John Harris, a Paralympic thrower from Wales competed mainly in category 5 throwing events. In 1984 he became the world record holder in the discus, winning gold at the Summer Paralympics.

John shares his story at the open day of the Paralympic Heritage Centre

Stoke Mandeville Stadium, 30th March 2019

John describes his long journey into Athletics

As a teenager I had always been into sport: I used to do gymnastics, rugby and boxing – a bit of everything. So my accident was completely devastating for me. They fixed up my body, but they couldn’t fix my head. I thought I might just as well have been dead. In fact if someone had slipped me the tablet back then I think I would have taken it. It was bloody hard; as a kid I had always fought to prove myself. Now I thought blokes were no longer afraid of me and women would no longer find me attractive. It was all very tough and it took me a long time to sort myself out.

Sport as part of physiotherapy

Of course they had made me do sport as part of physiotherapy at Stoke. I was there in hospital in 1964 when the team came back from the Tokyo Games. But as far as I was concerned archery wasn’t a fucking sport. I never related sport to firing a bow and arrow or indeed to being in a wheelchair. Anyway, five years on I needed to do something and my mate Tony says, “Why not come down the gym with me and do some training?” Of course it was a big deal going down the gym in a wheelchair; loads of people there were looking at you. But I stuck with the weight training, stopped smoking, stopped drinking, I started to like myself again. Anyway there were a bunch of body builders in one bit of the gym, this was at the Cwmbran Stadium, and one of them from time to time would come over and offer advice, tell me if I wasn’t doing a lift correctly. He was a bit careful first of all, worried about me taking offence, but I said, no, I’m happy to take all the help I can get; I wanted to learn. So then Brian Taylor, for that was his name, said why didn’t I come across with the body builders and train with them. And it was great; I was part of their little gang and I used to bench press with these guys; I still remember the first time I pressed 100 kilos! And they did all sorts of ingenious things to get around my disability; for example doing decline bench presses where I would have my feet strapped to the ladder of an abdominal board to hold me in place.

The Welsh Para and Tetra Sports Association

From that I went on to join the Welsh Para and Tetra Sports Association and I took part in my first National Games back at Stoke Mandeville in the early 1970s. By that time my main sport was discus. I remember seeing this much older guy I didn’t know at that games; he had a moustache and was smoking a cigar! I was a bag of nerves, but then I threw 22 metres in the first round and I was convinced I was going to beat this old guy. And when he came to throw he wheeled himself past me with his cigar in one hand, put it into the spokes of his wheelchair, really casual, while he took his throw; and he threw 26 metres. I found out he was Graham Smout, the former European [champion. That incident taught me so much. First of all I couldn’t work out what made him special, this old man with a moustache; he didn’t look a strong man. It taught me a bit about the psychology of sport and about not being judgmental.

Download a pdf of John's full interview here