When GB wheelchair rugby team captain Chris Ryan was looking for a new sporting challenge he could not have chosen a more contrasting sport than table tennis but the 31-year-old, who swapped the rugby ball for a table tennis bat after leading his team to a historic Paralympic gold medal in Tokyo, has already shown the determination to master the myriad subtleties of a game once described as running 100 metres while playing chess at the same time.
“Table tennis is definitely not one of the easiest things to learn,” he said. “I’ll learn the techniques of how to hit shots and why you hit the shot a certain way, but it is being able to string three or four different types of shots together in a point where someone is putting you in different situations that is hard, and that is something I am working on.
“There is a lot of information to absorb and I’m not trying to fast track my learning but I’m trying to learn as quick as I can. You’ve got to learn to keep your elbow in a certain position and your bat in a certain position; there is this top spin shot and that back spin shot and then someone chucks in a different serve, so you’ve got to keep your mind on all these things and also think about where you’re positioning the ball. It is difficult to do those three or four things at once sometimes, so it is tough, but I enjoy it.
“I’ll go through points in a game where I’m just trying to read the spin that they are putting on the ball and then I think that I’ve got to be an aggressor at some point because I’m just being moved around and basically treading water on the table. I’m starting to understand that balance between getting balls on the table and being aggressive and when and why to do certain things. Trying to work out people’s weaknesses. It’s like a constant Rubik’s Cube.”
Ryan had ambitions of becoming a pro-golfer when a car accident on the way home from an inter-collegiate tournament left him with a spinal injury that changed his life at the age of 17.
“The first week when you’re injured you feel that you’re going to recover,” he recalled, “so there were different phases. When it did become apparent to me that living with paralysis was a reality and I was now a full-time wheelchair user it was tough at first because I wasn’t going to be able to translate what I was doing before into a career anymore. I was always someone that wanted to enjoy what I did, and I think I would have found it hard being in an office. I was struggling at first because I didn’t have a purpose or a life goal but that quickly changed when I found wheelchair rugby.
“I was in Stoke Mandeville and we had a sports physio who would introduce patients to different sports, initially for rehab purposes to get you active, get you out of the hospital ward and give you something to do. It was also something you could carry on either just for fitness or go down the elite route and she introduced me to wheelchair rugby. It was really interesting to me because I had no preconceptions about it - I’d never played the sport before I was injured.
“My local team that I still play for recreationally now – London Wheelchair Rugby Club – were training at the Guttman Centre which is a two-minute push from the hospital and at the time they had the best part of threequarters of the GB team on their roster. I saw them training and I wanted to be a part of it and get to their level as quickly as I could. That gave me a sport to strive for again. I was already used to training seven days a week for golf, so I didn’t have an issue with the grind that is involved with elite sport.
“It was good to be involved in a very different sport to golf. There are still team elements in golf because I’d always played for my club as a team, so you do have that camaraderie, but it was more of a community in wheelchair rugby. It involves a lot of people with similar disabilities which are generally quite severe because you need to have a disability in all four limbs. Spending time around them would help you with daily life – for example, what chairs to get and how to sit in your wheelchair – little tricks to cheat your disability really. I bought into that and everyone there was always trying to make me better so that was how I was nurtured and what I tried to do for other people coming in as well.”
Ryan experienced his first Paralympic Games in Rio 2016 where the GB team, having become European champions, were expected to challenge for a medal. Following a two-point loss to eventual gold medallists Australia they beat Brazil but did not progress from their group after an overtime loss to Canada. The narrow defeat cost them more than a medal as it also resulted in a substantial cut in their funding.
“The Tokyo cycle was completely different,” said Ryan. “Our CEO was trying to fund-raise through companies and charities, it was a lot more difficult for a lot of the athletes to train full time and we had to trim our staff down. In some ways it was good because we had a chip on our shoulder about trying to prove ourselves; we had some staff working unpaid and everyone there wanted to be there. It wasn’t a job to them it was more of a passion.”
That ‘band of brothers’ mentality served the team well as, against all the odds, they realised their dream of becoming Paralympic champions in Tokyo.
“Tokyo was a whirlwind of emotions,” admitted Ryan. “No European team had ever medalled at World or Paralympic level so to have done it in Tokyo was incredible. We lost to USA in the group but finished second and then beat Japan in the crossover (semi-final). It was after that game that the monkey was off our back because we had secured at least a silver medal. As the captain it was difficult because I wanted everyone to celebrate but we also had to try and get ready for USA in the final. It was a mentally draining evening trying to keep my emotions in order and focus on the final without being distracted by the fact we had won a medal - it was quite surreal.”
Having led the team to a memorable victory in the final against USA Ryan admits he was fortunate to have other things to focus on after returning home.
“I had a busy period straight after the Paralympics and I think that helped me as I didn’t really have that comedown that some athletes experience,” he said. “There was a lot of media and I got married two weeks after the Games and then we went on honeymoon. Obviously, it was one of the best periods of my life – all those things in succession – so I think I was lucky to avoid that month at home when you think ‘now what?’
“It was around November in 2021 that I realised I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing as much as I should have been for several reasons. As a full-time athlete, it takes you away from your life, your family, your home and you’ve got to be enjoying it 100% if you are going to sacrifice all of those things and it got to a point where I needed to have a change of environment. I’d already coached my club team Premiership side and I started looking at coaching courses to prepare myself for the future and have a new goal to achieve. After a while my brother suggested that I find a way to get into table tennis and see if it was something I could be good at.
