Exclusive by Owen Morgan
Five years after his professional rugby career was cruelly cut short at the age of 18, Harrison Walsh is back in full-time sport as a discus thrower.
The former Ospreys product is one of nine Welsh athletes named on British Athletics’ Olympic and Paralympic World Class Programme (WCP).
The former Wales age-grade international prop forward admits it was an emotional moment when he discovered he had been added to the elite of British Athletics.
“When it came through I was absolutely ecstatic,” said Walsh, who suffered life changing leg injuries in a freak accident playing in a club match back in 2015.
“I won’t be afraid to tell you that I did shed a tear. It’s amazing, I can’t really put it into words.
Thank you so much for the support! It's been a long 5 years out of full time sport and I can't tell you how amazing it feels to be back and having the support of such a brilliant organisation! Thank you to everyone who's helped me on this journey! https://t.co/qm53ekfdUn
— Harrison walsh (@harrisonwalsh1) November 12, 2020
“All that hard work, pain, family and all those things that went into it. When you have to stop playing rugby at that age you have a loss of identity, but over the last couple of years I’ve found that identity again through athletics.”
Walsh’s addition to the Paralympic Podium Potential group means he can now once again call himself a professional sportsman thanks to the support he will get under the WCP.
The Disability Sport Wales athlete, who had been selected to represent Wales Under-20 v England before injury struck, said: “To be recognised in the same vein as I was before, I’m fully back and even ahead of where I was before.
“I never thought it would be that way. It’s almost unreal to think about it. It’s one of those things where you almost can’t believe.
“A lot of people probably don’t understand how much it means to me. British Athletics having that confidence in me is just amazing, it’s massive to me.
“It’s me getting back to that previous level. But really I am above that now, above where I was before, so it’s almost like I’ve had a four or five year period of intermission and we’re back and ready to go. We’re on the top level again.”
As a youngster, Walsh dreamt of pulling on the red shirts of Wales and the British Lions. Now his dreams are focussed on the red vest of Wales and the white vest of Great Britain.
“When you were a young kid, when you’ve got your first rugby jersey on, you remember your first Six Nations,” said Walsh.
“You remember going outside into the garden or down to the park and thinking you’re Shane Williams scoring a try. Then you see the Lions and think ‘Oh my god, can you imagine if I could be a Lion’.
“Those are the kind of dreams you have, but it’s so far out there. But now, to think you could represent Great Britain, having also represented Wales at age grade level.
“How special that is to me, to be able to have done that in rugby and then to go on and hopefully do this, represent Great Britain at athletics, it’s a pretty special thing.
“I can train full time now, I can really put all of my focus into this. Just trying to be the best athlete I can be, to try and win those big events, make my family proud and make my country proud.”
Such was the severity of the damage Walsh suffered on the pitch, it not only ended his rugby ambitions but left him with only partially movement and no feeling in his right foot.
But the 24-year-old now has new dreams and ambitions, including next year’s delayed Paralympics in Tokyo, the 2022 Commonwealth Games and the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.
Asked about his prospects of qualifying for Tokyo, Walsh said: “We have the benefit of having another year. I’ve had another year to train, another year to get better.
“Now to get this support from British Athletics, it’s only going to inspire me more. I think I have got a brilliant opportunity to qualify for Tokyo next year and hopefully put in a great performance for Wales and for Great Britain.
“To be honest I can’t even believe I’m able to talk about it. Can you imagine? After I had the injury and I was looking at what I could do, Rio had just been, and there’s no way you can imagine you’re making Tokyo in three years.
“Obviously COVID has intervened and it’s actually been a bit of a guardian angel for me. I can’t even believe we are having a conversation about it now. It’s exciting.”
The fiercely proud Welshman has also set his sights on the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.”That’s hopefully going to be the first competition where I can go and express myself the way I want to. There is a lot of exciting stuff coming up.
“I don’t know how I’m going to cope with that to honest. It’s going to be an emotional one. It’s going to be a special time.”
As well as giving him an extra 12 months to prepare for Tokyo, Walsh says COVID has also given him the opportunity to really get to know the sport which he only took up in 2017 as he tried to fill the gap left by rugby.
