Among the first cluster of players to return to the training hall in Sheffield this week was Billy Shilton and, although the 21 year old has enjoyed spending time with his family during lockdown at home in Gloucestershire, he was delighted to be back in the hall with team mates Aaron McKibbin, Ross Wilson and Ashley Facey Thompson.
“It was almost like the first day of school,” he said. “I was really happy to be back; it was nice to see the boys again and good to get back to the hard work.
“I had a table and a robot at home so I was training a lot during lockdown. I had a couple of sessions online with Andrew (coach Andrew Rushton) on the robot and we had our team S&C sessions and shadow play sessions which were very beneficial so I feel that I haven’t really had time off. I think those online sessions have been really good, and hard as well, so I don’t feel that I have missed out on training too much. I think Stan my youngest brother probably used the robot more than me – he was on it all the time. Both he and my other brother Jacob played a bit against me as well so it was fun.
“During lockdown I’ve learnt to be more grateful for things – like just being able to train every day. I’ve missed it so much and I didn’t realise how much I would miss it until we weren’t able to train. I’m really excited to be back in the hall and back in the routine again. Obviously you have to be a bit cautious with everything that is still going on but all the boys are on board (with the restrictions) and the coaches are on board too so it does feel safe going into the hall and that is the most important thing. You can enjoy it a lot more and feel more relaxed.”
Shilton has retained the passion for table tennis that was evident when he first joined the Pathway squad as a wide-eyed 14 year old after being introduced to the sport two years earlier by his father Michael. Having been diagnosed at the age of five with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT), a group of inherited conditions that damage nerves outside the brain and spine, he was looking for a sport at which he could excel.
“I was playing football but physically it was quite demanding with my disability,” he explained, “and I wasn’t playing at a level that I wanted to. My dad was playing table tennis at the time and he took me along to one of his matches. I had a 10 minute practice with him and I’ve never looked back. It’s difficult to explain why I love it so much but there are so many different aspects to it. There are so many positions and different spins and it is so fast. I don’t know what it is exactly – I find it really interesting but I can’t put my finger on a specific reason. I just love it.
“I’m always excited to get on the table and play table tennis and I think that is really important. If you enjoy what you are doing and the hard work you’re putting in then you are bound to make progress whereas if you find it a chore it will be difficult to improve. The passion I have for the game really helps me on the table. I feel that if you train every day that enthusiasm can go away and it can turn into a chore, but I really love playing table tennis and I think that has helped my development and how I learn. I am always thinking about table tennis and how I can improve and I think that is a benefit for me.”
That enthusiasm was tested when, after winning individual bronze and team silver in men’s class 7 at the European Championships in 2015, he was reclassified into class 8.
“It was tough,” he admits, “especially as I was only 16 at the time and it was something that I had never experienced before. I didn’t really know how to react; I just remember that I was so upset and I couldn’t believe it.
“My knowledge of classification was probably not as good as it is now. I was so young and to be honest I didn’t realise what was going on. I think I’ve learnt more about classification and about my disability itself so although it was tough it has also had a lot of positives. It has really pushed me in the right direction with my game and I don’t think I would have improved as much as I feel I have if I had stayed in class 7, so in a way I’ve turned a negative into a positive.”
Shilton responded to the disappointment of reclassification by winning singles gold in his first tournament as a class 8 player.
“To be honest I was quite down in the dumps and feeling sorry for myself,” he admitted, “and my expectations going into that tournament were not very high. I just thought I would try my best and see what happens. When I got to the quarter-finals I just thought ‘I can compete’ and from that moment on I had that self-belief and to win that tournament – my first in class 8 – was a good feeling.”
Classification continues to be one of the most controversial aspects of Paralympic sport and like many athletes Shilton’s natural talent is generally more obvious than the physical effects of his disability.
“Balance is my biggest problem,” he explained. “The change in direction at speed is really challenging for me – just being able to stay balanced and keep my weight forwards. When I started playing table tennis I would just wobble backwards and end up miles away from the table.”
Shilton received valuable advice from Paralympic champion Will Bayley, who was reclassified a year before the Beijing Paralympics, and the two formed a successful team partnership in men’s class 7 before Shilton’s reclassification.
“Will had been through the same situation so I spoke to him a lot about it at the time and that really helped. It was great playing with Will and we have played together a few times since in men’s class 8 team events. We play doubles really well together; we are good friends as well so that helps.”
Having been reclassified he missed out on qualification for the Paralympic Games in 2016 but his potential was recognised by ParalympicsGB who took him to Rio as part of their Paralympic Inspiration Programme.
