What is it about hurdlers and Wales? It’s our most successful track and field activity with over thirty medals won in the major senior championships since Bob Shaw won the first Welsh hurdles medal in the 440 yards event at the 1954 Vancouver Commonwealth Games. We have had world champions (Colin Jackson and Dai Greene) and Commonwealth title holders Berwyn Price and Kay Morley. Jackson of course also held the world record for 110m hurdles for 11 years and still holds the world indoor record for 60m hurdles.
And of course there’s the 2012 European 400m hurdles champion Rhys Williams.
His achievements are unique in that he is the only athlete to win European titles in four age groups including the senior title and therefore his induction into the Welsh Athletics Hall of Fame in 2018 after his retirement two years earlier was a foregone conclusion.
Altogether he won an impressive eight medals at major international championships, including that European senior title in Helsinki in 2012. That victory on the track that hosted the 1952 Olympics, meant that he had won a complete set of senior podium medals having won silver and bronze at previous championships and as such the Cardiff born superstar can probably claim to be the finest all-round European medallist.
His bronze came in Gothenburg in 2006 and he followed this up with silver as part of the British team which took second place in the 4 x 400m. Fellow Cardiffian and Hall of Famer Tim Benjamin was also part of that team. His silver came in Barcelona in 2010, when he finished just behind fellow Welshman and close rival Dai Greene who would go on to win the world title the following year.
Rhys also had a brilliant run to take the Commonwealth 400m hurdles bronze medal in Delhi in 2010 again behind team-mate Dai Greene who took gold. His first Commonwealth Games appearance was in Melbourne in 2006, where he finished just out of the medals in fourth - but with the consolation of clipping .11secs off Matt Elias’s Welsh record with 49.09 secs which was the fastest time by a British athlete that year. To underline Welsh supremacy in this event, three of the top four 400m hurdlers in the UK in 2006 were Welsh with Matt Elias third fastest with 49.50 and Dai Greene fourth on 49.91.
Says Rhys, commenting on his most pleasing performance during his glittering career: “It has to be European Championships in 2012, after winning bronze and then silver at previous championships. It was a nice way to finish off my career and get a European senior title at last.”
For the record, his Euro haul is:
• Youths champion 400m hurdles 2001
• Junior champion 400m hurdles 2003
• Under 23 champion 400m hurdles 2005
• Senior 400m hurdles bronze medallist 2006
• Senior 4 x 400m silver medallist 2006
• Senior 400m hurdles silver medallist 2010
• Senior 400m hurdles champion 2012
On the domestic front he took four Welsh titles at 400m hurdles and one at 200m and ended his career with a personal best for his speciality event of 48.84 secs in Lucerne in 2013. And he liked nothing better than running for his club, Cardiff AAC in the British League whenever his international commitments allowed.
He was in a rich vein of form in 2013 as he also ran 46.69 secs for 400 flat which made him the fastest Welshman that year. Only the 2011 world champion Dai Greene sits above him on the Welsh all-time lists with the second fastest time by a Briton of 47.84 secs. Rhys with his 48.84 personal best would still have made him Britain’s fastest in 2018, two years after retiring.
Coming from Wales’ most famous sporting family - siblings James and Kathryn were both Welsh athletics title holders, and father JJ being one of the all-time greats of Welsh rugby - he grew up in the seething cauldron of Welsh sport. But he tasted his first sporting success as a swimmer. He was Welsh under 15 200m backstroke champion and a member of the Welsh under 16 rugby squad before switching to athletics.
Rhys is one of the all-time greats of Welsh athletics and his induction into the Welsh Athletics Hall of Fame at the 2018 ceremony is richly deserved.
Clive Williams/March 2019
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