By Graham Thomas
If you need inspiration to prove it’s never too late to improve your fitness and activity, then listen up to the story of Rhys Jones.
Less than three years ago, Jones was a 39-year-old average runner and self-confessed awful swimmer with deteriorating eyesight.
Now, he’s off to the Commonwealth Games to compete for Wales as a paratriathlete with medals on his mind in Birmingham.
Jones – who manages to combine his training and competing with working as a consultant psychiatrist in Leeds – got on his bike and worked hard to improve his cycling, running and virtually learn to swim all over again.
To watch him surging along the coastal path at Llanelli at a recent British Triathlon Super Series event – skillfully avoiding concrete bollards and kerbs with the help of his guide Rhys James – was to observe something of a middle-aged superhero.
He knocked a minute or so off his previous best time and days later was confirmed in the Team Wales squad for the Games, where he will wear a red Welsh vest for the first time in his life at the age of 42.
Go well @BritTri elite paratriathlon team @ali_p87 Brooke Gillies, @ClaireCashmore , Finlay Jakes, @davellisgb @LukePollard91 @drwrjones and Rhys James #busyday #Triathlon #swimbikerun https://t.co/EkDv7sljOZ
— Andy Salmon (@AndySalmon3) June 11, 2022
“I came into triathlon through a talent ID event,” says Rhys, who suffers from an eyesight condition called cone dystrophy.
“I had only really been an amateur runner before that, although I had played football and basketball when I was younger.
“I had always enjoyed my running but I’d never really considered triathlon until I went to this talent event. They suggested I try it, so they put me on a Watt bike and I was quite good.
“They said, ‘Can you swim?’ And I said no.
“So, they told me I had better go and learn and that’s what I did through a long and painful journey. Now, there’s still improvement to make, but it’s finally coming.
“I was 39 when I started. I am 42 now.
“Sometimes, I feel 42. Sometimes, I don’t.”
Sometimes other paratriathletes can keep pace with the Peter Pan of the sport. Sometimes they can’t.
Last year – in his first full season at international level competition – he finished 10th at the European Championships and he then clinched a breakthrough World Cup bronze in Alhandra, in Portugal in October.
“When I got into para-triathlon, it was a case of trying it and seeing how it goes,” adds Rhys, whose medical specialism is in the area of eating disorders.
“I was successful in a few races and thought I’d commit to it.
“My work have been incredibly supportive and told me to go for it. So, I’m on a career break at the moment.”
Like all para athletes with eyesight difficulties, Rhys relies heavily on his namesake Rhys James, his guide, for help out on the course.
James is also a high quality triathlete in his own right and their connection is based on trust, well-honed communication, and agreed pacing throughout the race.
In that way, Rhys – who suffers more in bright sunshine than he does on grey days with cloud cover – has gone from enthusiastic doggy paddler in the water, to streamlined international athlete.
“I have had a couple of guides in the short time I’ve been competing. Rhys and I have been racing together as a team for the last year.
“It’s a proper team effort. The more you race together, the better the communication becomes. It’s very nuanced.
“You are reliant on your guide. When you do the warm-up, you get to know the course. I remember where all the potential disasters are.
“Bollards, curbs and pot-holes are the things you look out for.
“Things that might jump out at you, because the public is there as well. You have to keep an eye out for all of that and the guide is there to give you a heads up.
“It is bright light that I struggle with, so that can be really tricky.
“I have a degenerative retinal disease. I have always had poor vision, but it didn’t really deteriorate until my early thirties.
“It took me a while to get my head around the concept that I had a disability. But once I had done that, my coach and my running club suggested I try one of these talent ID events.
“It had never crossed my mind in the slightest before then.
“It opened me up to a whole, huge world out there of disability sport. When one door closes, another opens. You just have to look for them.”
The Welsh Triathlon Super Series Coverage Returns to your screen on Friday 1st July.
The 2022 event kicks off in Llanelli and takes us across the whole of Wales to a Llandudno finale.
— Welsh Triathlon (@WelshTriathlon) June 30, 2022
Now, less than three years since that door opened, Rhys will be carrying Welsh hopes in Birmingham thanks to his family background in Caernarfon.
Born in the USA, he grew in Yorkshire but says: “All my family are Welsh. Although I have never lived here, I have always felt Welsh.
“I was brainwashed as a child that I was Welsh, wherever I might have been living! I am the same with my kids as well. They will all compete for Wales. They’ll have no choice!
“I am really looking forward to Birmingham at the end of July.
“This will be the first time I will have competed for Wales. It’s always been a lifelong goal for me – to represent my country.
“Racing for Wales will feel very special, given all my family connections. With a name like Rhys Jones, there’s no other country I want to represent.”