Success in any walk of life depends on overcoming the obstacles along the way and as the American minister Henry Ward Beecher once said: “One’s best success comes after their greatest disappointments.” For Fliss Pickard, gold medals in the recent Costa Brava Spanish Open and French Open may not have made up for missing out on qualification for her first Paralympic Games but they have been just reward for the way in which she has responded to the disappointment.
“Winning the tournaments in Spain and France has meant a lot,” she said. “Even though I didn’t quite get over the line in the World Qualification Tournament I felt that I played well and was at a good level. So, to take that momentum going into Spain and France and really push on ready for the season ahead was exactly what I wanted to do and as well as the outcome I felt that the processes were really good.”
Although world ranked seven in women’s class 6 Pickard missed out on automatic qualification for Tokyo and came heartbreakingly close to success in the final World Qualification Tournament in Slovenia in June, losing her semi-final to the Korean Moon Sung Keum 13-11 in the fifth.
“It was a massive disappointment for me because I felt I’d done so much work during lockdown,” she said. “I’d really changed my approach and my attitude, not just working hard physically but a lot mentally off the table and I felt I was in the best possible shape going into the tournament. So obviously to lose by one or two points was really hard but again you move on, and it has given me huge motivation. The progress I’ve made from that tournament has been massive so I’m thankful for that - it’s another setback that I can use to catapult me forward.”
Pickard has already taken the lessons from that defeat and used it to her advantage.
“In the semi-final in France I was again faced with an opponent I’d never seen much of before,” she explained. “She was unranked but she’d had a good tournament and beaten all the other players around me, just the same as the Korean girl in the World Qualification Tournament. I really did learn from that experience in how I approached the match - instead of fearing everything they had to beat me I saw it as an opportunity to show them who Fliss Pickard is and how good I can be. I think I’ve definitely learnt that from Slovenia so it was massive.”
In both Spain and France Pickard fought back in the final to beat Katarzyna Marszal, the world number six and former World champion from Poland, recovering from 2-0 down in Spain and 2-1 down in France.
“It is always a tough match between me and Marszal,” she acknowledged. “We’ve played each other so many times and know each other’s game but I always felt confident in my ability and confident that I’d done as much as I could to get over the line. They were both tough matches, but I felt that I did what I needed to do in the important moments, so I was really pleased with that.
“Shaun (Marples, BPTT Pathway Manager and coach) and me have worked a lot together in the past and we didn’t change anything tactically from the first point in the first set to the last point in the fifth set. It was just purely that the quality I went about the tactics was different. I have this ability to switch and I almost go up a gear - we don’t know how I do it but we call it turning the key and I feel I go from one level to another and I was able to do that. It was an interesting match because tactically nothing changed – I was doing the same just better.”
Pickard loves the challenge that table tennis presents although she admits that is sometimes tested when her body doesn’t always respond to the signals from her brain.
“I think in the past I’ve got rather frustrated because knowing what I want to do and then my body not doing it - perhaps because of my cerebral palsy - can be frustrating,” she said. “I think having a lot of time to reflect on what I need to do and what needs to change is definitely something I’ve got a lot better at. Accepting that things are going to be hard and going to take time but actually enjoying that process rather than getting frustrated about it because things actually get easier the more you relax and enjoy them.
“I think one of my biggest strengths is my graft and my work rate but for me it is about working clinically and working smart. Knowing when to do certain things and my discipline towards the game is massive. I know I can go into any match and know that there is no other athlete out there who has done more than me and I can take that as a huge strength going into any match I play.”
Being part of the team is important to Pickard. She backed her teammates all the way in Tokyo and enjoys working with the Pathway squad, including 18-year-old Grace Williams with whom she competed in the team event in Spain and France.
“During lockdown I learnt how important it was to have people around me supporting me,” she said, “and I feel like the team became closer than ever so for me to just support them on the journey up to the Games and see them achieve what they did in Tokyo was incredible. Obviously, I was gutted not to be there but in the end I wanted to be there just to celebrate with them and give them a hug and say how proud I was.
“It’s been great for me to play team event with Grace because I’ve never had a team partner so I’m loving it and to be able to offer some of my experience to the younger players is great because I know how much support I’ve had. I’m learning off her every day and she is probably learning off me so it is fantastic, and it is great to be out there with a team partner and just build together and I believe we can go right to the top.”
Having taken bronze in the World Championships in 2018, Pickard has already shown she can produce her best at the highest level and is now looking to establish herself as one of the top players in women’s class 6.
“I’m looking forward to pushing on and looking at new things now,” she said. “I feel I’ve done the job for this season, and I’m really pleased with that and I can take that momentum into next season. But now it is about how do I reach that next level so I’m pushing the top three in the world because I believe my playing level is there, it is just about getting the results now. I’m looking forward to the winter being really hard physically and pushing my body like it’s never been pushed before but then I know I’ll be in the best possible shape for next season.
“Obviously the big goal is the Worlds next year but for me as long as I keep playing match after match and I’m doing the correct things day in day out in the training hall I believe that I will be ready. I’m just going to take each match and each tournament at a time and aim for the best possible results and then hopefully be peaking for the Worlds. So it’s exciting times.”