Will Bayley standing triumphantly on the table with his arms aloft was one of the most iconic images from the Paralympic Games in Rio 2016 but four years later it is not that moment Bayley thinks about when he looks back on winning gold in the men’s class 7 singles.
“I just remember the team being really happy,” he recalled. “The match is just a blur really and I don’t remember too much of it – only a few points here and there – but what stuck with me was what happened after the match. The boys came down from the stands and I saw them before I went to get my medal and they were all going crazy. The whole atmosphere has stayed with me really.”
Minutes after the medal ceremony in Rio Bayley’s thoughts had already turned to the team event in which he went on to win a bronze medal with Aaron McKibbin and Ross Wilson.
“I was so happy and relieved that I had won the gold medal,” he said, “but I knew that we had a great chance in team and I had a big part to play in it. I wasn’t sure who was going to play but if I was asked to play I needed to be on my game and I was; I played a key match against Spain and then Aaron came in against China and did a brilliant job winning the final singles. It was a real team effort because all three of us played a part and that is what the team is all about – using different players for different skills. I was totally focused on the team event as I didn’t want to let anyone down.”
Being part of the team is important to Bayley and although table tennis is effectively an individual sport he believes it is the family environment created by Gorazd Vecko when he took over as British Para table tennis team performance director in 2009 that has brought success in London and Rio.
“I think it is one of the most important things and that is when you can go from being a good team to a great team,” he explained. “If you are supporting each other and working together day in and day out that is when you get the 1% difference that can make you win gold medals or not. We need each other and I think we knew that in Rio and it is going to be even more important in Tokyo because every Paralympics gets harder and harder. I think the more that we work together we will definitely achieve our goals and what we want to do.”
The 32 year old admits that he found life difficult in the aftermath of Rio having achieved his dream of becoming Paralympic champion four years after heart-breaking defeat in the final of London 2012.
“I think I felt that I had achieved my objectives in my career and I was a bit lost where to go from there,” he explained. “I’d won the Europeans before I won the Worlds before I won the Paralympics. That wasn’t even a goal when I started my career but then when I did it I thought ‘I don’t know where to go now’. A lot of sportsmen go through that and it took me quite a while to come out the other side.”
Bayley is a born showman and the table tennis hall is his stage. Although a natural competitor who is able to grind out wins when he has to, he admits to wanting to entertain in the style of snooker star Ronnie O’Sullivan, who recently won his sixth World title.
“I think someone like Ronnie is a one-off in terms of a talent and makes it look so easy,” he said. “That is definitely not me but I try and play in a certain way and a certain style where I am attacking and aggressive and I don’t really like to win playing defensively but that is the way I have to do it sometimes. I don’t have the ability to always blast through players so sometimes I have to do the ugly things, dig deep and find a way to win. You have to play to your strengths and my strength is definitely to go into those moments when it is close and really dig deep and eke out those wins. You can only do that if you put in the hard work in the training hall and that is when I play my best – when I’ve worked very hard in training so when it gets close I feel confident that I can win those big matches.”
A year ago Bayley was embarking on one of his greatest challenges – learning to dance – and he surprised even his family and closest friends with his performances on Strictly Come Dancing with partner Janette Manrara.
“To be honest I was a bit surprised that I was able to do as well as I did,” he admitted. “When I was first asked to go on the show I was very nervous that I wasn’t going to be able to do some of the dances because of my disability. Everyone was saying ‘you might struggle to do the technical side of it’ but I think the best thing was I was treated like everyone else so I had to just get on with it and learn the dances. They were difficult for me – for the first dance I was chucked in at the deep end with the quick step and I think that was good because I got a lot of confidence from that. The whole experience was great and I learnt a lot about myself.”
The show brought out the entertainer in him and allowed him to express himself in a way that impressed the judges and endeared him to the public, with the Couple’s Choice contemporary dance depicting his life generating an extraordinary reaction.
“When I’m playing table tennis I always want to entertain,” he said. “If I can play in a way that is entertaining and stylish then I will try and do it because I think I have always had that in me. When I went to drama school I wanted to put on a good show and I wanted everyone to enjoy it. I think that is what I felt in Strictly – if I am not going to be the best dancer I’ll try and entertain people and sell the dance rather than maybe have the best moves. I think that is what I did well with Janette – work on selling the dance rather than it be all about the technique.
“The public reaction was amazing and I’ve never known anything like it. I was going out of my house and everyone knew who I was and that was quite strange. It has gone back to normal now but at the time everyone knew about that dance because so many millions watched it on TV and over the internet so it was a bit life-changing for a few months. It was always positive with people telling me how much that dance meant to them so that was really nice and I never thought I’d be able to do that through dance.
