ODD BOY OUT I was born in Pontypridd, but grew up elswhere in south Wales, between Newport and Cardiff, and now I call Cardiff my home. My dad is Welsh and my mother is Jamaican. I've got two brothers and two sisters and am the youngest by 10 years. I like to think of myself as a love child, maybe an accident - it depends on who is teasing me. I'm the only professional athlete in the family, the only one who has pursued a lifestyle in sport - and it really has been a life of sport. My first sport was motocross; I started riding motorbikes when I was six years old. Those early years of my life, from six to 11, I felt like I was part of a team. I got sponsorship and I would be out there on the bike, my dad was the mechanic, my mum was one of the core stewards and cooked food for everyone. Being part of a team became a very powerful driver to me, but also the desire to perform and be the best I could be was instilled in me at that age. I lost my sponsorship when I was 11, so I had to stop.

BIKE TO BALL Every boy and a lot of girls grow up wanting to play for Wales and I was no different. I was playing rugby in school, but once I stopped racing motorbikes I turned my full attention to it and loved it. I was lucky enough to play international under 16s and under 18s rugby and then I got a scholarship to a school in South Africa, Michaelhouse. It was 1995, the year after apartheid ended, and it was an incredible experience for me. It was my first time on my own and I learned how to translate the values that mum and dad instilled in me into sport. We trained three times a day, we played in front of crowds of 14,000 people. I came back from South Africa and signed my first professional contract (with Newport Rugby Football Club); I was 19.

LONG ROAD TO PONTYPRIDD In the early days of my career I was injured, I had a stress fracture in my spine and lost my contract. I had about six or seven months out of sport and at the end of that year played university rugby. I ended up winning player of the tournament in the Times European University Rugby competition. That ultimately led to my recruitment with Pontypridd RFC, where I spent the majority of my career. So, ironically, that injury led to one of the happiest, most successful periods of my career. I'm quite philosophical about the challenges we have in life and feel that how we respond to adversity has the power to define us. I believe that, with the right attitude, we can take positives from most experiences.

I was forced to stop playing six years ago. It was the darkest, most difficult period of my life - I wasn't ready to retire; I was angry, scared, frustrated. Rugby was how I defined myself
Richard Parks

 

A PAINFUL END I played professional rugby for 13 years and my career (which included four international appearances for Wales) was ended through injury. I tore the cartilage out of my right shoulder, rendering it arthritic, and I was forced to stop playing six years ago. It was the darkest, most difficult period of my life - I wasn't ready to retire; I was angry, scared, frustrated. Rugby was how I defined myself, it was who I was, how I measured my self worth, and that was taken from me overnight. Those emotions aren't exclusive to rugby or even sport; there are a lot of stories of athletes battling with the transition, and in the world that we live in now, it is becoming a universal transition or emotion because so many people are having to change careers, reassess. The idea of a job for life doesn't exist any more, or rarely. It's an area that I've done a lot of work in with my corporate clients, professional teams.

For me the pain, physically and emotionally, manifested itself as agoraphobia. There were 21 days when I couldn't leave my parents' spare bedroom, where I was recuperating from my operation. But it was a sentence from my grandmother's funeral - "the horizon is only the limit of our sight" - combined with a book I was reading by (British explorer) Ranulph Fiennes that gave me the courage and inspiration to pick myself up and start moving again, and channel my energies into something positive. It was mountains that saved my life.

CONQUERING FEAR I think subconsciously I was drawn to mountains because they were the scariest things I could think of and I was tired of being scared; I wanted to exorcise those demons. The concept of climbing the seven summits (the highest mountain on each of the seven continents) captivated me. I displayed the right attitudes and behaviour to attract and meet some amazing people who became friends, sponsors, employers, employees. These people formed the team around me that evolved into the 737 Challenge. Becoming (in 2011) the first person to have climbed the seven summits and stood on the three poles - the South and North poles, and the summit of Everest - within seven months changed my life. What I love about expeditions in extreme conditions is the way they strip back the layers we operate behind and shine a microscope on our weaknesses and strengths, and values we often overlook.

WHAT NEXT? I feel privileged to have earned a living as a high-performance athlete, but I live an eclectic life now. I'm a board member of Sport Wales, an ambassador to the Welsh government and an author. Beyond the Horizon, which won the Cross British Sports Book Award (for rugby) last year, starts at the injury that ended my career and finishes after my latest expedition, a speed record in Antarctica, where I became the fastest Briton to ski solo and unsupported from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole. That was in January 2014. My next project will push me further than I've ever been before, but what really excites me is the legacy it will leave and the impact it will have on humanity. I know that that is a bold statement, but it has evolved into a world-first scientific experiment. (Next month, Parks will attempt to become the first person to collect a blood sample and muscle biopsy from the summit of Mount Everest). The data we'll collect from the expedition will impact the world we live in. It keeps me awake at night, I'm so excited about it.

Richard Parks was in Hong Kong as headline speaker at the Million Dollar Round Table 2016 and to speak at the Royal Geographical Society and St David's Society.