“I’ve been training off footpaths and throwing into fields, obviously making sure there is no-one around and it’s safe, but that is literally what I had to do,” said F44 shot put world record holder Walsh who trained alione during lockdown.
“Basically just working hard and going out and throwing was something I could do on my own and to get a feeling for it.
“I was saying to someone the other day, I have been put into this sport at a later date. I’ve only been doing it for three or four years.
“I never had that period of time that I had in rugby where I went down to the park with my mates and messed around for two hours with a rugby ball.
“I didn’t have that period of time when you were like 12 to 15, playing probably three games a week, training every single night, playing with your mates, having fun, learning by mistakes, learning by error, learning by having fun.
“So I hadn’t had that, I went into an elite environment almost straight away, being coached very, very well, which is awesome and it got me to this point.
“But I almost needed to go and find out what throwing is to me and how important it all is to me.
“I think I actually found that within this COVID 19 period. For me, I think it has been a very special time, weirdly. I don’t think a lot of people are going to have the same view as me but I think I found a lot of benefit from it.
“I think COVID has given a lot of people some perspective on what is important to them and what they truly love in life and for me that is working towards something bigger than myself and that’s being a sportsman and waking up every day excited to go and train. That’s what I love.
“Now, being full time in that is just the best thing in the world. I get to wake up and train and that’s all I want to do anyway. It’s amazing.”
Walsh’s coach Nathan Stephens says his protégé’s inclusion on the WCP is thoroughly deserved.
“The commitment he has shown to the sport has been outstanding. Especially in the times that we are in.
“For him to be able to adapt and find new ways of training, take himself out on his own, because obviously we haven’t been able to train much in our own training group, and to still commit to the sport in these difficult times shows his level of passion and commitment to the sport, which has been phenomenal.
“It makes my job a lot easier having someone that committed, who wants to train and wants to develop in his own personal goals as well. He wants to be the best at what he does in everything he does.
“And he is a pleasure to coach, not only is he a brilliant athlete, he’s a really nice person. As much as he puts into the sport, he wants to give back, so he want to help the youngsters come through as well, he wants to develop parasport as a whole not just himself. It’s a testament to him that he is passionate about everything he does.
“He’s just a nice person to be around. For the younger guys coming through he is a very good role model in his commitment levels and what he does.”
“It’s having that mindset to be adaptable. He has had to adapt with his disability, coming from rugby to athletics is totally different. Coming from a team environment to an individual environment.
“And then pushing him even further now, from an individual team environment, where they train together, to being a real individual, being able to take yourself out of your comfort zone, go out on your own, find a space just to be able to train and he’s done that.”
As a former Paralympian and F57 javelin world record holder, Stephens knows what it takes to compete at the very top echelon of the sport.
The 2011 Paralympic Athletics World Championships gold medallist believes Walsh can make it to Tokyo and the 2024 Paris Paralympics beyond that.
“I won’t push too much, but in the back of my head I know he has a real chance of getting there (Tokyo). Our main goal for Harrison is Paris. He is still young in his training age for Tokyo, but if we get there it will be amazing.
“But it is the long term now for Harrison and he can be a world beater. His commitment levels and his physical attributes can take him a really long way in the sport.”
Walsh is the latest in a long line of Welsh para athletes included on the WCP. Retained from the 2019/2020 cohort for the coming year are Hollie Arnold, Olivia Breen, Aled Davies, Kyron Duke, Sabrina Fortune and Harri Jenkins.
Stephens says the number of Welsh para athletes included on the WCP is testament to the work being done by Disability Sport Wales along with athletes and coaches throughout the nation
“Our staffing structures have been athletics heavy, with myself coming from athletics, my coach coming from athletics, Anthony Hughes, my performance manager, but now we have a really strong relationship with Welsh Athletics.
“Ryan Spencer Jones who coaches Aled Sion Davies and Kyron Duke, myself who coaches Harrison and Harri Jenkins and then you have the other phenomenal athletes like Olivia Breen and Sabrina Fortune. We have a really strong unit. It shows that for such a small nation we can punch quite heavily above our weight.”
The two Welsh athletes retained on the Olympic Podium Potential level of the WPC are endurance athletes Dewi Griffiths and Melissa Courtney-Bryant.