by Twm Owen
Colin Jackson has praised the advice he received as a young athlete from Nigel Walker – and insisted the sprinter turned Welsh international was a better hurdler than he was a rugby player.
Two-time world 110m hurdles champion Jackson said just training alongside and observing 1984 Los Angeles Olympian Walker while still a teenager helped set him on track for success in the sprint hurdles.
While Jackson went on to win medals over the high barriers at the Olympics, World and European Championships for Great Britain and for Wales at the Commonwealth Games, Walker would forge a second successful sporting career in rugby union with hometown side Cardiff RFC and Wales.
Last week Walker was named the first ever recipient of the Sky Media Leadership in Sport Award at the Sporting Equals British Ethnic Diversity Sports Awards (BEDSAs).
The BEDSAs recognise and celebrate the contributions made by black and minority ethnic communities and the Welshman, who is national director at the English Institute of Sport, was honoured for his work with Sporting Equals over a number of years and support of the organisation’s Leaderboard Academy.
— BEDSAofficial (@BEDSAofficial) April 6, 2019
Jackson, who was speaking at an event in Abergavenny where he was named as an ambassador for Wales-based fee-paying online school, InterHigh, also praised Walker as a “leader”.
Jackson, who is nearly four years younger than the 55-year-old, was World Junior Champion in 1986 and considered one of Britain’s most promising talents when he joined with legendary Welsh coach Malcolm Arnold’s Cardiff training group in his hometown.
“Nigel was best in the country when I joined the group, we were coached by the same coach Malcolm Arnold, and when I joined his group Nigel was number one in the country so I was lucky enough straight away to be guided by somebody who was a leader,” said Jackson.
“When you have that direct guidance I was able to sit back and look at what Nigel was doing and how he was preparing for races and listen to what he was saying and get those little, you know, soundbites. That was really crucial and I’d think I know now what he’s going to do, and how he feels. It makes a big difference.”
Two years before Jackson had claimed the World Junior title Walker had fallen in the semi-final at the 1984 LA Olympics, which were boycotted by much of the old Eastern Bloc countries.
But until Jackson won the World Junior title in 1986 Walker had established himself as Britain’s top high hurdler. Both competed for Wales at the 1986 Commonwealth Games where Walker finished fourth and rising star Jackson took the silver behind Canadian Mark McKoy.
By the 1992 Olympics, Jackson who had won a silver four years earlier, was considered favourite for gold but finished seventh in the Barcelona final while his friend McKoy claimed the most cherished title.
But back in Cardiff Walker, who had already slipped down the UK rankings, had already decided to swap his track spikes for rugby boots having missed out on selection for a second successive Olympics.
Jackson though said the training group were unsure about Walker’s next move: “He was always good at rugby anyway and I remember him saying to us he was going to retire and do rugby and all of us tried to dissuade him. Nobody persuaded him, nobody. We were like ‘don’t do it, you’re going to get broken, don’t do it’.”
Walker’s training partners weren’t the only ones who needed convincing. There was much scepticism in the conservative world of Welsh club rugby about a former sprinter attempting to launch a first–class rugby career at 29, and at Cardiff RFC.
Though Walker had been expected to play for the Rags second team new Australian coach Alec Evans put the aging rookie straight into the first XV.
Like all good sprinters Walker never looked back, running in four tries in his first five games in the Heineken League. He made his debut for Wales in that season’s Five Nations Championship and scored his first of 12 tries in 17 tests against France, in Paris, in only his second international. The following year he was part of the Welsh team that won the 1994 Five Nations title who were denied a Grand Slam in a final game defeat to England at Twickenham.
In a six–year career with Cardiff Walker scored memorable, and crucial tries, including a twisting and turning 50m effort against Swansea as Cardiff became the last side to lift the Welsh Cup at the old National Stadium before it was demolished to make way for the Millennium Stadium.
But despite all Walker’s success in rugby Jackson joked his old mentor should have taken the advice of his track friends: “His transition was phenomenal but we were right because he did get broken, shoulders, arms everything in that sense.”
Jackson also doesn’t accept the idea Walker, whose athletics medal haul amounted to two indoor bronze medals at World and European level, should have turned to rugby before he was nearly 30.
“He was a semi-finalist at the Olympic Games and if you’re a semi-finalist it means you are top 16 in the world. Do you think he could claim to be one of the top 16 in the world as a rugby player?
Whether Walker was ever one of the 16 best wings, never mind rugby players, in the world is a moot point. He was undoubtedly one of the best in his position in Wales at the time and always improved any side he was selected in.
Jackson though was pleased to see Walker show all his doubters a clean pair of heels. And despite his former training partner’s reputation as the world’s fastest rugby player said he should be recognised as a rounded footballer rather than simply someone who was able to outrun the opposition.
“He did play rugby to a reasonable level at school boys, so he had that innate ability anyway to catch the ball and he could read a game. He was always interested in the game of rugby as well so if you have that interest, that real motivating factor, when he had the opportunity to have that transition he just applied everything he had learnt in athletics into his new sport.
“For him to just sneak in like that it must have upset a lot of people along the way, because he was good straight away, and people don’t always love winners right. You know he was up against it but he showed his real worth which was great for all us to see and we all had free tickets, it was wonderful.”
Few would argue those six years in which Walker injected a sense of excitement to Welsh rugby were anything but wonderful.