crutches at a rapid rate, spent two years trying to rebuild his right leg along with his rugby career.
He still kept in close contact with the sport he loved and it was while coaching an Ospreys junior team that David Jones, a fellow coach and a Sport and Health manager with the local authority, suggested he try out Para Athletics.
“That’s why I’m not bitter as I knew I did everything I could to get back,” adds Walsh, who as a former prop had the natural strength and build to switch to the throws events. “I couldn’t have done any more.
“I’ve had everything I needed, the best surgeons, the best specialists to look at it. They worked tirelessly to try and stimulate the nerve. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how hard you work on a nerve, if it doesn’t want to come back it’s not going to.
“What happened to me is not the nicest thing to happen but there are far worse things that can happen to you in life.
“I was coaching with the U16s at the Ospreys and I was asked if I could get a Blue Badge. I didn’t know as I’d never asked.”
“I’d never considered myself disabled. I’d been a professional rugby player. To this day I don’t treat myself as disabled, although technically I am.
“I just went along to the athletics session and had a go and it all started from there. I am a big boy and they saw that and they were interested and trained me up.”
Walsh, classed in the F44 category but who also competes in able-bodied meetings, adds: “I started throwing and I was having fun. But I am nowhere near where I am going to be.
“It is a very different sport strength wise. The process of learning something in sport again was what I took to, that kind of enjoyment of getting better and figuring things out again like I got to do playing rugby.
“The front row in rugby is very static and you have to be very strong but it’s not dynamic like throwing.
“It’s still 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.”
Walsh has just been on a training camp in Portugal organised by Welsh Athletics and Disability Sport Wales alongside Bridgend’s Paralympic champ Aled Davies and young Welsh throwing prospect James Tomlinson.
The camp certainly helped as Walsh set personal bests of 51.23m in the discus and 15.36m in the shot competing at the BUCS Championships in Bedford this month for Cardiff Met.
Such is his potential he is also on the British Athletics Para pathway targeted at athletes who could challenge for medals at future World Championships and Paralympics.
“I am very young in the sport and you don’t really get to the top level performance wise until you are 28 or 29,” adds Walsh, now based at Cardiff Met University.
“At the moment I just want to make sure I improve as a thrower, as an athlete and a person in this sport.
“But there are World Championships at the end of the year in Doha which I would love to experience.
“I’m lucky that there is such a good set-up with Disability Sport Wales and Welsh Athletics. There aren’t many countries that have the ability and funding to send you away on training camps.
“Paris 2024 is the bigger goal for me in terms of that’s the one I’d be looking to really compete at, but Tokyo would be amazing to go to.
“The Commonwealth Games in Birmingham 2022 is another goal and competing for Wales.
“I was fortunate enough to play under 16s and under18 for Wales and that’s what every kid wants to do, whether it’s rugby, football or anything.
“Wearing those three feathers on your chest you feel like you have got the weight of the country on your shoulders but in a good way, they are all behind you.
“I still get goose bumps talking about it.”