Like many other youngsters, Harrison Walsh visualised playing rugby for Wales.
But after an horrific injury ended his promising career aged 18, Walsh has his eyes set on representing Great Britain at the Paralympics in Tokyo next year.
Prop Walsh was considered one of the finest prospects of his generation as he prepared to play for Wales Under-20s in 2015 and was just about to start training with the Ospreys first-team squad.
But a career-ending knee injury in January 2015 saw his aspirations vanish. Four years on, Walsh has bounced back from adversity and just set a world shot putt record in his first major international competition.
Career cruelly cut short
In January 2015 ,Walsh’s life changed after coming on as a late replacement for Swansea in a Championship match they were easily winning after a team-mate had been red-carded.
“I had just come off the bench in a nothing game and in the last play jarred my knee and it completely collapsed under me,” said Walsh.
“Unfortunately, I dislocated my knee, pretty much tore everything you can tear in it and tore my nerve which left me with no ability to move my foot.
“I knew it was something bad because I could not move my foot and my knee was facing the wrong way.
“There was no gas and air so the best way I can describe the pain is jumping into the coldest water you have ever done.
“You get a sharp breath and you can hyper ventilate. It was so odd and an all-over body experience. That was my last game so I did not walk off the field, I was carried off.”
For the record, the official diagnosis was a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) and lateral collateral ligament (LCL).
He also tore his bicep femoris (hamstring), popliteus, the lateral head of the gastrocnemius and the common peroneal nerve (nerve that controls how you move your foot). Amongst others.
Assessing the damage
“Essentially, I now have no feeling in my right foot, especially on the top where I have no movement in it,” said Walsh.
“It is one of the worst knee injuries you can have. Every time I see a physio they are squeamish when I tell them the extent of the damage.”
Before undergoing five-hour surgery, Walsh was given the news no promising rugby player wants to hear. Especially aged 18.
“A week after the injury, my surgeon told me I was not going to play rugby again, probably not going to run again and might struggle to walk,” said Walsh.
“I was with my Mum, it was pretty emotional and not the nicest day. Playing rugby for Wales was the be all and end all.
“You grow up wanting to wear that red jersey and some of the proudest things I have are my age-grade caps and shirts.”
So instead of emulating some of his peers like Adam Beard and Dillon Lewis in playing for Wales, Walsh found himself battling to redefine himself.
“I was in a bit of a hole,” said Walsh.
“I went from this big strong Welsh rugby player to this guy who could not move his foot or get out of bed.
“I lost close to 20kg and I was not myself for probably a year. Your sport becomes your identity. I was a rugby player so what am I going to be if I am not one?
“Seeing my team-mates playing, I was just wondering why I was here and why can’t I do this? It was hard for me to watch a couple of years ago.”
Walsh also admits he struggled to cope with lifestyle changes.
“I have learned how to walk again,” said Walsh.
“The biggest thing for me is the way I walk and it’s only in the last eight months I am comfortable whether I was wearing a brace or not.
“The first year you think people are watching you and you feel so self-conscious.
“It’s funny, one of the things that got me more than anything and what I would get upset about is that I can’t wear flip flops.
“I probably shed more tears over that than anything. Flip flops are all rugby players ever wear! It makes me laugh now because I have got my head around it.”
Walsh admits the physical aspect was easier as he tried to prove the experts wrong by returning to rugby in a two-year battle dominated by extensive physiotherapy.
“I had a brilliant surgeon and Ospreys physios helped me so much,” he said.
“I was so lucky to be in that system and I am here walking because of them and I was rehabbing for a couple of years.
“At first it was talking about just learning to walk again and that’s all you are going to get.
“Then we were looking at maybe running and even playing again but that didn’t happen because of the extent of the injury so I had to officially to retire at 20.
“The physical stuff was fine because I could focus on what I could do. I could still lift weights. I threw myself into it with the same energy I did when I played rugby.”
Once any final hope of playing again vanished, Walsh needed a focus.
“I had to do something, if it was going to be water colour painting or colouring, I was going to be the best at that,” said Walsh.
“It took that to get me out of bed. Once I saw that improvement with my knee or how I looked it made me feel a whole lot better.”
Change in direction
Walsh’s journey to a different sport started when he was coaching Ospreys under-16s. A fellow coach and a sport and health manager with the local authority, suggested he try out Para Athletics.
That meeting with Disability Sport Wales changed Walsh’s life.
“My old coach asked if I had ever considered myself disabled?” said Walsh.
“I said no. I never said the word disabled to myself but I realised I had an impairment which stopped me doing things.
“I met with Anthony Hughes (DSW national performance manager) and he said they thought I could qualify for this sport and category (Para-athletics).
“I loved it because I was terrible at it. I am less terrible now and I now love the beginner mentality which I struggled with early on.
“I have only ever thrown with my impairment so don’t know what it was like able bodied.
“I am rubbish now compared to where I will hopefully be in 10 years time but I have the raw power and experience of how to be professional.”
That potential was demonstrated when Walsh has set a new F44 world shot put record of 15.73m at the Para-athletics Grand Prix in Grosseto, Italy.
“I would not believe it people when they told me,” said Walsh.
“It was my first major competition so I just wanted to go there and perform.
“I was very happy but there is a lot more to come.”
The World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai in November and the Tokyo Paralympics next year are on the agenda.
It is only the discus currently on the timetable for those events with the shot putt not scheduled.
Walsh is being guided by Josh Clark and former world champion Nathan Stephens as he hopes to emulate the success of previous Paralympic gold medallists like Aled Sion Davies.
“I would love to go Tokyo to just compete and look at future Games where hopefully I will be more competitive,” said Walsh.
“I am in great hands and you just look at the people they have brought through. There is nowhere like this system anywhere in the world.”
Walsh says he has embraced what life has dealt him.
“I am a much better person for it and don’t regret what happened,” said Walsh.
“You can’t help what is going to happen and you have a different outlook on things.
“I have to step back and look at the progress I have made and appreciate the people who have helped me.
“In rugby, everybody wants to play for Wales and the Lions. In athletics, I now have the chance to represent Great Britain in the coming years and maybe Wales at the Commonwealth Games in 2022.
“It is not what I dreamed of growing up but I now have now goosebumps thinking of it.”