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Rugby star forced to retire at 25 with life-changing injury champions new jobs programme

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Eli Walker was a professional rugby player for the Ospreys and Wales national side before a life-changing spinal injury forced him to retire at just 25 years of age. 

Like many other people who are made redundant from work, Eli had to rethink his career and build his confidence back up.

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He has since gone on to work as a strength and conditioning coach, as well as gaining new qualifications and starting his own business. 

Eli said: “My first memories of enjoying rugby are playing at my local club in Gorseinon and from then on, I knew that it was something I was supposed to be a part of. I started playing professionally for the Ospreys at 17 and went on to gain my international cap for Wales. Being selected for Wales was definitely the pinnacle of my career, it was something I’ll never forget.”

“I was training at the gym and slipped a disc in my lower back. I remember having a discussion with my doctor at the time and he told me if I were to have another injury, it could mean I’d be left unable to live the active life I wanted to with my little girl. It was such a scary prospect and forced me to have to retire, I had no other option.

“I was effectively made redundant from a career that I loved, through no choice of my own, and had just had a little one that I needed to provide for. But the prospect of not being able to have an active lifestyle with my family made it clear I had to retire early.

Despite his successful career, Eli’s journey hasn’t been easy. He struggled with dyslexia throughout school and admits he wished he’d explored other opportunities earlier in life whilst still playing rugby professionally. Sadly, Eli’s professional career ended sooner than expected and the need to explore his options became imminent.

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“The months after I decided to retire from rugby were extremely challenging. Having started my career at such a young age and investing so much time into the sport, it was difficult to know what move to make next.

“I found that even in new environments I was known as a rugby player and my other skills were sometimes ignored. Looking back, I’m so glad that I stuck to my guns and followed a career that I knew I felt passionate about.”

“Luckily, soon after my retirement, I had quite a clear vision of what I wanted to do next. I knew that I wanted to stay working in the sports industry, but instead of being a player, I was keen to explore opportunities as a strength and conditioning mentor.

“Exploring a new career path was daunting to begin with. I was diagnosed with dyslexia at a young age and struggled in school academically, but it made me more determined to find a career that allowed me to follow my interests and play to my strengths. I decided to go back to university, and complete a master’s degree, which was something I thought I’d really struggle with, but I managed to achieve this.

“I knew I wanted to continue doing something I loved, and sports was always going to be a part of that. I now work as the strength and conditioning coach at Swansea Tennis Centre and work with young athletes that compete or are striving to compete professionally. It’s been great to be able to use my own experience to advise others on areas they can improve upon whether that’s injury prevention, nutrition advice or professionalism. The fact that I’m able to use my skills and transfer them to a new career has been incredibly rewarding.”

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Eli is now promoting the Welsh Government’s ReAct+ programme which helps those who have been made redundant or are under a notice of redundancy by providing them with a free personalised package of employment support that could include advice, training, and personal development.

Discussing the one piece of advice that he would give his younger self going through such a life-changing point at 25, Eli said: “I’d tell myself to not give up on what I love doing and to see my early retirement as an opportunity to delve into something new. My injury taught me that life is full of setbacks, but anything is possible if you put your mind to it and concentrate on what makes you stand out from the crowd.

“I’m proud of how far I’ve come and would advise anybody who’s facing or has been affected by redundancy or is unemployed, to follow your passions and do what’s right for you.”

“That’s why I’m supporting the launch of ReAct+, because it’s so important for anyone regardless of what stage they are at in their life of career to have access to free employment support and advice to help them achieve their goals. Whether it’s funding towards training, alongside one-to-one coaching to improve your confidence or help in finding and applying for jobs, ReAct+ offers a personalised support package built around your needs to help you find and get a job you’ll love.”

The ReAct+ programme, which is part-funded by the Welsh Government and European Social Fund and delivered in partnership with Working Wales, provides employment support as unique as you. For more information on how it can help you, search “Working Wales ReAct+” or call 0800 028 4844.

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Rugby legend James Hook launches clothing range with new Carmarthenshire sportswear brand

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A female entrepreneur from Carmarthenshire has launched a new venture with the intention of revolutionising the way in which sportswear is provided for grassroots and amateur teams through to professional organisations, including the military, across the UK.

Tarw Sports offers a one-stop solution for branded sportswear, offering sports teams and military teams of any level the ability to purchase quality products backed up by great customer service and an easy-to-use online portal including a free club shop.

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The new website involves a virtual shopping experience, allowing its customers to store branded products all in one easily accessible place. Additionally, Tarw Sports boasts a range of team sports kits, including football and rugby, extensive gym wear options as well as cycling and triathlon specific merchandise.

