Having broken into the world’s top 10 of men’s class 9 in 2018, Ashley Facey Thompson appeared to be on track for Tokyo but some disappointing results over the past 18 months dropped him out of an automatic qualifying place on the world rankings and means that he is now focused on success in the final World Qualification Tournament in Slovenia next April to secure his Paralympic qualification.
“I’d had two great seasons in 2017 and 2018,” he said, “two of my best seasons by far including nearly winning a world singles medal but although I worked hard and tried my best last season I just didn’t believe as much as I should have, which is a shame because obviously I’ve missed out. I started the qualification period at world number eight and now I’m back down at 13. If I could change one thing about qualification for the Paralympics it would be the duration of the qualification period. It is so long and the highs are high and the lows are low but at the end of the day you’ve got to manage the process and get to that finishing line which is what I didn’t do.”
Although he has reached a number of singles finals and won major medals in the team event at the European Championships with Kim Daybell and, more recently, Joshua Stacey, a lack of consistency has so far prevented Facey Thompson from maximising his undoubted talent, which he first showed in 2014 by defeating top six players.
“To be a top player you need to consistently beat people and my record in terms of consistency is not the best,” he acknowledged. “I once got told ‘which Ashley is going to turn up?’ Sometimes I’d give my all and still lose and sometimes it would be really close. To be the best you have to give your all every match and I had some good wins in 2014 but was very up and down and I’d lose to people I should have beaten which wasn’t great.
“2017 and 2018 were my best seasons when I played really well in terms of consistency as much as performance – I was upbeat, very confident and very positive. Sometimes it is hard when you don’t feel great – you feel down and tired and don’t want to show your emotions. I know that when I show my emotions that is when I play my best. Sometimes I know that I look as if I don’t want to be there but I do.
“I’m improving and I’ve been consistently getting to quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals but the reason I haven’t qualified for Tokyo yet is because of my consistency. I still did well in 2019 but the consistency wasn’t there and I let myself down. I’ve got another year to work hard now and give my all – to give everything and have no regrets and hopefully I can do that. I still have a massive chance to qualify.”
Many of us have found new hobbies and interests during lockdown and over the past few months Facey Thompson has discovered a love of the great outdoors. When training was suspended in March, the 25 year old decided to focus on his fitness and remained in the Sheffield house he shares with team mate Billy Shilton rather than return to his London home.
“I stayed in Sheffield because I knew Billy was going home,” he said, “so I had more space to do my exercising in the house. My mum’s house is lovely but quite small and I decided to put my fitness first. It was hard to begin with but when lockdown started it hit me that I needed to get into something. I started running but I thought it was a bit boring after a while so I decided to invest in a bike and it is definitely the best thing I’ve done in lockdown. I’ve been out on my bike so much exploring the Peak District and going for lots of walks and enjoying nature. That is one of the things I like about Sheffield and one of the reasons I stayed during lockdown – being able to enjoy the countryside. I’ve never spent so much time outdoors in my life but that is why I’m glad I stayed in Sheffield; I’m really enjoying the peace and the countryside.
“My family is just me and my mum so I’m used to being on my own and I enjoy it. Although we missed each other it was definitely the right decision to stay in Sheffield. My mum has kept me humble and kept me grounded. I remember when I wanted to quit table tennis she said ‘you’re not quitting’. The more I grow up I realise that she just dedicated her life to me and she is an inspiration; she is so strong and I’m so proud of her.”
It was his mother who nurtured his love of sport after he was born with Erbs palsy, which affected the nerves in the right side of his body, primarily in his arm and shoulder.
“My mum thought it would help to develop the strength and mobility in my right arm,” explained Facey Thompson, “so I played basketball, cricket, football, tennis, boxing and swimming and that is when I fell in love with sport. Mum originally thought I was going to be a swimmer because I loved swimming – I’m just a sporty person and I love trying different sports.”
When he was 11 years old he was introduced to table tennis at Morpeth School in Bethnal Green, East London and immediately impressed coaches with his natural talent.
