Two-time Paralympian Kim Daybell, who has spent most of the past 15 months working as a doctor on the NHS frontline against the COVID-19 pandemic, is one of seven British Para table tennis players who will be hoping to secure their place in the Tokyo Paralympic Games when they compete in the World Qualification Tournament in Lasko, Slovenia this week (June 3-5).
Nine British players have already qualified for the Paralympic Games on their world ranking and this week’s tournament is the final opportunity for the rest of the Performance Squad to earn a qualification spot. This is the first time that a Para table tennis qualification tournament has been held for a Paralympic Games and with only one place available per class it will be ‘winner-takes-all’, creating a unique challenge for the athletes in their first tournament for more than a year due to the pandemic.
Kim Daybell – men’s class 10
While his British teammates have been training full time since last August, Daybell has only recently returned to training at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield and acknowledges that his preparation has been far from ideal.
“I’m not where I want to be right now so close to a big tournament,” he admitted. “I’d like to have more hours of training under my belt, but you can’t change the situation. I’m just pleased to be in a position where I can be there and play after the year that I’ve had; just to be there physically fit and with a chance of doing well is enough for me so I’m looking forward to it. I think it will be a good tournament and good for Para table tennis so hopefully we can put on a good show after so long away.
“If anything, the last 15 months have made me feel more grateful for sport – being at work and dealing with such a serious situation has made me realise how important sport is to me and to the rest of the country and how it is a release for a lot of people. I missed it a lot and I feel very privileged to still be able to play and very grateful to UK Sport and to the British team here in Sheffield that they have supported me through everything.”
Having put his ambitions as an athlete on hold to serve his country as a doctor, Daybell is hoping that he will still get the chance to compete in his third Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
“It would mean the world to me and offer some closure after what has been a really difficult year, to have something positive at the end of it,” he said. “I hope the Games can go ahead safely; there is a lot of chatter and concern surrounding the Olympics and Paralympics at the moment which is justifiable, but I think it can be done safely and I’d love to be there.”
Ashley Facey Thompson - men’s class 9
Daybell’s team partner Ashley Facey Thompson is also hoping to book his place at what would be his second Paralympic Games and is looking forward to competing again after such a long period of training.
“I thought the whole team would struggle with no competitions but as a team we’ve trained really well,” he said. “I’m excited to play a tournament for the first time in over a year. I don’t feel nervous, I’m going to go out there and have fun. I feel that I have improved a lot mentally, physically and in life and I’m really happy with my progress over the last year.
“It will be a difficult tournament as you have to win your class to get to the Games but nothing changes; it is still table tennis and you still have to win.”
Tokyo would be his second Paralympic Games after Rio in 2016 and although determined to earn his place he admits that events over the past 15 months have changed his perspective on life and table tennis.
“It would be good to get to Tokyo and fingers crossed I can do it,” he said. “I don’t feel the pressure because this last year has taught me a lot – life goes on and you have to keep things in perspective. Many people have died and I’m just hitting a ball over a net. It’s definitely put life in perspective for me and I see the world in a different way now.”
Billy Shilton – men’s class 8
The British athletes spent four months at home during the initial lockdown last year when the EIS was closed and 22-year-old Billy Shilton paid tribute to the work done by the coaches during that period when they were unable to train.
“Since the start of the pandemic the coaches have been amazing,” he said, “organising online gym sessions and shadow play sessions - and they made the transition back to training really easy so I’m really thankful for that. I think the last year has been a good opportunity to really knuckle down and focus on the things I’m not so good at, so I feel a lot more confident in myself. It has also been quite a good time to reflect on things from a personal point of view.
“I’m really looking forward to the tournament. It has obviously been a long time since we played a competition, and everybody is a bit more excited than nervous to play a tournament again. It has got to be taken a little bit differently - if you lose you’re out - so I need to take one match at a time and hopefully go all the way to the final.”
Shilton is hoping to compete in his first Paralympic Games after experiencing Rio in 2016 as part of the Paralympic Inspiration Programme.
“It would mean everything to get to Tokyo,” he admitted. “Playing in a Paralympic Games has been a dream of mine since I started playing table tennis so it would be amazing to be there.”
Martin Perry – men’s class 6
Scotsman Martin Perry is also hoping to make his Paralympic debut in Tokyo and is excited to have the opportunity to earn a qualification spot in men’s class 6.
“I’m super excited to be competing again,” he said, “because that is what we all love to do regardless of whether it gets you to a Paralympic Games or not. We haven’t competed for nearly a year and a half so you’re a bit unsure about where your level is at because your best gauge is competition, but we’ve had such great preparation and I feel I’m a much better player than I was 12 months ago. Hopefully, I can just go out and perform and do the best I can, and I feel that if I play the way I have in the build-up then I’ve got a great shot at doing that.
