A Holywell man has decided to tackle his demons and set his eyes on Team GB’s rugby squad for the Paralympic games in 2024, despite being in a wheelchair for as long as he can remember.
Josh Williams enjoys what other 20-year-old males do – socialising, sports, going out with friends, and being a big brother to his four younger sisters.
But before Josh was born, he was diagnosed with Arthrogryposis, a rare condition which stops joints from bending, including the legs, arms and hands. He has been living with double scoliosis, an abnormal curving of the spine in two separate places, and is also deaf.
He said: “My mum knew there was something wrong with me before she had me. Athrogryposis is a rare genetic condition, meaning all my bones and joints can’t straighten, and I have muscles in places I shouldn’t. It affects one in every thousand, and one in every few hundred gets a variety of different effects.”
Josh said the way he was brought up affected his perception of Athrogryposis. He said: “My family have always pushed me to do my best. It’s the only thing I’ve known.”
What started as “a little hobby” in 2012 soon turned out to be Josh’s vocation after he completed his A Levels at Holywell High School two years ago.
“Competing for Team GB has always been a goal since I started wheelchair rugby. I started it, then got the hang of it, and thought ‘yeah, this is me’.”
Wheelchair rugby, or ‘murderball’, was a popular contact sport during London 2012 and Rio 2016, where teams consisted of only four players on the basketball-sized indoor court.
Josh said: “Players are ‘pointed’ depending on the severity of their condition and are put in categories, 0.5 being the worst physical player, with the least functioning, who are put in defence as lower range defenders.
“3.5 is the most functional, with all movement, who are in an attacking position. It’s the likes of amputees.”
Josh currently sits at 2.5, an attacker with high ability. He said: “I like being an attacker. You get to be a dominant player. I like being the attacking player bullying people and scoring goals.
“I picked up the game quickly, and after a year of training I went for trials and got in to the development side of Team GB, which I was in until January this year.”
The development team is a “gateway” into the Paralympic team, where sports experts “build you up to become a Paralympian”. This includes not only training but nutrition, physiotherapy, and “pep talks” according to Josh.
He added: “They do all sorts. I’ve been abroad to play on the labelled Team GB development squad to Poland and Prague, but never on the official Team GB Paralympic team.
“I have an aspiration to get to the official Team GB, I want to say by 2024, but anything could happen.”
Josh said he decided to take some time away from training earlier this year to “stop and focus on things, which was the adult thing to do”.
As a “family man” Josh decided to halt his training after his mother experienced a stillbirth earlier this year. He said: “Before it I was steady-headed, quite focused with things when mum got pregnant. It changed the whole mindset of the family. The whole thing affected training. Everything dropped.
“I went down quite a rough patch and ended up putting on weight, and got out of shape. It’s hard to motivate yourself when you don’t want to. When you’re younger and immature, it’s hard to focus.”
But Josh decided to try for the try line and get the ball rolling again.
He said: “As weird as it was, I was getting a haircut and I was thinking to myself how I used to be. I thought I’d ruined my career and in my head I was getting old. I would look at profiles of other athletes and I was worried when I got back into training how old I would be.
“I thought, you know what, it’s time to get back on it. Now is my time. Sometimes I forget how young I am.”
Josh said: “The idea is to get fit and return to training by around February. By Christmas 2018, I want to be back training with the development team.”
Josh trains with the Team GB development team once a month in Telford, and his regional development squad once a week at the same location.
He said: “It’s a little different to ‘lad rugby’ culture. Everyone wants to win the tournaments, but we all bounce off each other.”
This year, Josh competed for his original team, Burn, during a second division tournament, who came second which was a “solid effort” as they made the final.
In the spring, Josh also represented a London wheelchair rugby squad, Storm, who had been “a dominating side” for years. Josh said: “I got the pleasure of being on loan which everyone wants to be for that team as they are very dominant. It was a lot of pressure.”
Josh is now training daily at Toe2Toe Fitness, in Holywell.
He said: “You have to have your A-game on and now I’m back, I’m more determined than ever.”
Pictures by Geoff Abbott