The key values of Tarw Sports focus on the inner power of the individual from both a physical and mental sense. Tarw is the Welsh word for bull, chosen to promote a strong-willed and passionate philosophy that is signified in its branding. The objective of the company is to instil in its customers that the Tarw brand is synonymous with embodying inner strength and determination.

Tarw Sports has been launched by Angela Windsor, the founder of Print Inc, a specialist in print and embroidered clothing, a former owner of award-winning AVA Dancewear and a winner of several business awards including a Women in Business Award, for New Business of the Year.

Tarw Sports has also recruited two brand ambassadors during its launch phase. The first is former Wales and British Lions superstar and mental health advocator, James Hook, who has his own specific ‘Hook’ clothing range in collaboration with Tarw Sports. James Hook is also an ambassador for the mental health charity, Mind.

The second is Gary Howells, a local sports therapist, ultra-endurance runner, strength and conditioning coach who will be completing his 100th marathon this year. Howells is also the owner of Peak Performance Wales, a sports performance company that aids with coaching, nutrition, dynamics, analysis and therapies.

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Both James Hook and Gary Howells epitomise Tarw Sports ethos of physical and mental strength and participating at the highest level possible in their given sports.

The business, based in Cross Hands, Carmarthenshire, will complement the offering of Print Inc, which specialises more in branding and embroidery. Some of its biggest clients include the Welsh Guards and the Household Cavalry. Its official charity is ABF The Soldiers Charity and it donates a percentage of its profits to the charity along with being part of fundraising events annually.

Speaking on the new partnership, James Hook said: “I am excited to be an ambassador for Wales’ newest sports brand, Tarw Sports. The brand focuses on nurturing both physical and mental health and channeling the inner strength of the individual, values which sit close to my own. I am extremely proud of the launch of forward the James Hook range and supporting the team on their journey.”

Angela Windsor, Founder and Director of Tarw Sports, said: “I am hugely excited by this new venture, which has been born out of demand and a gap in the market for quality sportswear that sports teams across the UK can rely on. We have already seen great interest in the business and it’s fantastic to have both James Hook and Gary Howells on board. I am excited about building the business and ethos of the brand while also working closely with the armed forces who we have chosen to support as our official charitable partner.”

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Rugby stars and entrepreneur unite to launch Wales-wide health and fitness app

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TWO high profile Welsh rugby players and an entrepreneur have completed a successful round of investment to support the relaunch of a fitness app that will revolutionise the way people access exercise and leisure services in Wales.

Fitap is an innovative search platform connecting gym owners, personal trainers, sports clubs and health and fitness providers with consumers at the touch of a button.

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Founded by Wales rugby union internationals Alex Cuthbert and Gareth Anscombe, in partnership with Welsh CEO and entrepreneur Dean Jones, the app is unique and will enable users to search for services in their area, saving time and money and delivering options they may never have come across before.

Those who download Fitap – which is offering free advertising space to fitness professionals until January 2023 – can set up a profile and identify choices tailored to their specific requirements, geographical location, budget, and availability.

“For those providing fitness services, especially independent gyms and personal training facilities, the costs of marketing and advertising is high, and difficult to measure the return on investment. Fitap is an affordable, measurable, and accessible alternative,” said Dean.

“We are excited to share more with people in the coming months as this is a game-changer for the industry and are thankful to those who have supported us on this journey since our soft launch in 2020, notably the well-known businesses and sporting stars who got behind our successful fundraise recently, raising over £200,000.”

Alex and Gareth – key members of the Ospreys and Wales rugby union sides – echoed those comments and believe Fitap will help build a more active and engaged population in Wales.

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“At present there is no one-specific place for people to explore their health and fitness options, so the app will fill that void,” said Alex.

“Everybody is different and that includes where they are on their health and exercise journey, so this will give them an easy-to-use alternative to scouring the internet in the hope of finding something suitable.

“We are passionate about helping others to be fit, happy and healthy, so it’s brilliant to be able to relaunch Fitap to the market.”

Gareth added: “As well as physical health the mental health of consumers is hugely important to us – particularly in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and self-isolation – so we have a free section where organisations can promote and share their mental health awareness information and activities.

“The app will support users with a bespoke end-to-end experience and give fitness providers a platform to connect directly with them, so they can advertise discounts and offers, and help bring the health and fitness arena to a modern, tech-savvy audience.

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“Fitness classes offered vary from gym classes and tennis lessons to white water rafting and kids summer rugby camps, both online and offline – the range is vast and inclusive.

“We are all heartened by the feedback we’ve received so far as this is exactly what the industry has been waiting for, so watch this space!”

