Ben Pritchard: Former triathlete targets Para-rowing glory after freak accident

By Chloe DellBBC Sport Wales
Ben Pritchard rowing in Poznan, Poland
Ben Pritchard won bronze in his debut World Cup race in Poznan

Ben Pritchard was a highly rated cycling and triathlon prospect before the freak accident that changed his life forever.

In September 2016 the Welshman was involved in a cycling crash which left him paralysed from the ribcage down.

"I just came off my bike, one of those freak accidents that nine times out of 10 you'd walk away from, but unfortunately this time I didn't get up," he explains.

However, despite suffering life-changing injuries, Prichard's competitive spirit never left him and now he is making headlines in the world of Para-rowing, having won bronze at his Rowing World Cup debut in Poznan.

Rowing taster

After his accident Pritchard was taken to Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, to recover at the national spinal centre and birthplace of the Paralympic Games.

In 1948, Sir Ludwig Guttmann organised the first Stoke Mandeville Games - the forerunner of today's Paralympics - to coincide with the start of that year's London Olympics.

The hospital continues to put emphasis on sport and the benefits it can bring to rehabilitation post-accident.

Pritchard's first taste of the sport was when British Rowing came in to do training sessions.

"GB Rowing came in a couple of times and there was a sports therapist there called Livi and she was keen on rowing - and that's how [Paralympic champion] Lauren Rowles got into the sport as well," Prichard explains.

"It's the disabled Leander [the famous rowing club founded in 1818] of the rowing world I guess, Stoke Mandeville Hospital.

"I hated getting them [the training sessions] at first but the more I did it the more I started to love that feeling."

As a competitive athlete before his accident, Pritchard says that helped him learn to enjoy the sport while a leaderboard pinned to the back of the door provided inspiration to someone with a competitive nature.

"That was a red rag to a bull," he jokes. "Someone told me there was a leaderboard and I wanted to get on top of it. When I left Stoke Mandeville I was on the top!"

'Mental release'

Pritchard believes sport played a huge role in his rehabilitation.

"Sport is a real piece of me, without sport I don't think I could function as well. It's my mental release," he added.

"When I was in hospital I could go to the sports session and completely forget that I was in a wheelchair with spinal injuries. I was just focused on having a good time with the people around me.

"My advice to anybody facing adversity is to just to take each thing step by step."

His progress attracted the attention of British Rowing, which suggested the 27-year-old look at continuing rowing once he was discharged from hospital.

Pritchard continued to progress in his new sport and underlined his burgeoning talent by breaking the indoor world record in the PR1 adaptive rowing classification in November 2018, completing the 1000m in 3min 46.5sec to beat Pascal Daniere's previous mark of 3:47.9.

However, even getting on the water can be a challenge for someone who is paralysed.

"Finding clubs with the facilities is really difficult in the UK and I think a lot is being done at the moment to try and increase that grass-root level adaptive rowing," Prichard said.

Balancing work and training

Pritchard is an insurance broker and moved with his job to London where he joined Twickenham rowing club.

He decided to move back to Wales in October 2018, living in Ammanford and training with the Wales rowing squad who are based at Channel View Leisure Centre in Cardiff.

Pritchard splits his training time between Cardiff and Caversham, where British Rowing train.

Pritchard rows in the PR1 M1x class which is fixed-seat, bolted into the boat and he is strapped in from the chest down, using his arms, shoulders and back to move the boat.

'A massive surprise'

Success has come quickly as Pritchard has just won bronze in his first World Cup event in Poznan, Poland.

Pritchard admits his rapid progress has been a revelation: "It was a massive surprise to me and the selectors and coaches.

"I found some speed in the last year and moved back home in October and I think the ability to have constant training alongside work has really paid off."

Pritchard's next aim is World Championship selection, before the ultimate dream of competing in the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.

"My next focus is making sure I do enough to put my hat in the ring that the selectors feel comfortable in choosing me," he added.

Considering the speed of his success so far, surely no one will be surprised to see Pritchard achieve all he sets out to do.