British Para Table Tennis athletes ready to take centre stage in Birmingham
Seven British Para Table Tennis Team athletes are all set to compete in the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games which start this week with the Para table tennis events taking place at the NEC from August 3-7.
Ross Wilson will defend his men’s class 8-10 title that he won on the Gold Coast four years ago and also representing Team England will be former two-time Commonwealth champion Sue Bailey, World bronze medallist Fliss Pickard, Tokyo medallist Jack Hunter-Spivey and Pathway athlete Dan Bullen. Representing Team Wales will be Joshua Stacey, bronze medallist four years ago, and teenager Grace Williams.
Women’s class 3-5
Sue Bailey (Team England)
Bailey knows what it is like to win in front of a home crowd having won Commonwealth gold in Manchester 2002. She went on to retain her title in Melbourne 2006 and was also European champion in 2005. She has twice been a World medallist - in 2006 and 2014 - and won her first Paralympic medal in Tokyo at her sixth Paralympic Games, taking bronze in the women’s class 4-5 team event with Megan Shackleton. She comes into Birmingham 2022 on the back of a successful tournament in the Czech Para Open, where she won gold in the women’s class 4 singles and women’s class 10 doubles.
“My training has been going really well with my partner Scott Robertson and coaches at the EIS in Sheffield,” said Bailey. “I am so looking forward to competing in front of a home crowd again – it is something all athletes dream about as their support really lifts you and helps you to play your best. I am always so proud to compete for GB but it is just as special to play for my home nation of England as well.
“Being double Commonwealth champion has been incredibly special and I feel so proud to have accomplished this but it would be a dream come true to win a third gold. At the same time it does put you under more pressure as there is a level of expectation but I just want to play the best that I can on the day and hopefully that will be enough. I know how well I can play against the best in the world and if I can play as well as I do in training I know that I have as good a chance as anyone of winning that medal. I just need to stay relaxed and play my game.”
Men’s class 3-5
Jack Hunter-Spivey (Team England)
Hunter-Spivey was inspired to take up table tennis when London won the bid to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games and having missed out on competing in 2012 he is looking forward to competing in front of a home crowd in Birmingham where he will be the number one seed. He won his first major medal at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo last year and demonstrated the belief that has given him by winning gold in the Egypt Para Open in March. He has been preparing for the Games by training in Sheffield with his great friend and former team partner Tommy Urhaug, the former World and Paralympic champion from Norway.
“Preparation has gone great,” said Hunter-Spivey. “Everything has fallen into place and I feel that I’m in a good place. Having Tommy over last week has been a godsend and the best preparation I could get for the Commonwealth Games so I can’t wait to get started now.
“I started playing when London won the bid for 2012 and I didn’t play there. I won a medal in Tokyo with no crowds so if I could put both of those together that would be the ideal situation for me. To win big matches in front of a home crowd is what I’ve dreamed of as a kid and that is what I can’t wait to get involved in hopefully.
“I’m number one seed and definitely chasing that gold medal but just to play for Team England at a home Games and bring back a medal is a big achievement. If I can bring back the gold that would be the ultimate aim but just to get out there and try my absolute best in what could be a pressure cooker will be incredible really. My girlfriend Lucy, my mum, my brother and his wife are coming down so there will be great support. I don’t think my friends and family have ever watched me play so it will be a different experience. I’ve spoken to Ross (Wilson), Tommy and Will (Bayley) just to get the benefit of their experience of big tournaments and how they’ve handled the pressure in the past and I’m looking forward to it.”
Dan Bullen (Team England)Pathway athlete Bullen was also inspired by London2012 where as a young spectator he watched British players win medals and decided he wanted to do the same. Originally selected to officiate as an umpire in Birmingham 2022 his hard work and improvement were rewarded with a wild card to represent Team England in the men’s class 3-5 event. Two years ago at the National Championships he twice pushed Hunter-Spivey to five sets, showing the benefit of competing with his opponent in the team event at the European Championships in 2019 – his first major championships. He won his first international tournament at the Costa Rica Para Open in 2021, taking gold in the men’s class 5 singles.
“Preparation for Birmingham has been really good,” said Bullen. “I’ve been in Sheffield for the last three weeks training hard and working with the coaches alongside all the other players. It means everything to me to be competing in the Commonwealth Games. I feel like all the hard work I’ve done this year has paid off. At the start of the season I was trying to qualify and I didn’t think I would get there so to be selected just means everything and to be able to have my family and friends there watching me play in an international tournament rather than on live stream will be great.
“I’ve played in a major championship before so that will help me to go out there and concentrate on my table tennis and not get overawed with everything that is going on. We don’t usually get to go to opening ceremonies so it will be a good experience. I have an aim to get out of my group and that will give me the chance of a medal. Getting a wildcard has definitely spurred me on and given me more motivation and the confidence that I can go and compete at big Games.”
Women’s class 6-10
Fliss Pickard (Team England)
The Commonwealth Games four years ago proved to be a coming-of-age for Pickard as she reached the semi-finals before losing to the class 10 Nigerian Faith Obazuaye and then lost her bronze medal match to another class 10 athlete Andrea McDonnell from Australia. She went on to take bronze in the women’s class 6 singles at the World Championships later that year and although she narrowly missed out on competing in Tokyo in 2021 she responded to that disappointment with typical determination by winning three of her last five tournaments to reach a career-high ranking of World number five in women’s class 6.
