Two-time Paralympian and NHS hero Kim Daybell has announced his retirement from table tennis in order to focus on his medical career. The 30-year-old from Sheffield sacrificed his own hopes of competing in the Tokyo Paralympic Games to work on the NHS frontline in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, becoming a figurehead for Paralympians around the world.
“It was a really difficult decision and I took a long time to think about it,” said Daybell. “There have been a lot of ups and downs over the last few years and lots of points where I was thinking of calling it a day but in the end I wanted to let some time pass so I could make a rational decision about why I wanted to step away from the sport. It is sad to be leaving the team but I’ve spent the last 10 years travelling and playing the sport I love with people I care about so I couldn’t ask for a lot more and it feels like the right time to move on. At some point I needed to commit to medicine, and it is a tough career which will require a lot of time and dedication, but I feel ready for that new challenge now.”
Having joined the Para Table Tennis Team in 2007 Daybell won nearly 50 international medals in his 15-year career including seven singles titles, two European team medals and Commonwealth silver. He also represented his country at three World Championships and two Paralympic Games - London 2012 and Rio 2016. From 2010 he combined his table tennis with studying for a degree in medicine at Leeds University and then, having qualified in 2018, working in a North London hospital.
“I think winning the European team silver with Ash (Facey Thompson) is probably my best moment,” said Daybell, “because it was the culmination of ten years’ hard work for both of us. I’ve always been up around the top eight level in the world and made a lot of quarterfinals in my career and to finally break through that barrier and go one better at that point was massive and it is the thing I look back on now with the most pride along with the Commonwealth silver.”
Daybell reached a career-high world ranking of five in men’s class 10 in March 2019 but a year later he abandoned his plan to focus on training for Tokyo to return to work full time at the hospital on a Covid ward. As a result he missed out on qualification and his dream of competing in his third Paralympic Games was shattered when he was denied a wild card to compete in Tokyo. Further disappointment was to follow as his hopes of finishing his career at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham also failed to materialise when his application for a wild card was again unsuccessful. Despite this he has no regrets about putting his duty as a doctor before his career as an athlete.
“I’m glad that I did what I did,” he said. “I made the choice I made and I’m proud of that. It was a very tough and difficult time but sometimes you do have to put your own aspirations and your own welfare on the back burner and do things for other people and that is just what needed to happen. I do think it is a shame because I feel I never quite made it back from Covid in terms of table tennis – it did put a stop to it and I struggled to get back to that top level in the world. Although I did feel let down by international Para table tennis I can’t say that if it had never happened I’d be sitting here now having played Tokyo and the Commonwealth Games and I’d be retiring with no regrets. So I don’t regret the decision but I’m happy that it is the end of a really difficult couple of years.”
Having combined table tennis and medicine for so long Daybell is hoping to continue his involvement with the sport in some capacity, possibly as a classifier for Para table tennis.
“I’ve lived my last 12 years combining the two together,” he said, “and I’d love that to continue throughout my medical career. I’d hate to never be a part of top-level sport in some capacity so the classifier side of things with my background would be an ideal way of doing that. It will be a long process and my medical career will take priority for the next three or four years but I hope to go through that classification course and be able to give back to the sport that gave me so much.
“I’m also hoping to stay on in some way with UK Sport from a mentoring point of view because there were a lot of difficult times when I felt that no way was I going to be able to do both things together and one of the things I always wished was there was someone who’d been through what I was trying to do just to tell me that it is possible and things were going to be OK. I guess my story is quite unique and it would be a shame not to share that with people and for it to help someone at some stage.”
Daybell is also passionate about helping more people with a disability get into medicine.
“Having worked for the NHS for five years now I think I‘ve only ever worked with one or two other disabled people,” he explained. “Only 1% of NHS staff are disabled relative to 20% of the population so there is a big gap there and I’d love to be able to help close that as well.”
British Para Table Tennis Performance Director Gorazd Vecko paid tribute to Daybell and his contribution to the sport and his team.
“When I first started with the team in 2009 I saw big potential in Kim,” said Vecko, “and I am really happy that he had a great career in table tennis. I was really proud that I could be his manager for such a long time and I wish him all the best in his career as a doctor because I think what he is doing is amazing. He went from table tennis to helping save lives during the pandemic and I don’t think a lot of people could do that. Although the recognition he got was really nice I was unhappy that he could not get a wild card for Tokyo. We tried everything and it was a shame he could not finish his career in Tokyo and because this was not possible he wanted to finish at the Commonwealth Games which also didn’t happen.
“I know this is not the end of Kim Daybell with our team and our programme because he will be involved in different positions for BPTT in the future. He is a great person, a great sportsman and a great athlete. You could only wish to have a son like Kim. I am sad that he is leaving but also happy for him because he will have a good career as a doctor and this is also what he wants.”
Daybell also paid tribute to Vecko and to his long-term coach Mathew Kenny.
“Gorazd has been there pretty much from the start when I was playing at the top level,” he said. “I learnt a lot from him and he has managed to create this completely different team to the one I joined back in 2007 with all the values that we have now. Mat is someone I’ve worked with since I was 13 years old and when I think about the one person in my career who made the biggest difference and was the consistent factor, he is the person I come back to. He has put a huge amount of effort into me over the years so I want to say thanks to Mat for his support and advice - not just on the table but also off the table and I definitely would not have got the level I did without him.”