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Rugby

Hospital-worker rugby international says team work is at centre of both NHS and rugby roles

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Whether she’s at her desk or on the pitch, working well as part of a team is a skill that’s very important in Kerin Lake’s life.

After making her debut for the Wales women’s national rugby union team more than a decade ago, Kerin has managed to juggle her sporting career alongside her day job at Swansea Bay.

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When she’s not working as an administrator at Tonna Hospital, in Neath, she can often be found training with or representing the national squad.

Kerin, who plays centre, has tallied up a total of 38 caps for her country, and has so far scored four tries.

“I’ve been involved in the Welsh set-up for quite a few years now,” Kerin, pictured, said.

“I’ve come through the regional age grades where I was involved in the under-15s and under-16s and then they set up the Wales under-20s squad when I was playing for Neath Athletic and I got selected from there.

“I was always sporty at school and used to play netball, hockey and football. Neath Athletic set up a squad outside of school and because a lot of us were interested, our school teacher took us as an after school trip.

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“We all loved it and set up a team in school. I just loved that it was something completely different and quite physical as well.”

Despite joining the health board as an administrator within the Community Mental Health Team (CMHT) in 2016, Kerin has managed to continue her rugby commitments alongside her career and being kept busy as a mum to son Jacob.

She has recently competed in the TikTok Women’s Six Nations Championship which saw the squad achieve bonus point wins over Ireland and Scotland, helping to secure third place overall, Wales’ best position since 2009.

Kerin representing Wales against Canada (Image: Swansea Bay NHS)

She added: “The Six Nations for me is just brilliant. I love the whole feel and buzz around it.
“It is tough and it is demanding, not only physically but mentally. It’s a lot of training nights which is sometimes tricky to fit in around work.”

Even being immersed in tournaments and training camps in recent years, Kerin said it was still a challenge to juggle her day job alongside her rugby commitments.

“You would think I’m quite accustomed to it now after the last couple of years but you’re never really prepared for it,” she said.

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“I have been allowed to have unpaid leave so I could have some days off as over the last couple of years we have started to train on a Thursday and Friday if we have a game on the weekend, rather than just arriving on a Friday night.

“I was originally having to use my annual leave which was quite difficult as I had to save it up throughout the year to take it in February and March.

“On the days that I train I go to Cardiff in the morning and do the training session and come back to finish my shift in the afternoons, just to make sure I’m getting the hours in.

“The management and team here have always been brilliant with allowing me to work different hours. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have been able to do it.

“It’s difficult but it’s a dream to be able to say I’m a professional rugby player.”

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This year, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) handed out full-time contracts and part-time retainer contracts in a first for female players in Wales.

Kerin was one of nine women offered a retainer contract, which allows players to train alongside 12 full-time players between one and three days a week.

Kerin at work in Tonna Hospital (Image: Swansea Bay NHS)

She said: “When we are taking time off and missing days at work or having unpaid days of leave, it subsidises the days that we’re taking off.

“It’s brilliant and adds that little bit of extra security. It’s just making sure we’re not missing out.

“My management have been so accommodating which allowed me to accept the contract.

“I’ve been putting the hard work in for the last couple of years so it wasn’t something I could say no to, especially with it being such a big year for women’s rugby with the World Cup. It’s going to put me in the best place possible to push for a position in that squad.”

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Kerin said being able to work well in a team was one particular quality that benefited both of her careers.

“I think it’s a really big thing because we are an integrated team and there are a lot of people in the team and I’m used to that,” she added.

“The work itself is completely different to rugby and I like that as I can kind of switch off from rugby when I’m in work.

“My colleagues are my number one supporters. I come in after playing at the weekend and they’re all cheering and telling me how proud they are.

“They’ve even started coming to games, which is really nice.

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“They’re a shoulder to cry on and pick me up when I need it as well, and I’d like to think I do that for them too.”

Simone Richards, Tonna CMHT manager, said: “Kerin is a valuable member of our team and all of the team look forward to supporting her when she represents Wales.

“I went to watch the final Six Nations game against Italy, along with a few other colleagues, and it was lovely to see the support there for women’s rugby and how the fan base is growing.

“Having a retainer contract helps Kerin to juggle work, family and her rugby career.

“We have been able to support her to work flexibly around her rugby commitments and I think it has given her the reassurance to know she has been able to do that.

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“All of us at Tonna CMHT, and I’m sure all of Swansea Bay, will be rooting for Kerin and hopefully she will be selected to represent Wales in the World Cup in New Zealand later this year.”

(Lead image: Swansea Bay NHS)

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