“It was so different to anything I had experienced before,” recalled Shilton. “I don’t think you can just go to a Paralympics and pretend it is just like any other tournament; I think you have to take in the magnitude of it and use it to your advantage. There are so many aspects to it – being around other athletes from different sports and not just being around the table tennis players. It is a massive event and the crowd noise could be quite intimidating if you have not seen something like that before so it was really positive for me to go and experience that.”
After reaching three finals last season and taking gold in the Czech Open he went to the European Championships in Sweden with high hopes of consolidating his chances of qualification for Tokyo but he was bitterly disappointed to go out of the singles at the group stages, an experience he is determined to learn from.
“I think with major championships the thing I find difficult is the timings,” admitted Shilton. “The matches are so spread out and you have so much time to think about the next match you are playing and that is a big disadvantage for me personally. I like to not think about it too much and just get on the table and play with momentum. I feel that when I overthink things I find it really difficult to perform so that is something I’ve been really conscious of going into next season – just to try and find something to do when you are in the hotel room on your own, to find something that keeps your mind occupied and away from table tennis.
“Experience is not one of those things you can work on – it comes with time and I feel that I am learning a lot more about myself and how I can get myself in the right frame of mind to play well. I think before it was a flip of a coin whether I was going to perform well or not so I feel I am in a good place with that at the moment. I know what I need to do and how to prepare to play well which is a big positive for me.”
Shilton did win a medal in Sweden, taking team silver with McKibbin and Wilson, and he appreciates just how much he benefits from the experience of his class 8 team mates.
“It can only be a positive to have two world class players from your country in the same class as you,” he said. “It is great to train with them and learn from them. They are both top 10 in the world and have had a lot of experience in major championships so to be in the team with them, especially in the majors, to see how they prepare and how they play those big moments when it really matters is great experience.”
Currently ranked 14 in the world Shilton is an alternate for men’s class 8 in Tokyo but could secure qualification for his first Paralympic Games by winning the World Qualification Tournament in Slovenia next April.
“It would mean everything to go to Tokyo,” he said. “I think for everyone in the team that is the dream. That is why we get up in the morning and why we train and do what we do – to qualify for a Paralympics – so I’d be delighted if that opportunity came around. It’s exciting that I have an opportunity to go to a tournament and be rewarded by qualifying for a Paralympic Games which is something I’ve wanted to do since I started playing table tennis. I’ve just got to use that to my advantage and not shy away from it or be too nervous to play my best.
“For the next six or seven months I’m going to focus on keeping everything the same as it was before and not over complicate anything. I know what I need to do to improve so I have just got to try and knuckle down and put the work in to make sure I am ready for the tournament. It is important that I am focusing on the right things and doing everything I can to make sure I am in the best shape I can be physically and mentally, so I will keep working as hard as I can.”
Shilton has proved that he can compete with the best in class 8 and has a number of wins over top 10 players to his credit. He has also shown the grit and determination that epitomises the natural competitor – something he illustrated superbly in the Polish Open earlier this year.
“My aim is always to play as well as I can and I feel that I am a lot more consistent now,” he said. “I was pleased with how I played in Poland. In my semi-final against Csonka (Rio Paralympic silver medallist Andras Csonka) I was 2-1, 9-1 down and I managed to win 3-2. I think a couple of years ago I would have lost my head and given up so from a mental point of view that match and the way I handled being in a losing position made me realise that if you really do believe, whatever the score is, you can still win. It was really important for me to come from that losing position and win the match.”
That competitive instinct is part of Shilton’s character and has been honed by growing up with two younger brothers.
“I think I have always been competitive,” he acknowledged. “Whatever I’m doing it has to be a competition – it can be anything. If I go for a walk I’ve got to be the first one back to the car. I don’t know what it is but growing up with two brothers definitely helped. I’ve been playing a lot of golf since the lockdown restrictions were eased and I’m loving it; it is fun and I’m enjoying the competitive aspect as well. I’ve played a few rounds with my brother and it always turns into a match after a few holes so it has been good to keep the competitive edge.”
Last week Shilton put that competitive edge to good use by raising more than £500 for the NHS undertaking a 24 hour PlayStation marathon with team mate Joshua Stacey.
“We were playing a lot of PlayStation over lockdown,” he explained, “and we just thought ‘why not do something to help other people’ so we decided to play Call of Duty for 24 hours to raise money for the NHS. We just thought if we were going to play the game we might as well do it for a good cause. I think what Kim (team mate and doctor Kim Daybell) is doing – and everyone else in the NHS – is amazing. It shouldn’t take something like this to realise how important they are but it has in a way. The NHS did a lot for me when I was younger – with my operations – so to know someone who is making such a big difference makes me very proud.
“Playing for 24 hours was brutal. To be honest I didn’t think we were going to be able to do it so when we got to the end I was quite surprised. I think it is safe to say I won’t be doing that again.”