Nowhere does Wales’ sporting claim to punch above its weight appear more justified than in Para Athletics. A total of seven Welsh athletes will be wearing Great Britain colours in Dubai when the World Para Athletics Championships starts in Dubai on Thursday. Owen Morgan spoke to one of them.
Three reigning world champions boasting 15 global gold medals between them will lead a seven-strong contingent of Welsh athletes at this month’s World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai.
Aled Davies, Hollie Arnold and Olivia Breen will be joined in the Great Britain team by WPA European Champions Sabrina Fortune and Harri Jenkins, along with Disability Sport Wales Para Academy athletes Kyron Duke and Jordan Howe.
For both F63 shot putter Davies, who has claimed a remarkable six world titles, and F46 javelin star Arnold, the Dubai event will be their fifth world championships.
Meanwhile, Breen will contest the T38 long jump and 100m in her third world champs, having won golds at both the 2015 and 2017 events.
Despite being just 25-years-old, javelin world record holder Arnold’s Great Britain career dates back to the Beijing Paralympics in 2008 where she competed as a 14-year-old.
Arnold hopes that kind of experience on the global stage will stand her, and the less experienced members of the GB squad, in good stead.
Commenting on her latest world championship appearance, Arnold said: “It still feels like going to the first one to be honest.
“I guess I’m just really lucky that I have the experience of all the other world championships to go on.
“I’m really excited but also really nervous as well. It’s always really important to me going out to a major championships. There’s always a lot of pressure and self-pressure to come out on top and perform to your best.
“I’m just really looking forward to going out there, enjoying the whole process and taking it as a stepping stone for Tokyo next year.
“I think for some of the newbies on the team they have never experienced a world championship before and, you know, it’s a big thing being on the team. Representing your country, it can be a little bit overwhelming, but I guess for me, I know what to do, I know what to expect.”
There is a mixture of experience and promise amongst the Welsh athletes in the 43-strong Great Britain squad.
F20 category shot-putter Fortune, of Deeside AC, won her European title in Berlin last year, as did DSW Para Academy athlete Jenkins.
The Neath-based athlete, who is a former Great Britain wheelchair basketball international, will line up in the T33 100m out in Dubai.
Another DSW Para Academy athlete competing over the sprint distance to make the team is Jordan Howe, who will take to the blocks in the T35 100m.
The Welsh line up is completed by F41 shot putter Duke, who earlier this season broke the world record at the Bayer Invitational in Leverkusen, Germany.
The two-time world silver medallist put himself in pole position for gold this time round with the throw of 14.19m in June. Earlier in the season he threw an unofficial record of 14.53 in Leira, Portugal.
This year’s championships will be a particular challenge to all of the athletes competing, irrespective of experience, because they are being held so late in the year.
It’s been a long performance cycle for athletes, particularly those who also competed at Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in April of last year.
Arnold said: “It’s been about 18 months since the Commonwealth Games, it’s been such a long season. Nevertheless, I’m just looking forward to getting out there and into that bubble, no distractions. You’re there to do your job, so you just do it.”
Despite having won Paralympic gold in Rio and three world championships, winning for Wales at those Commonwealth Games in Australia, with the added reward of a world record breaking distance, was a career highlight for Arnold.
“Do you know what?” she says. “The Commonwealth Games has a place in my heart forever. It was such an amazing place, honestly, it was one of the best things I’ve ever been to.
“To go out there, break the world record and win the gold medal competing for Wales for the first time in a major comp, it meant a lot to me. I wanted to do everybody proud.”
Although she is now based in Loughborough where she trains, Arnold says she is indebted to the support she has received in Wales.
“I miss being in Wales so much, I really do,” she says. “The support I’ve had there is incredible. The amount of sacrifice from the strength and conditioning guys in the gym, the psychology support, the nutrition and all of that, I wouldn’t have been able to win in Rio 2016 without the support of those guys.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for Arnold, who felt like her sporting career was over after failing to win a medal at the London Paralympics in 2012.
“London for me was such a disappointing thing because I really wanted to medal but it was very much out of my reach at that point. I was 18, I was young, I had lots to learn in the sport.
“That was hard for me to grasp at that point, so I never expected to hold all the titles I hold now. But I certainly wanted them, so 2012 was the worst and the best thing for me.
“I felt that I was finished in the sport, I thought I’d let down everyone who had sacrificed so much for me.
“But another thought in my head was ‘you want this more than anything and next year is the world championship’ and that’s where I wanted to break that cycle and become that world champion and win that gold medal; and that’s exactly what happened.
“I guess in life you never expect anything to happen but I’m so happy that everything I’ve achieved happened in the way it has.”
Arnold, who was born without her right forearm, acknowledges the massive role sport has played in her life and the opportunities it has brought.
“I’ve always been very independent and got on with things regardless of my disability and that’s never stopped me,” she says.
“But sport has helped me grow and mature as a person as well as an athlete because you get put into situations you’re usually not put into as a normal 14-year-old, like going to Beijing.
“It’s done me the world of good to go out and meet different people and make so many amazing memories and friends.
“And to see how they overcome their disability, and how they got their disability as well. I was born with mine, so mine seems kind of boring to other people.
“But sport has made me the person I am today.”
And now she has set her sights on even more success in Dubai alongside her fellow Welsh athletes.
“It’s going to be hard,” said Arnold. “I want to go out there and break the world record and take that gold medal and get that fourth world title.”
The World Para Athletics Championships run from November 7 to 15.