“Preparation is going really well,” said Pickard. “We’ve had a good variety in training especially with Aida (Dahlen, Norwegian class 8 World number two) coming over to Sheffield so I feel ready. I’m really proud to represent Team England at a home Games and I’m looking forward to getting out there. I know it is always going to be tough with the classification being as it is but I’m always up for the challenge and hopefully it can catapult me forward ready for the World Championships. I feel I’m not only a different athlete but a different person from four years ago and without that experience I don’t think I’d be where I am today so I’m looking forward to competing in another Commonwealth Games.
“Winning gives you confidence and I can use that. I believe I’m good enough now as an athlete and I can take on anyone in the world. I love the big situations on the big stages so I’m really looking forward to another multi-sport event. My family and friends are coming down to watch which will be good – I don’t think they’ve seen me play for a long time now so I’m looking forward to it. I’m really looking forward to the atmosphere and going out there and enjoying the whole experience. Being part of Team England and being with the bigger team will be fantastic.”
Grace Williams (Team Wales)
Birmingham2022 will be the first major championship for Williams who earlier this year progressed from the Pathway squad to Confirmation, the transition programme between Pathway to Performance. The 19-year-old from Wrexham moved up to Sheffield last year where she combines training with the BPTT squad and studying for a degree in nutrition. She won her first international singles medal in Montenegro in June and gained valuable experience competing in the European Para Youth Games in Finland earlier this month.
“I’ve been training as part of Team Wales alongside the able-bodied players which has been good,” said Williams. “The Commonwealth Games is the only tournament that I can represent Wales and the fact that I can represent my nation and who I am is making me very happy. Knowing that I can put that Welsh kit on and go out there and represent my nation is just amazing and although I love putting the GB kit on as well because I am Welsh it just makes this extra special.
“I’d never done anything like the European Para Youth Games before and it was a multi-sport games and had an opening and closing ceremony so the fact that I’ve had that experience and I know how a multi-sport Games works means I’m prepared. I’m hoping to benefit from the experience. Class 6-10 makes it more difficult but it is my first major Games so I just want to enjoy it and the experience of playing different people.
“Fliss and I train together and play doubles together so if we face each other in a major Games it is going to be interesting but I’m excited about the prospect of playing against her.”
Men’s class 8-10
Joshua Stacey (Team Wales)
Stacey will also be competing in his second Commonwealth Games, having taken bronze on the Gold Coast in 2018, losing in the semi-finals to Wilson but securing a clean sweep of medals for BPTT by beating the class 10 South African Theo Cogill 3-2 to win the bronze medal match. Since then he has won European team bronze, represented ParalympicsGB at his first Paralympic Games in Tokyo and having won gold in Spain and Czech Republic this year the 22-year-old is now ranked number three in the World in men’s class 9.
“I’m pretty satisfied with how training has been going and how I’m feeling,” said Stacey. “It’s really good to be back in Wales with the team and I’m excited to get into the village now and support the girls in the team event and then get ready for my event. Representing Wales is massive for me. It is something I did a lot more when I was younger and I played with the able-bodied team. It is an experience I’ve always enjoyed so to put the jersey on and represent Wales again is a very special thing for me.
“I feel like I have matured as a player over the last four years and I’ve addressed some weaknesses in my game that were pretty glaring. My form this year has put me in good stead going into the Games and I think I am in a solid position to challenge for a better colour of medal this time and hopefully that will be gold. I’ve been able to compete a lot more than in previous years because of the schedule so I feel tournament sharp which is always nice.
“I’m definitely looking forward to competing in a Games in the UK – it’s not something I’ve experienced before. To have sort of a home crowd behind you when you are competing is something to look forward to and I think my family are more excited to come and watch than I am to compete – it will be nice to have them there and I’m excited to compete now.
“If I play Ross there is an understanding of when you are competing that friendship gets put to one side and neither of us are going to get moody with each other. If he was to win I’d wish him the best and I’m sure if I was to win he’d do the same to me. We’re both mature enough to understand we both want to win and that is as far as it goes.
Ross Wilson (Team England)
Having experienced the excitement of competing in a home Games in London 2012 as a 17-year-old Wilson had to endure a string of injuries before winning his first major title on the Gold Coast four years ago, beating Team England teammate Kim Daybell in the final. Six months later he added the men’s class 8 World title and despite further injury problems won his third Paralympic team medal in Tokyo last year. He took gold in the Costa Brava Spanish Open in March and is looking forward to defending his Commonwealth title in front of a home crowd in Birmingham.
“I’ve worked as hard as I can and got myself in the best match shape as I could,” said Wilson. “I’m feeling good and super-excited to get started and play in front of a home crowd. Nothing ever goes perfectly and sometimes you have ups and downs in training but it doesn’t affect my performance on the day. I can be playing great in training and then not play very well in a match and vice versa so I’m just taking every day as it comes and trying to be as present as I can.
“Having that experience of four years ago is good and it is a challenge now to see if I can do it again. I feel quite confident in how I’m playing and I’m just looking to enjoy it and do my absolute best when I get there. Josh is playing really well and has improved so much. He is my doubles partner now and I hope he can do well as we are good friends, but we put that aside when we play and at these Games I’ll be focusing on myself.
“Having my friends and family there is so important to me. Part of the reason why I do this is I love sharing moments like this with my family and friends and because they haven’t been able to experience that since London it is something they are really looking forward to and I can’t wait to perform for them. The home crowds in London were absolutely amazing and it was unlike any support I’ve ever experienced before. I can’t wait to see what the turnout in Birmingham is like and I think it is going to be good so it will be really nice to go through all that again and have that support which makes such a difference.”