Para-athlete Harrison Walsh shares inspirational journey ahead of International Day of Disabled Persons
Harrison Walsh, former Ospreys rugby player turned Commonwealth and European medallist in discus, has opened up about his rugby career-ending injury as he looks ahead to next year’s Paralympic Games.
At the age of 18, Harrison experienced a life changing injury during a rugby match which cast doubt on his career prospects in the sport he loved.
Determined to continue his passion for sport the former prop forward turned para-athlete is encouraging others who have faced setbacks in their careers to seek free, expert support and guidance through ReAct+, a Welsh Government programme designed to help people who have recently become unemployed or are facing redundancy by offering a tailored package of support.
Harrison said: “I’d always loved rugby, ever since I was very young. I first picked up the sport in school, and as I continued to play with local clubs, my passion for it grew immensely. It became evident that rugby was something I really excelled in, and eventually became something I could see myself doing as a career.”
He added: “I was lucky enough to be offered full-time contracts and began playing with the U18 Ospreys team. In Wales, we are obviously extremely passionate about rugby, so the thought of doing this for a living with a potential to go on to represent my country was a dream come true.”
In January 2015, when playing a match with Swansea RFC, Harrison suffered a life changing knee injury, severing the nerves in his leg and marking the end of his playing career.
Harrison recalls: “I was told I could struggle to walk and might never be able to run again. It was devastating to hear just as I’d started playing professionally. I felt really lost and didn’t know what to do next.
“It was hard for me to go through that change of identity on a mental level, but also physically as I began to walk differently too. It became difficult to avoid what had happened to me. I’d never really considered the term ‘disabled’ but suddenly I realised that my life had completely changed.”
Looking to the future
After spending time in rehabilitation, Harrison started to look at the opportunities and options for his future. He recalls: “I actually took a long time to find out what I wanted to do following my injury because there wasn’t one obvious thing I was drawn to or found I was as good as compared to playing rugby. I’d tried a lot of different things from coaching rugby, going to university to starting a career in engineering, painting houses, and working in a kitchen.”
Following his passion for sport, Harrison got in touch with Disability Sport Wales, and started trying different sports to discover his new strengths.
“I began studying at Cardiff Metropolitan University, learning about strength, conditioning, and rehabilitation. It was such a brilliant decision, because I was able to train whilst being a full-time student. I loved my course and being able to train hard again helped me to build back my confidence as a sportsperson.”
Since then, Harrison has gone on to become a discus thrower, achieving a bronze medal for Wales at the 2022 Commonwealth Games and looks set to compete in the Paralympic Games next year.
Speaking about the advice he would share with other people going through difficult times, he said: “Don’t be afraid of the opportunities that come up. I spent a lot of time looking for jobs, and figuring out what I could do because I had no idea. My whole future had changed in a matter of a few seconds, and I really struggled at first, but I had no idea I’d go on to be an athlete in the paralympic games.
“I don’t think anybody should try and relate their situation to anyone else’s, because we are all different. Everyone experiences unique challenges throughout life, and it is all about how you react.
He said: “Going through difficult times can help you to become a more resilient person whatever career you’re in, and for jobseekers looking to get into a career it can be especially challenging. It might feel like the worst thing in the world in the moment, but it will make you who you are.
“We all face different barriers stopping us from achieving our personal and career goals which is why I’m supporting the ReAct+ programme. Knowing that there is tailored support out there to help people overcome barriers to work can make a massive difference. Whether that’s funding to gain new skills or one-to-one mentoring to improve confidence or help in finding and applying for jobs.”
He has advised others in Wales trying to return to work or find a career they’re passionate about to take advantage of the free, employment support available through the ReAct+ programme.
“You never truly know what’s around the corner. Being prepared, and being aware of the people and the services that can help you during that period is key.”
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