“When you go into a regular competition although you always want to win you can have a target - look at the strength of the field and say, ‘well I’m aiming for a semi-final and a medal’ or ‘I really fancy my chances and think I can win’. That is irrelevant to this tournament - the winner will get to go the Paralympic Games so that simplifies everything. I’m really excited to see what this competition is going to hold because it is completely different to any other competition. It’s not a major championship but it means as much if not more because it gets you to the Paralympics.”
Perry set up a crowd-funding account to enable him to compete in additional tournaments in his bid to qualify for Tokyo and admits he gets ‘goose bumps’ thinking about competing in a Paralympic Games.
“If I do get across the line and I can call myself a Paralympian then that is everything,” he said. “I’ve been so fortunate with the amount of support I’ve had on and off the table from people I’ve known all my life and from people I’ve never met and may never meet, and it would be such an honour to repay that by getting to the Paralympics. I need to go and perform so there is pressure, but it is really exciting. I’ll be crying come Saturday because win or lose its going to mean so much to me but hopefully it’s happy tears.”
Jack Hunter-Spivey – men’s class 5
Liverpool’s Jack Hunter Spivey just missed out on automatic qualification for Tokyo on his world ranking of eight but is hoping to secure his place this week.
“I’m seeing this tournament as an opportunity,” he said. “We haven’t played a tournament for so long now and if I can go out and win this competition it will stand me in good stead at the Paralympics as I’ll have played an extra competition than everyone else in Tokyo. I’m happy to be going out there and hopefully I can get the job done.
“I feel that I’ve definitely improved over the last 12 months and have used the lockdown to my advantage. I feel like a different player but I don’t know what my opponents have been doing so it is a strange situation as we haven’t been able to gauge other people’s levels. But this is the best prepared I’ve ever been for a tournament and I’m feeling good.”
Hunter-Spivey achieved his childhood dream of representing his country in a Paralympic Games in Rio 2016 and admits that competing in Tokyo “would mean everything”.
“My life is about being a Paralympian,” he said, “being the best in the world and winning medals for my country, so to put on that ParalympicsGB shirt again would be incredible. It is what has been driving me for the last five years and I can’t wait to see if I can do it.”
Fliss Pickard – women’s class 6
Fliss Pickard won bronze in women’s class 6 at the World Championships in 2018 and also narrowly missed out on automatic qualification for Tokyo.
“I’m excited to just go out there and compete,” she said. “I think I’ve done everything I possibly can and I’m the best prepared I possibly can be so I’m ready to go. I just need to stick to the process, stick to what I can do and take it match by match and see how it goes; focus on one match at a time, point by point. I feel that I have improved massively over the past year. I worked really hard during lockdown and got my head down and made huge improvements in my game, not just physically but mentally as well.
She admits that the pandemic has given her a new perspective on life and table tennis which she hopes will stand her in good stead in Slovenia.
“Competing in a Paralympic Games would mean the world to me,” she said. “I’ve worked so hard and to finally earn my spot and get on the plane to Tokyo with the team would be fantastic. The pandemic has changed me a lot as a person; I’m able to really focus on the training but when I leave the hall – or even when I’m sitting around with my teammates - I’m able to forget the table tennis and just be myself and that is really helpful.”
Sue Gilroy – women’s class 4
Primary school teacher Sue Gilroy will be bidding to qualify for her sixth Paralympic Games and came heartbreakingly close to winning her first Paralympic medal in 2016, losing her bronze medal match 3-2.
“Training has been going well despite losing two training venues that I normally use due to COVID restrictions,” she said. “Obviously, it’s going to be really challenging this week with the strict guidelines and the fact that we haven’t competed for well over a year, but I am as ready as I can be. All I can do now is go out there and try to play the best I can and hopefully that will be enough to secure my place in Tokyo, which is something I have been working towards for the last five years.
“My partner Scott Robertson has been an amazing influence in my preparation along with the team coaches at the EIS, training with me every week. He has been so supportive throughout the lockdown to keep me focused on what I need to do, along with my family, as it has been a really challenging time.
“Unfortunately, I haven’t had any time for over a year with Neil Robertson who will be coaching me in Slovenia, as he lives in Wales, but we have been having Zoom sessions every week more recently to try and prepare as best we can. It will be great to see him again after such a long time and hopefully we will have a day to work together when we get out there. Let’s hope everything comes together at the right time for a successful tournament.”