James Ball: from 2012 Heartbreak to Double Cycling Gold
“I knew it was pretty bad because it just went black straight away – I couldn’t even walk,” says British Cycling Paralympian and current Kilo and Sprint Para-cycling World Champion, James Ball, recounting the injury that could have put an end to his athletic career. “I just sat on the track and thought what is the next thing I’m going to do?”
The journey to winning two gold medals at the World Championships in Los Angeles last year hasn’t been an easy one for the Welshman – who has just won Welsh Disabled Athlete of the Year 2017 for his incredible achievements. It has been a journey filled with highs and lows, spanning three different disciplines, all at elite level.
Born to be an athlete, it would appear, the 26-year-old began his sporting journey at the age of nine – yet it was not in the sport in which he currently holds such status. He began as a swimmer.
“I went to the Welsh national championships and the regional championships up until I was about 14 – then I started doing athletics on the side,” he says.
However, competing at a national level in the water, whilst beginning a career in athletics, proved to be too much alongside schoolwork. A decision had to be made. At 14, James turned his focus completely to athletics – specifically the 100 and 200 metres. Proving he was just as able, if not more on land than in the water, he gained a place on the British athletics squad in 2011. However, the logistics were far from easy.
“I was actually training full-time in Cardiff because that was where my gym, strength and conditioning and my massage was, but my coach was in Loughborough - so it was a bit difficult,” he explains.
Like many young athletes, Jams relied on his family to help him realise his dreams: “It was quite challenging,” he says. “My poor mother and father had to drive me up there, sit in the car and wait and then drive me back home.”
The hard work and dedication was, however, beginning to pay off. His efforts were most noticeably rewarded by a silver medal at the Manchester BT Paralympic World Cup. Now just one year out from the 2012 Paralympics in London, the Ponthir athlete was gearing up for the biggest stage – until disaster struck.
James found himself lying on the track after suffering a grade three tear to his hamstring during a training session. His inability to walk and the sudden blackening of the area told him it was bad – and that he wouldn’t be performing under the bright lights of London 2012.
The mark of a true athlete is their resilience in the face of adversity, and James quickly embarked on intensive rehab in an attempt to get back to full fitness: “I didn’t want to just give up and do nothing. But every time I got back to full fitness it would pull again, my hamstring just would not like sprinting.”
His sprinting career over, James refused to give up on his dream of being a professional athlete, so he kept ticking over in the gym – with as yet no specific direction. “The underlying layer is how you deal with it afterwards, so when it’s actually happened it’s what you do the next day that’s going to help you.
“You can either sit and think ‘Why me? Why me?’ or you can actually do something about it – even if it’s just stretching or keeping up with your healthy eating. That’s what’s definitely helped me. Try and get positive people around you as well – I’m very lucky to have a good team around me and not everybody has that.”
After a blight of bad luck, his fortunes changed: “I got approached by a British Cycling talent officer and they tested me in a gym in Wales on a bike,” he explains. “I had to do a minute test, a three-minute test and a 12-minute test, and straight away they were like: ‘You’re not an endurance rider!’” he laughs.
What he did have, however, was a sprint cyclist potential – and lots of it. But it would be three months – December 2015 – before James finally got the call from British Cycling with good news: “I was over the moon. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.”
Although the sport of cycling was new to him, some of the skills required were not. He explains: “Definitely coming from a sprinting background – the fast twitch muscle fibres and things like that they go into their own sort of usefulness on the track.
“As a sprinter my event is the Kilo, so a minute flat is very taxing, but the faster you can get your legs turning over the faster you can produce power.”
Regardless of similarities between sprinting and cycling, James was still a newcomer and 2016 was to be a baptism by fire. In his first year as a cyclist, James went to the UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships in Montichiari, Italy – piloted by Craig Maclean. James competes in category B, visually impaired or blind, which means competitors are steered by a fellow teammate, called a pilot.
In his first ever World Championships, James took home bronze – setting the bar incredibly high for future tournaments. It was also the year of the Paralympics, but James hardly expected to be going to Rio: “It’s been a pretty crazy ride. My aim was never to go to Rio because I was so new on the team.”
And, at first, Rio wasn’t on the cards: “We got told no, you get a phone call late June, early July to tell you if you’re going or not, and then after we got a phone call saying you might be going or you might not. In the end we actually got told no twice but on the third time, because of Russia being excluded from the games, it opened up two places - so I ended up going. There were absolutely no nerves because we thought we weren’t going.”
In what many would argue was be a stellar effort based on no notice – and still in his first year as an elite competitive cyclist – James and his pilot finished in fifth place in the tandem kilo. This performance ensured James was chosen to go to the 2017 Para-cycling Track World Championships in Los Angeles. What he would achieve, in less than two years in the sport, is nothing short of incredible. Piloted by Matt Rotheram, this time, the pair won not only one gold medal, but two, in the kilo and also the sprint – making James a two-time World Champion.
“It was one of the fastest times that the tandem kilo has ever been done,” says James. “I think it is the third fastest time. Now I’ve had a taste of the top, just trying to keep it is the hard bit.”
James now sits at the very pinnacle of his discipline – the man in the rainbow jersey, the man to beat. But it has taken years of hard work, different sports, trials and tribulations and more to get here. He explains: “There’s been a lot of times where I’ve not known what I’ve wanted to do, but I always knew it was going to be sport.”
Being a Paralympian, James hasn’t let physical adversity stand in his way, either: “I would definitely say there’s always a way, no matter what obstacles you face. The more [people with disabilities] can see people actually achieving and doing, people like us, there’s no reason why they can’t do it themselves as well.”
As well as being a World Champion, James is also an ambassador for a company called Athletes In Schools, which seeks to inspire the next generation.
He says: “The games have definitely had a positive impact and the kids really enjoy the school visits. It’s great if they can see it for themselves first hand. They’ve only got to see it once to think: ‘Ah you know what, I’d quite like to cycle and have a go.'
“I like showing them that disabled people can do just as well as able-bodied people, because they’ve got a lot of questions to ask and it’s nice to give them a positive answer rather than them stumbling across something on the internet.”
Predictably, James now has his heart set on his next goal – a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Australia this year. Yet one prize trumps all – the Paralympic gold, and James is working hard to reach the top spot at Tokyo 2020: “The Paralympics is the crowning jewel, a gold medal in Tokyo, that’s the drive.”
Asked how he would describe himself in three words, the Welshman replies: “Motivated, passionate and determined, wait – is that the same thing?!” It doesn’t matter: it is these exact qualities that have got him where he is today, and his incredible journey is far from over.