Coming of age is a term associated with maturity and Tokyo bronze medallist Jack Hunter-Spivey acknowledges that 2021 was a pivotal year for him, both on and off the table.
“I’ve got new confidence after winning a medal in Tokyo last year,” he said. “Not winning a major medal was something that had been on my back for a few years. I’d put a lot of hard graft into table tennis and given my life to the sport and it is a strange one because if you dedicate your life to many things you’d be successful but with sport you can’t fully control the outcome. You might dedicate your life but never make it and that played on my mind a lot, especially having competed for major medals in the Worlds and Europeans a few times. I definitely think it was a coming of age – not just on the table - but for me in life as well. I’ve been open about my mental health issues but I feel that I’ve been through my therapy and I’m keeping on top of that and I’m in a good place. It’s only taken me 26 years to get to this position so it’s not too bad I suppose.”
Twelve months ago Hunter-Spivey was not qualified for the Paralympic Games on his world ranking but he secured his place by winning the men’s class 5 singles at the World Qualification Tournament in June, something he agrees gave him an edge in Tokyo.
“I think it was massive,” he said. “If I’d have qualified before the pandemic I don’t know how I would have coped. I had something to focus on during the pandemic and the World Qualification Tournament was amazing for match play and confidence and just being in pressure situations - it definitely gave me an advantage going into Tokyo.”
He made an immediate impact at the Paralympics, beating the World number two Cheng Ming Chih 11-3, 11-4, 11-3 in his first group match.
“That was absolutely one of the best matches I’ve ever played,” said Hunter-Spivey. “One thing that was in my head once I’d qualified was that I’d never won a match at the Paralympic Games. I didn’t win a match in Rio so that win for me wasn’t just a table tennis match it was a combination of all the years I’ve put into it and proved that I wasn’t just making up the numbers. To beat him as comfortably as I did was a shock at the time, but it just shows the hard work is paying off and I can finally have some faith in myself.”
That performance was eclipsed by his five-set win in the quarterfinals over his friend and regular team partner Tommy Urhaug, the Norwegian London 2012 Paralympic champion and former World number one.
“Tommy had been my idol growing up,” he admitted. “I watched him on YouTube as a kid and I got his autograph the first time I met him. He is one of my good friends now as well but we leave all that off the table when we play each other. It was a strange mindset because when you beat players like Cheng and go through as group winner you expect to get an easier draw in the quarterfinals, but I got Tommy who was one of the players I didn’t want to get. I found it hard and it is credit to our psychologist Andy Hill and my coach Andrew Rushton for the way they prepped me.
“We approached it perfectly and I really had to have confidence in myself and hit the ground running as I did against Cheng. I feel that I played the best table tennis I’ve ever played and it was one of the best matches of the Paralympic Games so I’ve been told. It feels that my life has come full circle and I can say I’ve beaten the guy I’ve looked up to for so long. I respect Tommy massively for everything he has done and it was a nice moment to share with him as well.”
Understandably the emotion of beating his great friend to realise his dream of a Paralympic medal took its toll and Hunter-Spivey was unable to reproduce the same level of play in his semi-final against former World champion Valentin Baus, who went on to take the gold.
“It was hard,” he admits. “Every match I played in the Paralympics was like uncharted territory for me. I remember being in the shower the night before the semi-final and thinking ‘you’re a Paralympic medallist’. That is what I went to Tokyo to do – to get a medal – and the gold would have been nice but when you’ve achieved something the next match is so hard. Tokyo was a roller coaster of emotion for me and in the future I’ve got that experience now and I can go all the way and not just win a medal.
“I think in my head I was always the bridesmaid never the bride as I’d never won a major medal. I’d had good matches, but I was always the guy who nearly did it and I thought that was going to be my career. Now I’m not just ‘Jack the prospect who could win things’ I’m a Paralympic medallist and that is something I take confidence from every day in training. It is really important that I kick on now because people are chasing me and I’m not just a name on the ranking list. I’m really looking forward to seeing what I can do now I’ve proved to myself that I can do it, not just under pressure but in the biggest tournament in the world. I’m looking forward to seeing how far I can go now.”
Hunter-Spivey also acknowledges the support he received last year from former World snooker champion Ken Doherty, who became his mentor for 12 months through the True Athlete Project (TAP).
