WRITTEN FOR SKYSPORTS
Part of an historic Welsh one-two in the European 400m hurdles final earlier this month, Rhys Williams’ silver medal was all the more spectacular considering his resurgence back onto the international scene after years of crippling injury woes, writes Nicola Bamford.
For the 26-year-old Cardiff man, 2010 was his comeback year. Full of confidence and fuelled with the same talent and determination which took him to continental bronze four years earlier, Williams crafted a string of eight sub-50-second performances on the European circuit this summer before revising his four-year-old personal best – from his bronze medal-winning run in the Commonwealth Games - to run 48.96 for second in the Welsh extravaganza in Barcelona.
Coached by Malcolm Arnold; the man who moulded Colin Jackson into a world record-breaking 110m hurdler and who guided Uganda’s John Akii-Bua to 1972 400m hurdles Olympic gold – Williams even took to the long-jump run-way on two occasions for his club last month; leaping to a respectable 5.99m to hone his speed ahead of his big Spanish test.
The sacrifice did not quite pay off as he expected, though; for Williams had to settle for silver behind his training partner and the hot pre-race favourite, Dai Greene, who obliterated the field to win in a time of 48.12.
“I’ve got mixed emotions if I am honest,” Williams explained. “I'm happy to have set a personal best and won a medal, however I really, really wanted to win. My season is progressing nicely and I know I can run some faster times still. My performance was my fastest to date, however I am still making stupid and basic mistakes.
I had a great time in Barcelona; the team was great and our preparation camp was great. It’s horrible getting back to normal after living in a bubble for a few weeks, but I've been busy planning ahead and for the Commonwealth Games.”
In a relationship which has been documented as a professional rather than friendship-based partnership during Williams’ occasional visits to Arnold’s Bath training base, Williams was not bitter in falling to the hands of his rival’s success; instead leaving him to do his lap of honour alone around the 1992 Olympic stadium and preferring to focus his energies on plotting revenge in October’s Commonwealth Games in New Delhi – where the duo will each pull on the Welsh national vests to do battle once more.
“I’m not one of these athletes who will go out of their way to play mind games and give attitude to other athletes, it has never made me run faster,” revealed Williams. “All any athlete wants is respect from their fellow athletes and most athletes are very respectful, but not all.
It’s a great event at the moment; other great runners are about and progressing, whereas there are great juniors and other athletes who are currently injured waiting to break through. I believe it’s the best strength in depth event in the UK at the moment; definitely no reason to be complacent.”
Now with a bronze and silver from the European championships, many would assume the Loughborough university graduate would target going one better in the next edition but, as the Helsinki championships fall just weeks before the 2012 London Olympic Games, Williams has no hesitation about where his priorities will lie.
Should his sharp progression continue for the next two summers, Williams’ Olympic debut on British soil could well provide a fitting reward for the man who has bounced back from several stress fractures and operations during his track career.
Since capturing the 2003 and 2005 European junior and under23 titles, the tall Welshman burst onto the British senior scene as number one ahead of taking his European and Commonwealth medals, before though, having to miss most of the following two seasons with chronic physical issues.
His lowest point was being forced to withdraw from the Beijing Olympic Games due to a stress fracture in his right foot; a problem which flared up days earlier after attempting to win the trials in a last-gasp attempt after a year out with the problem.
Remaining motivated and keeping his head during such a rollercoaster of emotions and levels of fitness, Williams managed to reach the heats of the World championships in Berlin last summer but it was not for another twelve months that surviving such adversity paid off to fruition.
“It would be difficult for me to say and for most people to understand how 2009 went for me,” explained Williams. “I went from having a good season in 2006 to hardly being able to jog, let alone sprint for two years due to a series of injuries. Missing the Olympics was tough to accept.
Finally in 2009, I fixed my injuries and got back racing, however I was rusty and found the training and racing tough going. I was proud to be back racing and representing Britain, but I did not run as quick as I know I can. In hindsight, 2009 was a good year. I know it may sound cheesy, but overcoming my injury through perseverance is my biggest achievement to date. I learnt a lot about myself in that short space of time.”
The son of rugby union legend JJ Williams, the one-lap hurdler was also a promising rugby player in his youth as well an international swimmer until aged 18 but now, for the sport which has brought him the most satisfaction, he divides his time between training in Cardiff and Bath in his quest for perfection.
“My father, despite being over 60 years of age now, still thinks he can beat me at a sprint race,” Williams exclaimed.
“There are a few Grand Prix races to do; the first of which is the IAAF Diamond League in London’s Crystal Palace this Friday; then Brussels later on in the month. I want to get my world ranking much higher and all this will prepare me well for the Commonwealth Games, which is the next main goal.”
His strong focus to make up for lost time is evident en route to fulfilling his Olympic dream and Williams admits he tries to avoid being all-consumed with the sport to remain concentrated on his goal:
“For me it’s all about switching off, as I have athletics and aiming to be the best on my brain all the time, 24/7. So I do anything it takes not to think of athletics.
I don't watch it on TV or look at results ever, as it makes me want to go out and train even harder, which isn't always conducive to running faster. I follow a lot of rugby and F1 on TV, too. I live a quiet life if I’m honest, as that's the way it has got be in order to get the most out of yourself.”