By Tom Prosser
Para sport star Harrison Walsh knows more than most about how powerful sport can be in helping someone come to terms with a life-changing injury.
Now, he is urging other disabled people to get involved with the Swansea Para Sport Festival this summer.
Starting off with a Disability Sport Wales’ in sport event at Swansea University on 1 August 2022, the festival will bring 5,000 participation opportunities across the summer, including five competitive events at different venues.
The Para Sport Festival will also add to the atmosphere around Swansea over the 6/7 August weekend, alongside the World Para Series Triathlon and Ironman 70.3 Swansea.
One of the main objectives of the festival is to offer opportunities to both elite and grassroots athletes of all ages.
In 2015, just a week before Harrison was due to play for rugby for Wales Under-20s against England, he sustained an horrendous leg injury in a freak accident playing in a club match for Swansea.
Exciting times ahead 🏴 https://t.co/39ogxLcfFn
— Harrison walsh (@harrisonwalsh1) March 3, 2022
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.
“It was really important for me to find another sport as it plays such a huge part in the lives of both me and my family,” says Harrison, who was also on the books of the Ospreys.
“I was desperate for my passion for sport to remain and it was great to find that within disability sport.
“I really liked the motivation of getting better and better and it was important to continue that in another sport.”
Harrison is full of praise for Disability Sport Wales and is extremely thankful to them for helping him adjust to his new way of life.
“It’s hard to come up with the words to describe how good disability Sport Wales are,” he says.
“They do so much work to promote sport at all levels. They’ve really helped me to settle into a new environment.
“People get impaired at different stages of their lives and they are really sensitive with how they help you.
“I came from high level sport and DSW were really good with helping me adjust to a new way of life.
“I can’t thank people like Nathan (Stevens), Anthony (Hughes) and all the other athletes enough.”
Harrison’s mental resolve was once again tested at last year’s Paralympics when he got injured at the very last moment.
“I got injured out in Tokyo but that’s sport for you, unfortunately.
— Cardiff Met SU Sport (@CMetSUSport) August 25, 2021
“I was really gunning to do well out there, but it was a pleasant surprise to get selected in the first place as it wasn’t something I was expecting at the beginning of the year.
“My form last year was a lot better than I expected and I was just really thankful to earn the opportunity.
“I still took a lot of learnings from Tokyo and hopefully they will help me win gold in Paris, Brisbane and LA, hopefully.”
Away from the track, the former Ospreys rugby player turned Paralympic discus thrower from Swansea is this month showcasing his talents away from the athletics stadium, instead, looking to the art world.
London’s Zari Gallery is featuring The Art of the Athlete – an exhibition which runs from 9-27 May and is inspired by sport. Walsh – who is hoping to compete at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham this summer – is just one of the artists featured and has submitted portraits of Kelly Holmes and Roger Bannister:
“My work is in pen and ink and I tend to sketch when I’m away at training camps. It’s a bit surreal to be part of an exhibition but I feel really honoured to be part of it.”
The exhibition will raise funds for The Ron Pickering Memorial Fund and the Lloyd Cowan Bursary which was set up by Olympic 400m Champion, Christina Ohuruogu, after the death of her legendary coach. Both causes raise funds for the next generation of athletic stars.
Walsh was a young talent himself, having spent his youth climbing the Welsh rugby ranks. A professional rugby player for the Ospreys, the prop had played for Wales; under 16s, 18s and had been selected for the under 20s. But his dreams were dashed in a career-ending injury at the age of 18 in 2015.
But since discovering athletics, Walsh has won bronze at the European Championships in the discus and holds the world record in the shot. And after just four years of training, he was selected for the Tokyo Paralympics.
“My time in rugby was cut short so I didn’t achieve my success but I feel it is bubbling now and that my time is coming.
“I love throwing. Athletics has given me so much; it’s the best thing to ever happen. If I could only say to that scared 18-year-old, you’ll find a real passion and you’ll be ok.”
One of those learnings was the importance of dealing with the mental side of sport and Walsh admits that some of the memories from his rugby injury made an unwelcome return.
“When you are at the top end of a sport, I think everyone is in decent shape, physically, and it’s the mindset that really makes you stand out.
“Mindfulness and being present in the moment are some of the biggest things I’ve taken from Tokyo.
“I realised I hadn’t dealt with some of the stuff from my rugby injury as all the memories came flooding back as it was kind of a similar situation.
Disability Sport Wales is excited to announce the addition of the Para Sport Festival to the Welsh events calendar – which was launched on Friday in Swansea, starting with an insport event @SwanseaUni on 1st August 2022 ⭐️
Thank you to everyone who came along to support! pic.twitter.com/hPTCSJmZmT
— Disability Sport Wales (@dsw_news) March 7, 2022
“It’s really forced me to understand myself and understand why I’m doing the sport and what it means to me in general.
“I think these setbacks have played a part in making me a better person. I think it’s really important to strive to be the best.
“You don’t always need specific targets, like winning gold for example, you just need to aim to get in a position where you are performing at your best.”
Walsh was speaking at a schools launch event for the Para Sport Festival and he was delighted to see so many young people enjoying themselves.
“It’s awesome to see young people playing sport and having fun.
“It’s great to see everyone getting involved in a range of sports such as throwing events, rowing and table tennis.
“It’s important everyone understands that sport is about fun and enjoyment.
— British Athletics (@BritAthletics) August 25, 2021
“When I first started shot put and discus, I was really bad but I really enjoyed it.
“What I liked was it was the type of sport that you could really progress with, and I was determined to get better and better.
“My advice to anyone would be to find something they enjoy and then stick at it and continue to improve.”
Tom Rogers, Disability Sport Wales Partnership Manager, believes this event will show disabled people that there are a wide range of sporting opportunities available to them.
“We are pleased that the Para Sport Festival events programme will include opportunities across a number of Paralympic and non-Paralympic sports,” says Tom.
“It is also great to be working alongside Welsh Triathlon, Welsh Target Shooting Federation, Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby, Welsh Rugby Union, Wales Deaf Rugby Union, and Basketball Wales to bring together a festival of competitive parasport to Swansea.
Harrison’s work will be on display from 9-27 May 2022 at Zari Gallery, 73 Newman Street, London, W1T 3EJ