The old saying ‘virtue is its own reward’ could have been written with Kim Daybell in mind. The two-time Paralympian who has retired from table tennis to focus on his medical career made the ultimate sacrifice at the start of the pandemic, returning to work on the NHS frontline in the battle against Covid instead of focusing on qualification for Tokyo. He exemplified the courage of the NHS and the spirit of Paralympians but the reward of competing in the Paralympic Games in Tokyo was denied him when his application for a wild card was unsuccessful.
As the only Paralympian in the world working as a doctor on the frontline during the pandemic Daybell became an inspirational ambassador in the fight against the coronavirus. He was selected by Olympic and Paralympic worldwide partner P&G to feature in a new digital video series ‘The Measure of Greatness’, interviewed by media around the world and recognised by the Sports Journalists Association with the prestigious National Lottery Spirit of Sport award at the 71st SJA British Sports Awards in 2020. In December 2021 he featured in a star-studded Royal Carols: Together At Christmas, hosted by the then Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at Westminster Abbey and broadcast on ITV and he admits that the recognition he received from other quarters did help to mitigate the lack of acknowledgement from international Para table tennis.
“I felt let down by international Para table tennis,” he admitted, “and I think there was a lack of recognition at a time when there were very important things going on. It could have been very good for the sport and it is a shame that didn’t make any difference. I spoke out about it at the time but it was never against the people in my life and British Para table tennis it was more international Para table tennis as a whole and having that recognition from other people did make a big difference to me. It was something I needed on a personal level I suppose just to feel vindicated after everything I’d gone through. But it did make me think as well because there were so many people who suffered through the pandemic and did amazing things - and all my colleagues in the NHS who never got any recognition - and I was very lucky really in having that platform to do all those things.”
Despite the personal cost he has no regrets about the decision he made in March 2020.
“I’m glad that I did what I did,” he said. “At that moment in time with everything that the world was going through I made the choice I made and I’m proud of that. Do I wish I hadn’t had to go through it all? Absolutely. I don’t feel it is something that you come out the other side and are at peace with everything that happened. It was a very tough and difficult time but I think sometimes you do have to put your own aspirations and your own welfare on the back burner and do things for other people and that is just what needed to happen.
“I do think it is a shame because I feel I never quite made it back from Covid in terms of table tennis – it did put a stop to it and I struggled to get back to that top level in the world but I can’t say that if it had never happened I’d be sitting here now having played Tokyo and the Commonwealth Games and I’d be retiring with no regrets. That might never have happened; I could still have not qualified or played.”
Daybell could have been forgiven for walking away from the sport last summer but he took time to reflect, returning to take bronze in the French Open in November and declaring his desire to compete for Team England in the Commonwealth Games. Having taken silver on the Gold Coast in 2018 Birmingham would have provided the perfect swansong to his career but once again he was denied a wild card. His appearance as one of the official Batonbearers at the Opening Ceremony was only small compensation and cemented his decision to retire from table tennis.
“It was a really difficult decision and I took a long time to think about it,” admitted Daybell. “There have been a lot of ups and downs over the last couple of years with Covid and work and trying to fit in training around all of that and qualify for Tokyo. There were lots of points where I was thinking of calling it a day but I think in the end I wanted to let some time pass so I could make an informed and rational decision about why I wanted to step away from the sport and it took a long time to make that choice. I had lots of support from BPTT and I think they have been fantastic through it all and helped me to make that choice on my own terms which I’ll always really appreciate.
“There have been lots of different factors with the main one being my work and having to at some point commit myself to that in a full-time capacity. I am also getting older and the body is not as quick as it used to be and I guess it feels right with Ash (Facey Thompson) leaving this year - he was my team partner and we went through a lot together. With him not being here and the structure of the team changing it feels like the right time to step away and make way for some new players and give them the space to let their careers develop and flourish like mine did when I was a teenager and in my early 20s.
“It is sad to step away from the team. Having that support is like having a second family to turn to and I know they’ll still be there if I need that help. I’ve spent the last 10 years travelling and playing the sport I love with people I care about so I couldn’t ask for a lot more and it feels like the right time to move on. You have to appreciate your own limitations and at some point I needed to commit to medicine and it is a tough career and will require a lot of time and dedication and I feel ready for that new challenge now. I’ve just started the first phase of general training but I’m essentially doing hospital medicine for the next three years. I’m still very near the start – table tennis has delayed it a bit as people my age are generally a bit further on but that is where I am – six or seven years away from being a consultant so a lot of hard work to do in that time but I’m looking forward to it and I’m sure I’ll always have one foot in the door to come back to table tennis.”
