Above: Guy Harrison with team manager Raylene Bates after his silver medal at the inaugural World Para Athletics Junior Championships in Switzerland.
World Para Athletics Junior Championship 800m silver medallist Guy Harrison was one of the quiet success stories of the 2017 season. Steve Landells chats to the Hastings-based middle-distance runner to find out more about his unlikely road to the podium.
‘Overcoming challenges’ is a commonly used phrase in the world of modern sport. Whether it is Injury, personal issues or loss of form most elite performers will encounter a range of different hurdles in their athletics journey.
Yet surely few New Zealand athletes have faced quite the same stubborn level of obstacles as teenage middle-distance runner Guy Harrison on his heartwarming road to T35 800m silver at the inaugural World Para Athletics Junior Championships in Switzerland.
It has been some odyssey.
Born in Hastings, Guy was aged just two when he suffered a febrile convulsion and stopped breathing. Father Keith saved his son’s life by administering emergency CPR but the brain damage caused by the seizure left the toddler with cerebral palsy.
The damage was significant. He was encouraged to walk long distances to avoid potentially facing life in a wheelchair and to build up his strength he engaged from the age of four in the sport of golf.
“My muscles do not work as well as others and I need lots of exercise to ensure I keep mobile,” explains Guy. “Playing golf strengthened my legs and core and golf is still a passion of mine to this day.”
Keen to introduce Guy to as many activities as possible he tried swimming, football, cricket and T-ball at primary school but after being introduced to Hastings Athletic Club aged six the “highly competitive” youngster was instantly taken with the sport.
“I loved the races and challenges of competing against other kids my age,” he recalls. ”I liked the competitiveness of all the races and that how I performed was all down to me.”
Preferring to compete in middle-distances because his disability does not allow his legs the fast leg rotation required for sprinting, his athletics journey has required large dollops of persistence and resilience.
His condition causes tightness in the calf muscles, which leads Guy to run and walk on his toes. He needs to work hard on his core stability to address balance issues and he finds it difficult to tie shoelaces and write – although the tenacious Napier Boys’ High School student has mastered both.
Not only has he faced physical challenges but also psychological hurdles throughout his athletics career.
“I have had to compete against able-bodied athletes, which can be very demoralising,” explains Guy, but I have always focused on the bigger picture and to be the best para athlete, I know I need to race in as many races as possible. So, I competed at Colgates at NZ Secondary Schools (Championships) and many meets around the country.”
Before his retirement in March, Guy was also fortunate to be guided by the Hawkes Bay athletics coaching stalwart Mick Cull, who gave the athlete the tools to be successful. Mick put together a special programme which combined road, track, gym and pool work to meet Guy’s specific needs as an athlete. It was a combination that worked perfectly.
“He was a great coach, but was also a great mentor and friend,” says Guy. “He saw me as a true athlete, and cared. He developed programmes that worked for my body and believed the friendships and support of the fellow athletes in his squad were extremely important. Nothing was every too much and he had a great sense of humour.”
Since Mick’s retirement race walker Laura Langley - a former training partner to Guy - has taken up the coaching reins. Adopting the same philosophy as his previous coach, she too has diligently talked to specialists to find the perfect balance in terms of his training load, which includes four track sessions, two sessions in the pool, massage and stretching plus one day off a week.
Signs he was in the form of his life were evident at the New Zealand Track & Field Championships in Hamilton in March when he set national T35 records in both the 800m (2:47.27) and1500m (5:42.07)
and he was rewarded with selection for the former event at the World Junior Para Athletics Championships in Notwill, Switzerland.
“Very proud” but surprised by the call up the Hawkes Bay schoolboy then went on to perform with distinction in Switzerland.
Competing in the rain in his 800m final he completed the two-lap distance in a national record time of 2:44.46 to claim a wonderful silver medal in the biggest race of his career so far.
“I was happy with my time and super happy to win silver as it was a really wet track,” he says. “I just remember the camera on my face on the start line and hearing the New Zealand national anthem as Jack (Lewer) another Kiwi athlete, was being presented with his gold medal (in the F20 shot put).”
However, because of his physical condition life is never straight forward for the middle-distance athlete. Instability in his Achilles tendon has prompted surgery and the teenager faces a period in plaster and nine months of therapy as he is nursed back to full health.
With typical sunny optimism, Guy is already looking to his athletics future where he hopes to compete at both the 2019 New Zealand Track & Field Championships and the World Junior Para Athletics Championships.
“My hope is to go back to the World Juniors, win 800m gold and break the world records in the 800m and 1500m,” he says. “I would love one day to compete at the Paralympic Games but at the moment neither race is part of the schedule.”
Yet regardless of his future accomplishments in the sport, Guy’s parents are overwhelmed by the dogged determination shown by their son.
“His father and I are extremely proud, because he has faced a life of hurdles but has never let things stop him,” insists mum, Vickie. “He does not let his disability rule him. He was told he would never swim, ride a bike and would end up in a wheelchair- he has proved them all wrong. We are proud of the young man he has developed into and the great role model he is to other people. Watching him on the podium receive his medal, was a parent’s proudest moment, because it is through his quiet determination, hard work and belief in himself that has allowed this all to happen.”