Welsh teenager Grace Williams, who won gold with Fliss Pickard in the women’s class 14 doubles at the World Championships in Spain last November, starts her bid for Paralympic qualification next week in the Costa Brava Spanish Para Open taking place in Platja d’Aro from March 9-11.
The 19-year-old student from Llanfyllin is currently World number 17 in women’s class 8 and is looking to improve that ranking over the next 12 months during the qualification period for the Paralympic Games in Paris in 2024.
“It is still hard to believe I’m a World champion,” said Williams. “It’s something I’ve achieved with Fliss and I’m very proud of us both. It is always in the back of my mind and it has given me motivation to train really hard for qualification year. It’s always been a dream of mine to go to a Paralympics and I’m really excited and happy to be a part of it this time. We’ll see what the year brings and hopefully I’ll get to put on the GB kit in Paris.
“I’ve definitely improved as a player – probably not so much on the table with technique but off the table with preparation for matches, preparation for training and developing as an athlete. All the things that happened at the World Championships motivated me to improve myself and I’ve definitely seen it over the last couple of months of training so I’m really looking forward to developing that aspect of me for the coming tournaments, starting in Spain.”
Williams will be joined in Spain by 11 athletes from the British Para Table Tennis Pathway and Development squads, including Scotland’s Ryan Henry and Lancashire teenager Theo Bishop who both now train full time with the British team at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield.
Henry gained valuable experience last year winning medals in the European Para Youth Games and the European Universities Games and has been focused on table tennis since completing his degree in Sports Coaching and Development at the University of the West of Scotland last summer.
“I think I’ve improved a lot especially since moving to Sheffield,” said the 22-year-old from Ardrossan. “I’ve been here six or seven months now and definitely feel sharper and better all round when I’m playing matches. It was good experience going to tournaments last year and playing at a level where I’m winning medals, even though some of the competitions were U23, and I’m hoping to carry that on in Spain.”
Henry acknowledges that training full time with fellow class 8 athletes Ross Wilson, Aaron McKibbin and Billy Shilton is a massive benefit.
“Every time I train with them it is an opportunity to train against someone who is in the top 10 in the world in my class,” he said, “so I’m really lucky to be in that position. All I can do is learn from that and take it into competitions - when I’m playing against other world class players now I’m familiar with that level. I’ve been playing league matches as well through the winter so I’ve already been able to take it into competition and I feel I’m playing really well now.”
Bishop also competed in the European Para Youth Games, combining with Henry to take silver in the men’s class 16 team event. He played well last season against some of the top players in men’s class 7 including a great win against the World number 20 Jonas Hansson in the Finland Open.
“I think I learnt loads last year,” said the 19-year-old from Rossendale. “It was a tough year in a lot of ways because I had a lot of matches against very good opponents and I took them close but just couldn’t quite get over the line. Obviously at the time it is hard to see the positives but now I’ve had a few months to look back on those matches I can see that I was pushing them hard.
“Being in Sheffield has been massive. We’re training full time with the coaches and their knowledge is unbelievable. You’re in an environment where everyone is doing the same thing so it is easier to stay dedicated and away from things that distract you. You feel like an athlete and you are doing the right things at the right time. Last year was an amazing year for me in terms of pushing great players and I’ve made a lot of changes and improvement since then so I can’t wait to get out to Spain and see how much better I have got and what I can do.”
Also competing in Spain is Londoner Romain Simon who made a positive impression on his international debut in Finland last season, reaching the quarterfinals in the men’s class 3 singles.
“I was very happy with my performance in Finland,” said the 33-year-old from South Woodford. “At the time I really wanted to get further but on reflection the experience gave me more resolve that the level is attainable. It also helped me to understand that I’m going to have to adapt to different playing styles, but I know I am capable of doing that. Sometimes when you play you don’t realise how much you’ve progressed and see that you can realise your potential. I’ve improved a lot and it is such good experience training in Sheffield. I can see where I’m going wrong and understand a bit more so I’m looking forward to putting that to the test in Spain.”
The British squad includes two players who will be making their international debuts – 12-year-old Bly Twomey, who has been training with Will Bayley at Brighton Table Tennis Club, and former wheelchair rugby star Chris Ryan, who led the GB team to Paralympic gold in Tokyo and three European titles and has now taken on a new challenge in table tennis.
The full list of British athletes competing in the Costa Brava Spanish Open is:
Theo Bishop, 19, Rossendale/Sheffield (class 7)
Alex Bland, 23, Rotherham (class 7)
Joe Crouse, 20, Falmouth (class 9)
Max Flint, 18, Guildford (class 10)
Andrew Guy, 37 – Bovey Tracey (class 2)
Simon Heaps, 67 – Milford-on-Sea (class 5)
Ryan Henry, 23, Ardrossan/Sheffield (class 8)
Chris Ryan, 31, Welwyn Garden City (class TBC)
Romain Simon, 33, South Woodford (class 3)
Bly Twomey, 12, Brighton (class TBC)
Grace Williams, 19, Llanfyllin/Sheffield (class 8)
Lee York, 33 – Wakefield (class 4)