A supreme athlete whose dynamic style of play made him one of the most exciting players to watch Daybell won nearly 50 international medals in his 15-year career including seven singles titles, two European team medals and Commonwealth silver. He also represented his country at three World Championships and two Paralympic Games - London 2012 and Rio 2016 – reaching a career-high of world number five in men’s class 10 while also studying to be a doctor.
“When I started training with the team in 2007 I wanted to be Paralympic champion like every kid does when he starts playing,” he said, “especially as the boys were all going off to play in Beijing and that was my first experience of the Paralympics. I knew then that it was something I wanted to be part of and one day be stood up on that podium. Even though I never achieved that goal I think I can be proud of everything I did achieve and I’m not leaving the sport feeling like there should have been a lot more, given that I was also trying to balance table tennis with study and becoming a doctor. I feel really proud that I was able to achieve those things together which is not something that many people can say. But it’s not just medals - I made a lot of close friends who I’ll always have and I think I’ve also supported a lot of people and helped them to achieve their goals and become champions along the way and I’m happy that I’ve been a little piece of that.”
Having combined table tennis with his medical studies since 2010, does he have any regrets about not focusing full time on table tennis?
“I think I had that a lot throughout my career,” he admitted. “There were definitely times I wanted to go full time and give everything to table tennis and why I never did, I don’t think I’ll ever know the answer to that question. It wasn’t because I wasn’t committed to the sport and I love training and I love playing for my country. But I always knew that I needed something else in my life that I was passionate about. If I’m being honest I do regret not giving it a little more time especially round Rio when I was at my best. Maybe if I had spent two years playing full time before then there might have been a different outcome but again I think that looking back at it I was very privileged to be given an opportunity to do both those things together. Both by my University when I was studying and they were giving me time off and also BPTT allowing me to have that time to study when it would have been very easy for them to say I had to train full time or they couldn’t support me. So I was really privileged to be given that chance and that is why I have always tried my best to give everything when I can and do everything in my control to make both things work together.”
Daybell reached 12 major championship quarterfinals before securing his first major championship medal when taking men’s class 10 European team silver with Ashley Facey Thompson in 2017 and considers that achievement to be the highlight of his career.
“I think winning the European team silver with Ash is probably my best moment and the thing I look back on with most pride,” he said, “because I know how much work and effort went into that team event especially as Ash was very young then and playing as a class 9 up against class 10s was always really tough for him. It’s all relative and I know we have players in the team who have won countless European medals and might not think that much about it but for us it was a culmination of ten years of training together.
“I’ve always been up around that top eight level in the world and made a lot of quarterfinals in my career and to finally break through that barrier and go one better at that point was massive and it is one of the things I look back on now with the most pride along with the Commonwealth silver. But it is not even the medals I think about - it is the experiences and the players I was with and the people I worked with to get there that made those things so meaningful. Playing Ross (Wilson) in the final of the Commonwealths - if that had been against someone else I don’t think it would have meant so much to me.”
Daybell’s interest in medicine was inspired by his involvement in Paralympic sport and he hopes to continue to combine the two in some capacity. That may include working as an international classifier for Para table tennis and he is keen to use his own experience to help others.
“When I look back at my journey now it is hard to believe it happened,” he admitted, “because there was so much luck and so many things that fell into place at the right time when I had the right people to be able to combine table tennis and medicine. I’ve lived my last 12 years combining the two together and that is the only thing I know and how I chose to structure my life and I’d love that to continue throughout my medical career.
“I’d hate to never be a part of top-level sport in some capacity so the classifier side of things with my background would be an ideal way of being involved. I’ve got a lot of friends who’ve had issues with classification and I know how many problems it causes and I feel like I’m someone with the right experience and background to hopefully make that better. It will be a long process and medicine and my career will take priority for the next three or four years but I hope to come back and go through that classification course and be able to give back to the sport that gave me so much.
“I’m also hoping to stay on in some way with UK Sport from a mentoring point of view because there were a lot of difficult times when I felt that no way was I going to be able to do both things together and one of the things I always wished was there was someone who’d been through what I was trying to do just to tell me that it is possible and things were going to be OK. I guess my story is quite unique and it would be a shame not to share that with people and for it to help someone at some stage.”
