Where former Brecon hooker Davies led, former Wales U16 and U18 mainstay Harrison Walsh hopes to follow in the F44 disc in Japan after being successfully transferred to athletics after an injury to the knee to leg playing for Swansea in 2015 dashed his rugby ambitions.
Now 25, the Cardiff Met student will compete in the Tokyo Games as the world record holder in his main event and among the favorites to clinch gold. The Games start today and Wales also have a representative in the Jim Roberts wheelchair rugby tournament at Welshpool.
Walsh was good enough to play for his country at the U16 and U18 levels and was part of the U18 squad which traveled to South Africa in 2014. As an accessory, he was a teammate with future internationals Seb Davies and Owen Watkin during from that trip and had other Ospreys aspirants. Luke Price, Jon Fox, Matthew Aubrey and Joe Gage on tour with him.
In 2014, with Wales lock and British and Irish Lions Adam Beared, he secured a development contract with the Ospreys. The world of rugby seemed to be at his feet, especially when he was selected to play against England in the 2015 Six Nations Under-20 Championship.
But then disaster struck and his sporting dreams were shattered on January 24. As a late replacement for Swansea in the 64-8 win over Tata Steel in a league game after a player was given a red card, he injured his leg in the last game of the game. Here’s how he recalled the fateful incident in an interview with BBC Wales:
“I had just come off the bench in a game with nothing and in the last game my knee hit and it completely collapsed under me. Unfortunately, I dislocated my knee, tore just about anything you can tear in it, and tore my nerves apart leaving me unable to move my foot. I knew it was something wrong because I couldn’t move my foot and my knee was the wrong way. There was no gas or air, so the best way to describe the pain is jumping into the coldest water you’ve ever done. You breathe heavily and can hyperventilate. It was so strange and a total body experience. It was my last game, so I didn’t leave the pitch, I got carried away.
He couldn’t have done more damage to his leg. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), and lateral collateral ligament (LCL). He also tore his femoral biceps (hamstrings), popliteus, gastrocnemius lateral head, and the common peroneal nerve, which controls how you move your foot.
A week after undergoing five hours of surgery, he learned the terrible news that he would never be able to play rugby again. If this was difficult enough to deal with, he was also told that he would never be able to run again and that he might have difficulty walking.
“Basically I don’t have any feeling in my right foot anymore, especially on the top where I don’t have any movement. It’s one of the worst knee injuries you can have, ”he added.
For someone who had dreamed all his life of one day playing for Wales and the British & Irish Lions, it was a blow. He remains fiercely proud of the caps he won for Wales at the U16 and U18 levels and has now filled the void of not being able to continue playing with a new sporting career:
“I went from being this great, strong Welsh rugby player to this guy who couldn’t move his foot or get out of bed. I lost almost 20 kg and hadn’t been myself for probably a year. Your sport is becoming your identity and it was difficult for me to watch a few years ago, ”he recalls.
“The Ospreys physiotherapists helped me a lot and I was very lucky to be in this system. I walk because of them. At first he was just relearning to walk, maybe he was looking to run and even play again. This did not happen due to the extent of the injury, so I had to officially retire at 20. I could still lift weights and launched with the same energy as when I played rugby.
He enrolled in a three-year course in fitness, rehabilitation and massage at Cardiff Met University and also turned to training with the U16 Ospreys. It was then that a colleague who coached and was responsible for sports and health at the local authority suggested that he try para-athletics.
He met Disability Sport Wales and suddenly discovered that a whole new playing field was opening up for him in track and field.
“I realized I had a disability that kept me from doing things, but I never considered myself disabled,” Walsh admitted.
Walsh is classified in category F44, but also participates in valid meetings. He started out just for fun, but quickly realized there were World Championships, Paralympics, and Commonwealth Games to aim for.
So far, so good. He has already set a world record in the 15.73m F44 shot put at the Para-athletics Grand Prix in Grosseto, Italy, and improved that mark to 16.21m at home. He also throws the disc very, very far in the F64 category, the event in which he will go for gold in Tokyo.
“I started to throw and was having fun. It is a very different sport from rugby in terms of strength. It is the process of learning again something new in the sport that I have adopted. The first row in rugby is very static and you have to be very strong but it is not dynamic like the throw. It took me a long time to get this dynamic power.
“It’s the hardest part, but it’s coming. You have to be an athlete before you are strong. I don’t think I realized how important this was. I suck now compared to where I hope to be 10 years from now, but I have the raw power and the experience to be a professional.
Walsh made Tokyo the starting point of his competitive career in major championships. From there, he wants to climb to the top step of the podium and conquer the world.
“I don’t regret what happened to me. In rugby, everyone wants to play for Wales and the Lions. In track and field I now represent Great Britain and could represent Wales at the Commonwealth Games in 2022. It’s not what I dreamed of growing up, but now I get goosebumps thinking about it .