“To be told I was good at something meant a lot to me, particularly at that age,” he explained. “Back then I wasn’t academically smart and it is hard when you are a kid to hear negative comments all the time. When I was told I was talented at table tennis it gave me the drive to carry on. It was nice to feel that I was good at something although I was struggling academically and I fell in love with table tennis – it was so fast and fun. But back then I could never have dreamed of being where I am now.”
Facey Thompson admits that sport not only helped him to manage his disability but also kept him out of trouble while he was growing up in the East End.
“Everywhere you go in the UK there is crime,” he said, “and Bethnal Green is home for me and where my friends are. You have to be streetwise and know the places not to go and what time to go out. I knew about the gangs but my mum made sure I stayed away from them.
“Not a lot of people in my school had a disability so when I was younger it made me nervous but that changed as I matured and now I find it doesn’t matter at all – it is part of you and you forget about it. Obviously at primary and secondary school you are more embarrassed about having a disability but as the years have gone by I’m definitely more comfortable with it.”
Having joined the British Para Table Tennis Team in 2009 Facey Thompson just missed out on competing in a Paralympic Games in his home city in 2012 but was selected for the Paralympic Inspiration Programme and so experienced the atmosphere of both the table tennis venue and the athlete village.
“It was great to see what a Paralympics was like because I had no idea,” he said. “I was quite naïve but to be fair London put the Paralympics on the map and I think a lot of people would agree. It was great to see my team mates compete and what I’d missed out on. It humbled me and made me realise what I needed to do to compete at the highest level. It was a great experience and taught me a lot of things, which I thought was boring at the time but made me sure about what I wanted to do in four years’ time.”
Facey Thompson went on to make his Paralympic debut in Rio in 2016, an experience he describes as ‘amazing’.
“It went so quick and I can’t really remember it now,” he admits. “It is hard to describe how I felt about being there and representing my country.”
Although he has often demonstrated the character and determination to fight back and win matches that seemed to be lost, Facey Thompson agrees that being an only child can make it harder to develop the natural competitiveness that sibling rivalry often produces and is such an important factor in elite sport. A regular churchgoer he places great value on the community and support that provides him with and he admits that the ‘killer instinct’ of the winning athlete is sometimes at odds with the softer side of his personality.
“I’ve never thought about it before,” he said, “but I never had to compete against anyone when I was growing up. I always just wanted to help out and share things. Friends are a huge part of my life – my friends are like my family and I always like to give and sometimes it comes back to bite me because I try to help my friends out and make everyone happy and you can’t make everyone happy or please everyone.
“I think that is why my results are inconsistent – because I’m not always selfish enough. I try to be and I’m selfish in other ways but to be fair I’ve thought about it a lot and I’m happy with who I am. Maybe I can work on being more ruthless but still have different traits about me. I wouldn’t change my character for the world but maybe that is why I haven’t always got that winning edge and that is why I struggle to have consistent results.
“I’m still trying to nurture that ruthless streak but to do it on a consistent basis is hard because it doesn’t come naturally to me. But if I can do it more often then I know I can achieve more.”
The Black Lives Matter campaign has highlighted the need to ensure equal opportunities for everyone and Facey Thompson is aware of the role he can play in encouraging more young people into sport.
“I’m from a black African background and London is very multi-racial compared to Sheffield,” he said. “If I can help a black kid or a minority child to see that what I do is not just for Caucasians but people of colour can do it as well. It is important they see that people like them can do a sport. That is why religion is important to me and I want kids to get off the street; education is not all you need – there are other ways that you can get opportunities.”
Team sports also play a part in his life and as well as supporting the LA Lakers basketball team he is also one of the team’s Arsenal fans, something that has given him an insight into his own sporting career.
“I was in primary school and my best friend was an Arsenal fan and told me I should support Arsenal as well so I did. It has been an emotional rollercoaster – just like my career. They are a hard team to support and I now understand how my coaches feel about me sometimes.”
After weeks of online coaching and team strength and conditioning sessions Facey Thompson is hoping to return to training at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield next month.
“It has been great what the team has done over the last few months,” he said, “but it will be good to get back into the hall. It will take a while to get back into full time training but I’m looking forward to it. I’ve got until next April to train for the World Qualification Tournament and I’m going to give it my all.”