Initially reluctant to speak publicly about his experiences working on a Covid ward Daybell realised the platform that the media gave him and having become an eloquent spokesman he understands the importance of using his position to speak out.
“I did some filming through Covid working with a team who were looking at athletes doing amazing things,” he explained. “Even having been on the Paralympic circuit for 10 years I’d never heard their stories and it just showed me that there are so many people like myself that have done lots of different things that are not just related to sport and I think to get those stories out there is a big deal. It opens the world’s eyes to what Paralympians go through to get to that top level but also a lot of them do more than just play the sport they’re paid to play. We’ve got amazing inspirational stories that can help.
“I think disabled people as a whole rather than just the Paralympics is what I feel passionately about – the Paralympic Games is the biggest stage for disabled people to showcase themselves but there is a lot more to being disabled than being a Paralympian. You are showing the world essentially the most able and the people who have made the best of having a disability but there are loads of people out there doing amazing things that don’t get a chance to be recognised. I’ve spoken a little about the dangers of the Paralympics because for disabled people out there who can’t be elite sportsmen – and having a disability doesn’t mean you can be a Paralympian – it can be a really hard thing to see because they can’t possibly achieve that. So I’d love to use that platform at some point to keep helping people with disabilities.
“I’ve also spoken a lot about the passion I have to help people with a disability get into medicine. Having worked for the NHS for five years now I think I‘ve only ever worked with one or two other disabled people – only 1% of NHS staff are disabled relative to 20% of the population so there is a big gap there and I’d love to be able to help close that as well.”
BPTT Performance Director Gorazd Vecko has helped to guide Daybell throughout his international career and admits that he will be greatly missed by all the team.
“When I joined the team in 2009 Kim was one of the athletes that I saw had big potential and I am happy that he had a great career in Para and able-bodied table tennis. He is an amazing person and fitted easily into the programme’s family structure because he looked after everyone. I am really proud that I could be his manager for such a long time and I wish him all the best in his career as a doctor because I think what he is doing is incredible. He went from table tennis to helping save lives during the pandemic and I don’t think a lot of people could do that. Although the recognition he got was really nice I was unhappy that he could not get a wild card for Tokyo. We tried everything and it was a shame he could not finish his career in Tokyo and because this was not possible he wanted to finish at the Commonwealth Games which also didn’t happen.
“Kim came out to our World Championships training camp in Slovenia for a couple of days and it was great to see him playing in the hall and I was hoping he would change his mind but sadly he didn’t. I know this is not the end of Kim Daybell with our team and our programme because he will be involved in different positions for BPTT in the future. He is a great person, a great sportsman and a great athlete. You could only wish to have a son like Kim. I am sad that he is leaving but also happy for him because he will have a good career as a doctor and this is also what he wants.”
Daybell credits Vecko with creating the professional environment that has seen the team achieve so much success in the last 10 years and acknowledges the help that he has received during his career.
“I did the work and the hours but without the help of people I met along the way it would never have been possible. I want to say thank you to everyone who helped me along the way and a few people stand out. Greg (Baker) has moved on now but was an amazing head coach and Gorazd has been there pretty much from the start when I was playing at the top level. I learnt a lot from him and he has managed to create this completely different team to the one I joined back in 2007 with all the values that we have now.
“My coach Mat (Kenny) is someone I’ve worked with since I was 13 years old and when I think about the one person in my career who made the biggest different and was the consistent factor he is the person I come back to – not including my family and friends. He has put a huge amount of effort into me over the years - never quite fixed my forehand but other than that I have nothing but thanks and praise for him because being a coach is such a hard job. I’ve only really come to appreciate in the last five or six years of my career how difficult it is to maintain the right level of relationship with the athlete and to work with someone day in and day out for that long is really hard. So I want to say thanks to Mat for his support and advice not just on the table but also off the table as I definitely would not be where I am today or have got to the level I did without him.”
While Daybell plans to stay involved with Para table tennis it will not be as a coach.
“Coaching is not for me,” he admitted, “it is too hard a job. It requires so many different skills and a lot of patience because athletes are highly strung, difficult people to work with because we want the best and we expect the best. Coaches have to give 110% every day; they travel all the time and are away from their families and doing so many different things. As athletes we don’t necessarily see all the work that goes on behind the scenes and BPTT has done an amazing job - I know athletes in other sports who have not felt as supported. So I don’t think coaching will ever be for me – I’ll leave that to the professionals.”