Rhys Jones has always had poor eye sight, but he never imagined being told that in a few months/years he may be completely blind. Keep reading Rhys’s story to hear about how he went from being diagnosed with cone dystrophy to coming fourth place in the Commonwealth Games.
Forty-three year old Rhys was born just outside of Detroit in America and moved to Germany at eleven. Growing up, Rhys played various sports including ice hockey, baseball and basketball. Throughout playing all of these various sports, Rhys says he always knew what his strengths were and one of those was running. He moved to Scotland, studied medicine at University there and here, he joined the University running club. In his mid-twenties, he ran recreationally including 10ks, particularly liking half marathons and marathons. Then when he moved down to Yorkshire, he joined his local running club there.
Rhys always knew that he had poor vision. But this never stopped him doing much apart from driving and playing sports that involved the use of small balls. Rhys told the story of regularly playing golf with his dad and he literally couldn’t see the ball. His dad was always very supportive and would shout “great shot!” whilst Rhys would hear the ball drop into the water and it would later magically appear somewhere on the course. But sports such as basketball, football, and volleyball were fine. Rhys says that it was these little things that were all signs that something was wrong. It was when Rhys got to his early thirties that his vision got worse and he eventually got diagnosed with cone dystrophy. Cone dystrophy is a degenerative retinal eye condition. At this point, bright lights had gotten really difficult for Rhys and he’d have to wear sunglasses even in the winter when it was too bright. This had started to effect Rhys’s running and sports as well.
Rhys went through a whole journey with this diagnosis. He said it was “the whole idea of potentially losing all of your vision at some point and not having any kind of frame of reference for that either in terms of having met anyone with that kind of condition, let alone met an athlete with that condition”. But he also had to think about the implications for his family and his career. Rhys was a consultant psychiatrist specialising in eating disorders at this point. He explains that getting diagnosed with a condition like this, there is a real sense of loss that comes with it. He compared it to a bereavement in some ways, with his relationship to vision. But Rhys had a big mantra which he held onto. He says that when things go wrong in life, whether it be a health condition or anything that can have a negative impact, it’s important to try and make something positive out of that. And sport played a big part in this for Rhys. His wife, Sarah, was incredibly supportive. She told him to “look at some of the 5k, 10k times of the visually impaired runners, you’re not far off from that!” Initially Rhys thought “well that’s for disabled people, that’s not for me” but eventually he got his head around the fact that he actually does have a disability. So, he gave it a go.
Rhys focused on his running before attending a local Talent ID event with UK Sport. These events test your abilities and match you up with a potential parasport. This was Rhys’s first time on a Watt bike and they said that due to his ability on this he should try something like cycling or triathlon. Rhys says from here he just fell into triathlon because they were the most welcoming. They simply said to him “do you want to race in a couple of weeks?”. His first race was a duathlon and at this point he’d never ridden a tandem before. He considers this a really helpful thing to master in terms of getting his head around having a disability. Then at his first British duathlon Championships, he managed to bag himself a silver medal. This is where Rhys knew something was happening here.
The next step was to learn how to swim. Rhys considered his swim level, at this point, at just above drowning. British Triathlon encouraged him to go away and learn and he did. A few years passed of Rhys learning how to swim and getting his swim below 15 minutes in a Sprint distance course so that he could start racing at the bigger ones. This is where it started to really come together. He went part-time at work as he realised that he couldn’t prioritise family, work and triathlon. Something had to give. Rhys explained that there are always uncertainties with these decisions, having to think ‘is this something I should do?’ But he thought let’s just try it and if it works then that’s great and if it doesn’t then it’s no big deal.
Two big challenges came next for Rhys, putting his visual impairment to one side. The first was that he had a patellar tendon rupture. Rhys loved to go to the gym and one day he was doing a Bulgarian squat, he was abroad and in a gym that he doesn’t normally use, and it just snapped. This was his first major injury and his first time learning how to deal with it, how to be injured, how to keep things going, all the rehab and everything that went with that. But he was very lucky and in three to four months after the rupture, he was back on the track. He had to relearn how to walk and how to run. He could run in a straight line and then got wonky as soon as he had to round a corner, so it was a big learning curve. But he got back into it and his swimming was coming along well and then Covid hit. He couldn’t get access to a swimming pool so he had to find ways to get around it.
And then the opportunity came for the Commonwealth Games. First, British Triathlon had to decipher where Rhys was from. He’d lived in the United States, Scotland, and Yorkshire. But Rhys’s family were Welsh and despite never having lived there he’d always felt Welsh himself. So, straight off the bat, Rhys said “I’d like to go for Wales”. He came under Welsh Triathlon with Luke Watson as his coach and Vicky Johnston putting them together and supporting them as well. And then it was just chasing points to qualify for the Games.
Through Welsh Triathlon is also how Rhys met his guide Rhys James. Rhys suggests that this is a big part of paratri, “you’re a team”. He says it’s about working together, whether that’s pedal technique on the tandem or working together on the swim when you’re tethered. He compares his guide, Rhys, to Mr Motivator because he just shouts at him all the time which Rhys describes as great because it means he has “nowhere to hide”, if he’s running too slow Rhys shouts at him. Not only is the communication exceptional between the two, but Rhys expressed that “it was very clear when Rhys and I started training together in March or April that we got on really well […] he’s laid back, he’s got a really good sense of humour and he’s just a bit silly like me”. He even joked that, because of the age gap, some people mistake them for father and son. Rhys considers himself very lucky to have found Rhys as his main racing guide.
Rhys did qualify for the Commonwealth Games which he raced with his guide, Rhys. He describes attending the event as wonderful. He never imaged that he’d ever race at a big games like that, and he knew that he deserved it. He’d worked really hard for it. He also goes back to his mantra here. He was able to turn devastating news, someone telling you that you may go blind in a couple of months/years, into something incredible. He describes his cone dystrophy as something which could have closed a few doors for him, but has instead opened many others. And this was one of them. He also described racing in this event as emotional. All of his family and the team that he trained with were there and everyone was supporting him. And they got fourth place!
In terms of support throughout everything, Rhys praises his wife as number one. He is aware that when you are diagnosed with a disability or an impairment, this can put extra pressure on your other half. But his situation was completely different. Straight away his wife, Sarah, would say “I love you for who you are” and jokes “your eyes weren’t that great when I met you”. Rhys’s wife and family have been his biggest supporters. But Rhys also acknowledges how triathlon and parasport has supported him. In parasport you meet other people with disabilities and visual impairments and not only does this reassure you that you are not the only one but these people are able to provide you with useful tips and recommendations. And Rhys appreciates how helpful this has been.
In terms of triathlon plans for 2023, Rhys is travelling further afield for a few races including Australia and Japan. But one of the things he is most excited for in 2023 is the qualification window for the paralympics in Paris. He acknowledges that this is going to be a tough one to qualify for but he finds that really exciting. So the focus will be getting starts for the key races and seeing how much he can improve between now and then. We can’t wait to see what Rhys will accomplish this year and we wish him the best of luck for all of his future races and especially the paralympic qualifiers.
One of the biggest things to take away from Rhys’s amazing story is his mantra that he has kept in mind throughout everything: always try to find a positive when things happen that could have a negative impact on your life. This has massively helped Rhys and we believe it can help many others as well.