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

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.

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.

“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.”

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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