“Like most people I’d played on holiday and if there was a table around and I’d already played a bit in a wheelchair through the sports physio who got me into rugby, but I’d never done it seriously and my brother pushed me into trying it. I wasn’t against the idea of starting a new sport but when I make a decision it’s going to involve a lot of work because I’m either in or out. I wasn’t scared of making that jump but if you’re going to go for a whole new sport, you’re going to have to start at the bottom again and work your way up, so I guess I was a little bit hesitant at first just because I knew the size of the task ahead.”
Having contacted British Para Table Tennis, Ryan was invited by Pathway manager Shaun Marples to a Pathway/Futures two-day camp in Sheffield in June 2022.
“I had a table in my house that I had to dust the cobwebs off,” said Ryan, “so I practised for two days before I came up and I really enjoyed it. There was a good atmosphere in the hall and the players and coaches were very welcoming. It seemed like a good environment and what excited me a lot was the quantity of high-level coaches that can train people in chairs.”
Many athletes would find it hard to start again in a new sport after reaching the pinnacle in another, but Ryan feels that his previous experience gives him an advantage.
“I think it is hard from a technical stand point,” he acknowledged, “but mentally for me it is easier because although I’m going to learn every day about being a better athlete I’ve done a lot of that already so when I’m training my main concern is table tennis and that is the bit I need to sort out – my technical ability in table tennis. I have experience in the other things – I’ve already dealt with playing in front of people, playing with noise, playing with pressure, how to manage my nutrition etc. I know how to be an elite athlete, but I don’t know how to play table tennis.”
Having met Pathway athlete Romain Simon in Sheffield Ryan was invited to train with him at his club in London and six months later he made the decision to focus full time on table tennis.
“Romain’s coach in London, Josh Dye, has been coaching him for years, so he’s got experience of teaching someone in a chair and it was a great way for me to get involved. If you go to a club and the coach hasn’t seen someone play in a chair before then your rate of improvement will be slower because they have to adapt to find out how it is played. So I was very lucky in that sense and in January this year I spoke to Shaun about taking the next step in terms of improving my level.
“He saw enough potential in me to allow me to come up and train with the British squad in Sheffield and I try to do that weekly. I’m not there full time because it’s three hours away but I combine this with my training at home and try to put together the highest-level week that I can.
“I think the main thing I love is the technical side of the sport. I knew it was technical when I started but I didn’t realise how technical it was until my level improved and I went to my first international tournament. Everything – the speed, the spin that players put on the ball - was a whole different level to how I played before I entered this set up. I think one of the great things was I was able to see that level quite quickly. It’s good to get exposed to the highest level that you can whether that is playing or watching because then you can strive for that as quickly as possible.”
Ryan made his international debut at the Costa Brava Spanish Open in March and although he didn’t win a match, he impressed Marples with his attitude and ability to learn quickly. Six weeks later he achieved his first win in the Greek Open and went on to take his first medal – a bronze – in the men’s class 2 singles.
“In Spain I lost the first two sets of my first match quite easily,” he said. “I was playing the World number 14 and I knew it was going to be hard, but I thought ‘maybe I’m not at this level yet’. Not that I would have quit but I thought I was a bit closer to the level than maybe I was. But I ended up taking the next set and from then on, I thought ‘I can compete with these guys’, and it was about finding a way to adapt and improve during that competition.
“My level must have gone up between Spain and Greece because I managed to get my first win which was obviously something you want to achieve as quickly as you can because you don’t want it to become a big mental hurdle. I beat the World number 32 in the group, and I also played the World number two (Rafal Czuper, now World number one). I was so excited about that draw and I thought, ‘I’m getting to play one of the best players in the world and I can see where I need to be’.
“He was obviously a really high level but everything he did I felt I could potentially achieve in time. There was nothing that made me think I’ll never be able to get there. I don’t know how long that will take me or if I will get there but I feel having seen him I can get there. It was exactly what I wanted. I would have liked to have done a bit better against him, but it was a key game in terms of my progression.”
Only a year after dusting the cobwebs off his table at home, Ryan is fully established in the Pathway squad and making his presence felt in the training hall.
“I feel that I’m improving just by how I play in Sheffield,” he said. “That might not always result in me winning against players here, but it has resulted in me getting a lot closer. I feel in the points they are more stressed than they were when I first played them. Not mentally stressed but their game is put under more pressure because my level is going up. I’m also very aware that when you think about how good you are it is always a good thing to try and keep that out of your head because you are only as good as you are and not how you think you are. Staying humble is always important to me and I’ll always give everyone I play more respect than I should maybe.”
Having won Paralympic gold with wheelchair rugby Ryan is aiming to replicate that in table tennis and is willing to work as hard as he can to achieve that dream.
“Paralympics is the ultimate goal and I know it is a long journey and there will be hurdles to overcome,” he admitted. “I haven’t really got a career path – short, medium or long-term goals – but I just want to know it won’t be through lack of hard work that I haven’t got there. It might not be the amount of hours that I train that is more than the top guys in my class but I don’t think anyone is trying harder than I am when they train.
“So I’ve just got to keep that mentality going forwards. No one is working as hard as I am but I’ve got to push my boundaries all the time. Staying focused is a big thing for me and I’m trying to stay locked-in when we train because training sessions can just pass you by. You can do a whole week and just go through the motions. I’m tough on myself but I enjoy the grind of trying to become very good at a sport.”