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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 Harris, Paralympic athlete talking on zoom

Early life

John was born in Sebastopol, Torfaen, a suburb of Pontypool in South Wales.

I had my accident in 1964. I fell off the Big Wheel at Butlins; it was a 40 foot fall and I landed on my back across a brick wall. It broke my fall and saved my life - but it also broke my spine.

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.

Life as a Paralympic athlete

After spending five months in hospital, John says he “wasted the next three years in the pub” before being persuaded to regain his fitness at a local gym alongside bodybuilders by a friend.

Regaining his competitive spirit, he joined a paraplegic sports club and won all the events he entered in his first local event.

Having finished sixth at the Arnhem 1980 Paralympic Games, John set his sights on winning a medal in 1984, pinning a gold foil disc to his bedroom door to symbolise his goal.

Initially, John refused to sign his letter of invitation to compete at Stoke Mandeville in 1984 because he was angry at the way Paralympic athletes were treated in comparison to their Olympic counterparts:

I decided that I would retire. I remember going into work and telling all the guys I wasn’t going to go. They all said you’ve got to go. But they didn’t know how I felt. I was trying to explain it to them but all they could see was this was the Paralympic Games and I should be going.

It was one of his colleagues, Larry Thatcher, whose challenge persuaded John to change his mind:

'So you’re not signing that bit of paper, John?’ I said ‘No, Larry, to hell with them.’ And Larry replied ‘You’ve had a pretty good life with your sport – you’ve been doing well for a few years now. Do you really want to go out sulking like a little baby?’ He was right. I’d given up the fight. And I’d never given up on anything before so I signed it there and then in front of him.

 

I was selected to read the athletes’ oath. It was a fantastic honour, only one competitor from the host team gets to do it at the opening ceremony and I was picked; I am not still not quite sure why – possibly because I was Welsh and the Games were opened by the Prince of Wales.

Replying to Prince Charles who said his accident sounded “nasty”, John said:

Not really – I got nine points for degree of dive difficulty and eight points for style.    

As he approached his final throw in the competition, John was lying in sixth place, thinking:

I’ve blown it. I was giving 100 per cent but it just wasn’t happening. There was something else I needed. It’s difficult to describe but up until then I was a selfish person – everything was about me. ….. I sat there with the discus in my hand and I stopped thinking about me. I started thinking about my Mam, Dad, my coaches and Roy and I thought if I never throw again then this is going to be for them. And all of a sudden I let this discus go and I knew it was a long way as the officials took so long to measure it. I knew I had beaten the record. I can’t even begin to tell you how it felt to be world record holder and to win gold. Everything I have done since has revolved around that moment when I stopped thinking about me and instead thought about other people. 

In 1986, John and wheelchair racer and swimmer, Chris Hallam, combined to raise money to build a sports centre for the disabled at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff (UWIC), now Cardiff Metropolitan University, covering 400 miles in 11 days. John recalls:

We raised a lot of money but we also wanted to show people what disabled people can achieve. People were impressed with what we did.

The two came together again in 1997 to complete another fundraising push of 600 miles in 37 days to raise money to keep the sports centre open.

Retirement as a Paralympic athlete

Since retiring John has become well known as an inspirational and motivational speaker.

See and hear John talking about his experiences as part of Driving [JR1] Inspiration, which aims to inspire all young people to identify and fulfil their dreams and celebrate diversity here.

In 2012 John completed a leg of the Olympic torch relay through Blaenavon.

In 2013, John made a bid to become the oldest man in a wheelchair to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with a team raising money for Fullcircle and Dreams and Wishes. Unfortunately, the team hit problems and John was forced to turn back after reaching Gilman’s Point, only 300 metres from the true summit, as night was falling, and he didn’t think he would make it in time.  

Read John’s blog about the training for this epic adventure. 

In 2020 John hosted a virtual sports day event for The National Paralympic Heritage Trust.

Achievements and Awards

Paralympic Games

Johns’ first Paralympic appearance at the Arnhem 1980 Games saw him compete in shot put, discus throw and men's light-heavyweight, 85 kg, Paraplegic weightlifting. Returning at Stoke Mandeville in 1984 he won gold in the Men's Discus Throw 5 with a world record distance of 32 metres 82cm as well as competing in javelin and shot put. At the Seoul 1988 Games he won bronze in the Men's Pentathlon 5 and silver in the Men's Discus Throw 5. John went on to compete in the pentathlon and javelin at the Barcelona 1992 Games and the pentathlon at Atlanta 1996. 

John Harris preparing to throw the discus in 1984

John throwing the gold winning discus shot at the Stoke Mandeville 1984 Paralympics

Other sporting events

In 1987 John completed the London Marathon.

2003 saw him come out of retirement to compete in the in the HSA National Wheelchair Championships at Stoke Mandeville, where he won gold in the javelin and shot put.

Other awards and recognition

In January 1986, John was surprised in the foyer of Thames Television’s Euston Road Studios by Eamonn Andrews and boxer Henry Cooper for an episode of the iconic This Is Your Life, listen to him recall the experience here. 

In May 2013 John was inducted into the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame.

2021 saw John awarded the Jim Munkley Lifetime Achievement Award at the Disability Sport Wales awards which were held virtually on their Facebook and YouTube channels because of the Covid19 pandemic restrictions.

Wow, I don’t get lost for words very often! This Lifetime Achievement Award this isn’t just for me, it’s for all those people that gave me the life that I’ve had and I think that I’m a really fortunate person for the people I have met. This is the icing on the cake and that is come from my peers is pretty special.

Interviews with John

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

References

  • https://www.southwalesargus.co.uk/news/10409792.sebastopol-man-john-harris-a-former-paralympian-will-climb-mount-kilimanjaro/
  • https://www.southwalesargus.co.uk/news/10766041.triumphant-gwent-charity-team-return-home-after-kilimanjaro-ordeal/
  • http://special-ops.uk/fullcircle/kilimanjaro-challenge-2013/fullcircle-in-the-news/
  • https://www.insidethegames.biz/articles/1096167/paralympian-harris-virtual-sports-day
  • https://www.goyt-valley.org.uk/disabled-access/
  • https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/local-news/carolyn-hitt-paralympic-epiphany-came-2026318
  • https://www.disabilitysportwales.com/news/2012/05/29/disability-sport-wales-supporting-the-olympic-flame-journey-through-wales/
  • http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/other_sports/disability_sport/3171792.stm
  • https://www.disabilitysportwales.com/news/2021/04/14/disability-sport-wales-awards-celebrates-outstanding-inspirational-achievements-made-all-the-more-remarkable-during-a-year-of-great-adversity/