By Tom Prosser
When soon-to-be Paralympian Harrison Walsh first started his athletics journey, it was obvious to his coach he had a future star on his hands.
Walsh – who was a highly promising rugby player with the Ospreys before a serious injury closed that route – will be competing in the F64 Discus at the Paralympics as he aims to win a medal at his debut Games.
He will be joined in Tokyo by six other Welsh track and field athletes, including Aled Davies, who will be competing at the Paralympics for the third time in the F63 Shot Put.
Hollie Arnold (F46 Javelin), Olivia Breen (T38 Long Jump and 100m), Sabrina Fortune (F20 Shot Put), Kyron Duke (F41 Shot Put) and Harri Jenkins (T33 100m) are also selected.
Away from athletics, Wales are also represented in sports such as rowing, taekwondo, table tennis and canoeing.
Anthony Hughes, the national performance manager for Disability Sport Wales was immediately impressed by Walsh’s enthusiasm and desire to be the best in his field.
“Harrison had a thirst for knowledge, he was so keen,” says Hughes, who’s had a lifelong passion for disability sport.
“When I first met him, he was clearly a young man who was an ultimate professional. You could tell he was previously with a top rugby academy.
“After hearing about his promise from coaches in Swansea, I invited him to Cardiff so I could have a look at him myself. I was really impressed with what I saw.”
Hughes competed in the 1992 Paralympics himself and always set high standards throughout his career.
He also noticed Harrison set the bar high for himself and was impressed by the youngster’s ability to be both disciplined and positive, traits he believed had come from his life away from sport.
“I think his professionalism comes from working at his father’s restaurant- Patrick’s in Mumbles.
“I went for a meal there after first meeting him and Harrison was working whilst I was there and you could see he has really high standards.
“I always hear him telling some young academy athletes that ‘whatever time you’re required to arrive make sure you get there at least 10 minutes early.’
“That that sums up Harrison for me.”
Those high standards are clear to see in Walsh’s achievements so far.
He won bronze on his debut in the European Para Championships as well as qualifying for the upcoming Paralympics.
“As soon as we got him classified, he turned to me and said, ‘I want to go to the Paralympics,’” says Hughes, who was awarded an MBE in 2013 for his services to disability sport in Wales.
“He had all his career mapped out. It was a case of just slowing things down and saying at the moment let’s focus on the learning.
“One thing that I think he found difficult at the start was adapting to our environment as even though he’s at the top end of our programme, it’s still not as intense as being at a professional rugby club.
“I think he felt a bit flat. You just don’t get the same amount of attention from outside with disability sport as you do with rugby.
“He needed to understand the new world he had come into.”
Hughes not only wants to help his athletes excel in their chosen sport but he also offers advice to his athletes on how to both come to terms with, and embrace, their impairments.
In 2015, just a week before he was due to play for Wales Under-20s against England, Harrison sustained an horrendous leg injury in a freak accident playing in a club match for Swansea.
Consequently, it not only ended his rugby ambitions but left him with only partial movement and no feeling in his right foot due to the extent of the nerve damage.
He took up athletics and has competed in both the shot and discus.
But Hughes explains the importance of making sure the athletes are in a good place, mentally. Their physical adaptation is only a fraction of the changes they undergo.
“For Harrison, it was like, what do I do now?
“He went from being a very promising player with the Ospreys to having to deal with a career-ending injury.
“It definitely takes some coming to terms with. It’s an art speaking to an athlete about their impairment.
“It’s about picking the right time and approaching the topic in an authentic way.
“It’s really important in disability sport for me to gain the trust of the athletes I work with. This helps me to get the best out of them as both an athlete and a person.”
Hughes was struck by Harrison’s eagerness to get to the top of his sport – something he believes fuelled the thrower’s desire right from his first few days with the Disability Sport Wales set-up.
“He wanted to know who was the number one in Britain and who’s the best in the world.
“He was asking a lot of questions about what level I think he’s currently at. Harrison always has and always will want to be the best.
“Right from his early days with me, he was always asking ‘when are we going to take on the number one?’.
“I remember going to watch him the first time he competed. It was down in Yeovil and he did very well.
“He over-tried, if anything. I thought he needed to be more relaxed.
“I remember him talking to his parents on the phone afterwards.
“His Mum said, ‘well done.’ But his Father said, ‘how long are you going to be? We’ve got a hundred meals to prepare at the restaurant!’
“I believe that attitude and upbringing will help Harrison go all the way.
“It reminded me of the way Tanni Grey-Thompson was brought up.”
The 28 days of the Games will be an opportunity for Walsh to reach those high standards set by Tanni – as it will for all the other Welsh athletes involved.