When Ross Wilson fell to the ground after beating the Chinese Paralympic champion Zhao Shuai to win the men’s class 8 World singles title four years ago it was the realisation of a dream that had driven him since he first picked up a bat as a young child on a family holiday at Center Parcs. What was the defining moment of his career also became the catalyst for change that has seen him reassess his table tennis career and his life.
“It was a big feeling of relief at the time,” he explained, “as it was something I’d aimed for my whole life. When I was seven someone asked me what I wanted to do when I am older and I said I wanted to be world champion. They laughed at me and then said ‘no, what do you actually want to do’, and I said ‘no, I do want to be world champion’ so to finally achieve that was just a crazy feeling.”
Achieving a lifetime goal can bring its own challenges and like many athletes in the same position Wilson admits that he initially found it hard to find a new focus.
“I absolutely loved the whole experience of winning the World championships and immediately afterwards I felt good,” he said. “You’ve got to enjoy those experiences and I think I had put so much emphasis on it for so many years - it was my big long-term goal and something I thought I probably would never achieve. But after a while I felt a bit lost because that is what I’d wanted to do my whole career. It is strange because when you win an event you’ve spent your whole life trying to win it does take a bit of getting used to. You have to sit down and think about your goals again and that is a lot more difficult than it sounds.
“It is about reassessing and resetting those goals and figuring out what you want to do and where your passion lies. I’d put my life into becoming World champion and the years of sacrifice and dedication came down to that moment and it was worth every second. But it can be difficult to get used to it and understand where you are at as a person after doing that.”
Having been a National junior champion before being diagnosed with multiple epiphyseal dysplasia and joining the British Para table tennis team at the age of 16, table tennis has been Wilson’s life since childhood and he acknowledges that resetting his goals have made him realise the importance of a life outside sport.
“I definitely now look at putting an importance on other things in my life as well as just sport,” he said. “I think that is a massive thing a lot of athletes need to learn – putting so much importance on just one thing can be detrimental, especially to your mental health. I definitely recommend looking at other things because it can actually help your performance and encourage you when things go badly or go well as it gives you more than just your sport to focus on.
“I love learning new things; I enjoy reading, playing the piano and even just going out walking - looking for new things you enjoy is important and what I am trying to prioritise at the moment. I think it is so important to not just have your identity as an athlete; it needs to be more than that and that is what I want to work on now. It is tough and difficult but something I’ve set my mind to and want to achieve.”
Wilson has always shown a maturity beyond his years, something which has helped him to cope with the series of injuries that kept him out of competition for two years following London 2012 and continue to affect his career. His preparation for Tokyo was once again hampered by injury, this time an osteochondral defect in the back of his knee, which severely limited his training on the table in the weeks leading up to the Paralympics.
“Having that happen a couple of months before the Games was really frustrating,” he admitted, “because I’d been doing so many things to try and prevent myself getting injured, but I worked so hard to get the best preparation I could in those two months even with the injury. When there is nothing I can do about it I don’t have much option other than to put my absolute best into the training I can do. Injury is part of sport and part of my sporting career anyway, so I deal with it as I go along. It is what it is and I won’t ever let it annoy me too much or get me down. I’ll just keep going and keep a positive attitude and see what I can do with what I’ve got.”
All things considered Wilson did well to reach the quarterfinals of the men’s class 8 singles and then demonstrated that he is still one of the best players in the world by taking Zhao Shuai, who had just won his third Paralympic singles title, to five close sets in the semi-finals of the team event where he won his third Paralympic bronze medal with Aaron McKibbin and Billy Shilton.
“I was disappointed with where I finished in the singles in Tokyo but I wasn’t disappointed with my performance,” he said. “I’d played one competition in two years, and you can’t expect the world and do everything you want to do when you haven’t competed for so long. That takes time and I expect myself to start performing better and better once I start competing more. I can’t wait to start getting out there and competing again now and that is where I’ll start to find the improvements in my game again and start to really enjoy competing. I really enjoyed Tokyo and now going into this year I’m really looking forward to what I can achieve and set my own goals for the year again.”
Six months before winning the World championship in 2018 Wilson had taken gold at the Commonwealth Games in Australia and the 26-year-old hopes to defend both titles this year, with a home Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in August followed by the World Championships in Spain in November. While he acknowledges that having two major tournaments to aim for this year is exciting, he doesn’t feel that going in as the defending champion will have any impact on his preparation or performance.
“Obviously I’ve got good memories of them both,” he said, “but it is four years down the line so I don’t think winning four years ago will make a difference to the outcome this time. I’m just going to approach them as new tournaments and go out there and do my absolute best.”
Defending his Commonwealth title is also important to him and the prospect of competing in a home Games brings back happy memories of London 2012.
“London was one of the best experiences of my career,” he admitted. “The home crowd was absolutely incredible so if I can represent England in the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham it will be amazing. I would absolutely love to and hopefully I could win the title again for the home crowd and do everyone proud.
“In football they say with a home crowd you’ve got a 12th man and it felt similar to that in London. When you feel that you’ve got an extra couple of points in a set just from the support of the crowd it gives you so much confidence and shows you how many people are there for you and supporting you. It makes you want to do the country proud even more, so it is a fantastic feeling and I really hope that the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham brings that.
“I really enjoy the multi-sport events and to have one in between Tokyo and Paris is obviously brilliant especially as it is a home Games. It is incredibly important for Para table tennis to be part of the Commonwealth Games as it is another event where we get to showcase the sport and each Para sport can showcase their abilities. It is nice as well because it makes you form more of a relationship with the able-bodied players in each sport and it is good fun experiencing the event together.
“I think it is really nice for the whole country to get behind something and have something to look forward to since the pandemic started. I’m really looking forward to it and I hope as many members of the public can come along to it as well as my family and friends and everyone else in the country can enjoy it.”
After two years in which the international Para table tennis schedule has been decimated by the pandemic Wilson is hopeful that 2022 will provide more opportunity to compete and allow him the best preparation to defend his World and Commonwealth titles.
“I’ve done a lot of training post-Tokyo and I’m really enjoying it and feeling good physically,” he said. “Obviously when you’ve got more things going on your focus is not just on one specific thing but I’m still really eager to get out there and do what I want to do. It’s just important to put things into perspective and understand where you’re at and why you want to do what you’re doing.
“It is nice to have competitions again and I’m really excited to compete and see what I can do. You never stop learning and I’ve changed quite a lot of things in my life and in my training in the last four years. It is about seeing how that affects my performance now and how I can try and improve on what I’ve already done.”