“I think one of the best things about doing Strictly is that I’ve got a bigger platform now and I want to show people how good table tennis is and how hard you have to work to achieve what you want to do. With so many new people potentially watching the sport in Tokyo the whole team has got a massive opportunity to show people how great the sport is and that means a lot to me – to try and put it out there and hopefully bring new players into the sport and inspire the next generation to come through.”
His Strictly journey ended in injury when he tore his ACL jumping off a table during rehearsal and he admits that the experience has made him realise the importance of finding a balance between challenging himself and taking care of his body.
“I think what I have learnt from the injury is you should never take your body for granted because you only get one body. I want to look after my limbs now a lot more than I’ve ever done before. I was a little bit fearless before in terms of throwing myself around and jumping off things and now I’m thinking more long term about my life and how I can have longevity in the sport that I play and in my life. I want to be able to squat down and pick up my great grandchildren when I am 80 years old for example, and if I keep jumping off things I’m not going to be able to do that. It is important to me to be as healthy as possible and when you have had an accident like that you realise that your knees are pretty important.”
The injury, subsequent operation and months of rehab have also made Bayley realise how much table tennis means to him.
“I didn’t realise how much I loved table tennis before I did Strictly. I wouldn’t say I’d lost that passion for it but I maybe took it for granted. Every time I pick up a bat now I’m excited to play and that had dipped a bit – I wanted to play matches and tournaments but I didn’t always have that excitement to train. I think it is important to feel grateful that you are actually getting on the table to practice and I think I have got that back now because of the injury. I’m really happy that I’m hitting balls again so it has changed my mentality in that way.”
After winning a medal at every major championship from 2011 to 2017 he has lost in the quarter-finals at the last two but is more driven than ever to keep improving and win more titles, something that means more to him now than reclaiming the World number one ranking.
“To be honest it is all about winning the major titles now,” he said. “I’d be happy to be 150 in the world if I could win the Paralympics again. I don’t mind losing every single match between now and the Paralympics if I can win that title again. That is where it counts. I look at players like Jochen Wollmert, who I think was ranked 12 in the world when he won in London, and it doesn’t really matter about the ranking if you believe in yourself and you’ve done all the hard work.
“I think I’ve learnt a lot from the last two majors – just looking at myself and how I prepare for them. I have to be honest with myself – I’d trained very hard but maybe I could have done more and trained more cleverly, especially for the Europeans last year. But sometimes you can lose matches however well you prepare. When I lost to Jordi Morales in the World Championships he went on to win the title and maybe that was just his tournament. I tried my very best and I prepared very well and he beat me but that is sport sometimes and that is why I play. If I was guaranteed to win a medal in every major I don’t think it would feel so good when I did win the medals. Part of being a good player is losing and having to deal with that.
“Table tennis is more mental than anything else especially when you get to a Paralympic Games. I learnt that from Jochen Wollmert – when I was playing him in the Paralympics he just had so much composure and was very calm and collected and that was an important lesson for me. Sometimes you can try too hard and you need to take a step back in matches and realise what you are doing wrong. The mental game is absolutely massive in table tennis and I am working really hard on that – during lockdown I have been looking at ways I can relax during matches so hopefully that will be something I can really work on next season and all the way to Tokyo.”
A lot has changed in Bayley’s life in the last four years with becoming a father to Bella in 2017 one of the most significant events.
“Fatherhood has changed me quite a bit,” he said, “because I was thinking about myself all the time and now I have to think – and want to think – about Bella and look after her and make sure she is OK. I’d love to one day win a Paralympics or a World championship and have her there with me. I’d like her to look back and say ‘I was with Daddy when he won the Paralympics or when he won a gold medal’ and even if she doesn’t really remember it there will be a photo and I can look back on it and it will be something I can be really proud of. So in a way it has made me even more determined to try and achieve that.
“There have been loads of highs and lows in my career and I want to set an example to her that even though you have those bad moments and people might think you can’t achieve what you want to achieve you can’t give up – just keep trying and keep working hard – and that means a lot to me to set that example to her. I know that I have definitely not reached my potential and I find that frustrating because I know I could achieve a lot more and win with more style and play better table tennis and show people what I am all about. I want to win medals for GB and I’m really proud to play for the British team at a Paralympics – putting on that track suit makes me feel a million dollars.
“I think I need to just learn from what I’ve done in the past. I’ve played so many big tournaments and I know pretty much what I need to do to get myself in the best shape. It is about getting my head down in the next year and focusing on putting everything into it tactically, technically and physically. It is not just about winning the medals now it is about being the best version of me that I can be. That is what I want to do in Tokyo – be the very best ‘me’ so when I look back on my career I don’t have any regrets. I just want to put it all out there and be the best I can be.”