“I think it helped me massively,” he said. “When I met Ken we hit it off straight away. He lives around the Sheffield area so we were meeting up regularly and we struck up a relationship that really worked for us. Ken obviously knows what it is like to play at the highest levels of sport and I was going through that process as well. I remember ringing Ken the night before a match in Tokyo and he was very supportive and just those little insights were massive for me - knowing that I’d got someone who has been there and done that with their hand on my shoulder waiting for me to win a medal.
“I never thought I’d get to a stage in my life when Ken Doherty was one of my friends but we still speak quite a lot and we’re going to meet up soon for a snooker lesson.”
While snooker is unlikely to figure largely in Hunter-Spivey’s future he already has a potential new career in mind as a comedian, having made his debut as a stand-up comic last year.
“Comedy is something I’ve always been interested in,” he said, “and me and my brother have been doing a comedy podcast for a while. I think after all the adversity I’ve been through I just want to enjoy life. I want to tick off things on my bucket list and stand-up was one of those things I wanted to tick off. I was very keen to say that I’d won a Paralympic medal and started doing stand-up comedy in the same year and I did that in December. I’m really enjoying it and it is good to have another outlet and something else I can focus on outside of table tennis.
“My mind is always going a million miles an hour and I need to channel that and my mindset is a lot more positive now. I’m looking for jokes and funny things in life and I think that is a nice way to be.”
Stand-up is generally acknowledged as the hardest genre for any comedian but typically Hunter-Spivey is enjoying the challenge.
“For me it is really nice to be not so good at something. If I go to a table tennis tournament I’m expected to do well and that is great, but I can go to a tiny pub in Sheffield and tell my comedy and everyone might laugh and no one might laugh and that is what I’m learning to adapt to.
“That first gig was definitely scarier than the Paralympics. The one thing I was missing after Tokyo – and we talk about the post-Games blues – was that adrenalin rush. I play table tennis to win big matches and get that massive high and to go and do a comedy set and make people laugh I get that same feeling at the end. I really enjoy that adrenalin rush and it is a good outlet for me.
“I have too much of a competitive mindset not to want to take it all the way. Two things I’m good at are table tennis and talking so if I can make a career out of comedy after table tennis – that would be the dream. I’m more of a storyteller and the stories are from growing up as a disabled person and travelling around the world as an athlete. It gives me an edge that not a lot of people can talk about. I’m not doing some of the darker stuff but I’m trying to find my style and trying my best. We’ll see how far I can go and hopefully I’ll be on ‘Live at the Apollo’ in no time!”
Some of the greatest comedians have had their dark side and having overcome his own demons Hunter-Spivey is keen to use his experiences and his skill as a natural entertainer to help others in similar situations.
“I play table tennis to be the best I can be and win medals,” he explains, “but one of the biggest motivators for me is if I can help people. If I can tell my story and win medals and show that I’m just a normal lad and I’ve had issues and overcome them so you can do the same – that is one of the biggest motivators for me. I’m using table tennis and comedy as a vehicle to help others to do that and that is one thing that drives me. I’m just trying to show that you can do whatever you want to do. Who would have thought that I’d be doing comedy last year? Who would have thought I’d be a professional table tennis player when I was that 10-year-old kid from Liverpool? I’m just trying to show that anything is possible, as cliché as that sounds.”
While 2021 was a landmark year for Hunter-Spivey, 2022 could be just as memorable with a home Commonwealth Games in August and the World Championships in November.
“I’m feeling good going into this season,” he said. “I’m always improving which is the main thing so I’m keen to get out there and play tournaments now. What I learned from last year is to break up my year into smaller parts. Rather than looking at Tokyo as the massive goal we looked at the World Qualification Tournament and then we looked at Tokyo and everything fell into place. So, we’re looking at the Egypt Open at the end of March and then we’ll look at the Slovenia Open in May, the Commonwealth Games and then push on for the Worlds.
“The Commonwealth Games is a big tournament for me this year and I’m made up that it is in England. I missed out on London and everybody talks about how good it was to play in front of a home crowd so to be number one seed at a home Commonwealth Games would be incredible. There will be a lot of tough players there but I’m looking forward to it. I really enjoy being in front of a crowd and doing what I do best – performing – and I can’t wait to get out there and hopefully show them what I can do.”