RICHARD PARKS | SPORT FEATURE
FROM RUGBY TO EVEREST
Former Wales international rugby player and extreme environment athlete Richard Parks speaks with Amanda Hunt about determination, climbing Everest and adventure.
Richard Parks played rugby intensely for a solid 13 years, becoming the 1001st player to represent Wales. Due to an injury he was forced into an early and unexpected retirement. Life became tough for the rugby star, but after hitting an all-time low he managed to find his way back into the light and is now a proud extreme environment athlete. Through self-belief, grit and determination, Richard has since broken world records, become an Ambassador for the Wales Year of Adventure and a board member of Sports Wales.
Richard Parks began talking over a peppermint tea, and contrary to the stereotype of a rugby player, he had a surprising calmness, warmth, insight and a soothing voice. He started off by explaining a phrase that has helped him reach dizzy heights over the last few years.
“’The horizon is only the limit of our sight’ was the catalyst to all of the adventures in this chapter of my life. It might have well saved my life and I don’t say that lightly. I was forced to retire from professional rugby because of injury. I found myself in quite a dark place both emotionally and physically. It was this sentence that inspired me and gave me the courage to pick myself up and channel my energies into something positive. You can’t see beyond the horizon but we know that there is a world and land beyond that. I couldn’t see past my rugby career. It was how I defined myself, it was what I loved and it was everything to me. When that was taken away through injury, I couldn’t see beyond that. That sentence changed my perspective and allowed me to start moving again. It is more than finding something to do, I feel blessed that I have actually found a purpose in life that I didn’t even have as a rugby player. I really believe that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. Also being able to give back, whether that is through science, charity or being able to take people along my journey with me is a real privilege. The core of my gratitude is in that sentence.”
On looking back at his career, there have been significant changes, which have forced him into a completely different direction, turning a negative into a positive. Richard reflects, “I think life has a funny way of doing that. I don’t want to get too deep but the philosopher Horace said, ‘Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents, which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant’. That’s heavy but it’s really true. Sometimes, our toughest challenges unlock opportunities that we would never have dreamt of or let alone seen.”
When his rugby career took a massive tumble, Richard was determined to be an extreme athlete. Guided by his motto, he focused all his attention into creating a world first expedition: the 737 Challenge. This involved being the first to climb the highest mountain on each of the world’s 7 continents and stand on all 3 poles (North, South and Everest) all within 7 months.
To help complete this challenge, he sold a lot of his own personal items to help fund the expedition. But where did he get the faith in his own abilities? “It was a mega gamble. I did have belief in my ability and I surrounded myself with people who shared my belief. The 737 Challenge grew as a result of a pretty awesome team and they helped me build the project. Although I was the only one climbing, it was the result of a lot of people’s hard work and belief. That’s really important to me, I still feel really privileged to be working for organisations that believe. I think going back to the other point of adversity and presenting opportunities, at the time when I developed the 737 Challenge, I was lost and I was rock bottom. So it was easier to invest that money into myself. You have this appetite for risk that you don’t necessarily have when things are going really well. What I mean by that, is that if somebody had given me the opportunity to climb the highest mountain on each of the seven continents, standing on the North and South Pole during the time I played rugby, I probably would have said no. It was the darkest period of my life that gave me the mind-set and opportunity to embrace it. We all have ups and downs, but it’s down to the people around you and our values, that allow us to weather it and build on it.”
Moving onto 2016, Richard set himself a new goal, Project Everest Cynllun. He was to become the first person in history to collect a blood sample and muscle biopsy from the summit of Mount Everest. He was also set to climb the highest mountain in the world without using supplementary oxygen.
Unfortunately, due to an unforeseen medical issue, Richard was unable to reach the summit and had to abort the mission. He said, “The thing that was really interesting during that 737 Challenge was that it was a world’s first. That year I was the fastest summit of Everest in 25 days, bearing in mind people take 7-9 weeks to climb the mountain. I had complete faith in my ability and was meticulous in my training. Fast forward six or seven years, what enabled me to do that physiologically has ended this expedition. My ability to produce red blood cells was what made my blood dangerously thick, which lead to me cancelling or aborting this particular project. “
Not making the summit must have been devastating for the athlete. However, he remains philosophical and pragmatic about the situation. “It’s a unique mind set on expeditions like this and you do have to be philosophical. It’s a really unique balance to temper defiance with humility. I’m proud of my track record in decision making, I don’t carry an ego into the expeditions but if I’m honest, it has been a brutal week. There are no guarantees with world first expeditions. I spent two years in developing, training and preparing but this unscheduled blood sample, well was a real bolt of lightning. It blindsided me and everyone else in the project. It felt really cruel because the irony was that I had willingly devoted my body and performance to the scientific endeavour of the project and it was the science, which unearthed the anomaly that ended the expedition”.
For all his achievements, his love and passion for his homeland, Richard Parks is now an Ambassador for the Year of Adventure. Richard revealed how that felt, “I’m really proud to be able to represent and contribute to Wales in this way. I was proud to fly the Welsh flag as an Ambassador in Nepal this year. It was really important that the world went back to Nepal after the tragedies. As Wales is an adventure destination, it’s important that we support other adventure destinations in times of hardship. I’ve got a really exciting year ahead with my Ambassadorial work. I’ve got two television shows coming out based on the Year of Adventure. In today’s society I think it’s really important to embrace the spirit of adventure, try new things and step outside our comfort zone. It doesn’t have to be extreme projects, it can be anything and I think for a government to be supporting us is really cool.”
Year Of Adventure. Info: www.visitwales.com