As the curtain came down on the spectacular Beijing Games, Total Rugby sought out one of international rugby’s few living Olympians.
Nigel Walker played rugby at the highest level for Wales in the 1990's but before that was one of Britain's top track athletes. For much of his early life they were twin passions competing for his affections, and his time.
“I was mad on rugby when I was growing up,” Walker told Total Rugby. “You have to bear in mind that I was born in 1963, so about 1970-1971 I started to be aware of what was around me and I was brought up on Barry John, Phil Bennett, Gareth Edwards, Gerald Davies and JPR Williams.
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“Most boys in Wales at that time were mad about rugby. I played at school and it wasn’t until I got to eighteen that I gave it up; I had a final Welsh schools trial at eighteen, didn’t get in - a chap called Steve Pearl got in ahead of me and went on to play for Newport - and I decided I was going to go for athletics because I was a GB Junior international and I didn’t think I could continue in both sports at that stage.”
Walker won the 110 metres hurdles at the South Glamorgan Championship in 1977 and went on to win the Welsh Schools title beating Adrian Hadley, who also went on to play rugby for Wales.
By the early eighties, he was regularly taking on and beating the likes of Colin Jackson and competed at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, before opting for a move back to rugby in the early 90s.
The move back to rugby
“After failing to make the Olympic trials in 1992 I was still captain of Cardiff Amateur Athletics Club so I had a few obligations to fulfil, and I came down and bumped in to [former Wales full back] Mark Ring, which was quite a coincidence. It all started from there.
“When I told Colin Jackson that this was going to be my last season and I was going to start playing rugby his quote was, ‘they're going to break you in two, I'll come and see you in hospital!’ He said it with a smile on his face but he thought perhaps I would come a cropper,” said Walker.
While Walker’s athleticism and attitude were never in doubt, putting his considerable talents to use on a rugby pitch took time and patience.
“The aerobic training was completely different. I was very well conditioned, I trained with Colin Jackson for the best part of a decade so that says it all really. But obviously then you might go for a run every week, something like that, but it wasn’t a major part," he said.
“I was very strong pound-for-pound but it was learning to take the bumps and learning to be a team player, those were the big changes that I encountered when I decided to go from athletics to rugby.”
Following his test debut against Ireland in March 1993, Walker went on to play 17 times for Wales in a five year international career, scoring an impressive 12 tries. His final test was against England in February 1998. But which sporting career does he look back on more fondly?
“I'm not giving one back, I can tell you that for nothing! People have asked me: 'win a gold medal, or score a try for Wales?' Well, winning a gold medal on your own would be quite some achievement, I didn't have the ability to win a gold medal on my own, I got to the semi final of the Los Angeles Olympics and scored a few tries for Wales - they're treasured moments indeed.”
Today Walker is Head of Sport at BBC Wales and, not surprisingly given his dual sporting background, is a keen advocate of Rugby Sevens becoming a regular fixture on the Olympic calendar
“It's been there before in the 1920s and America are current champions I believe. I think it would be an ideal sport for the Olympics because it would be over in two days, you'd have huge crowds in that stadium, they get to see some of the best players in the world playing a game which is fast, it's quick, there's plenty of skill and there's plenty of excitement. It would entertain the crowds for two days.”
Watch Walker on this week's Total Rugby TV programme from Wednesday, or listen on the Radio show on stations worldwide, on i-Tunes or on this website, from 18:00 UK time on Thursday. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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