As Wales emerges from its second lockdown in the continuing battle against COVID-19, Paralympic champion Rob Davies is once again focused on the defence of his title in Tokyo next summer, although the 36 year old from Brecon admits that it took him a while to come to terms with the postponement of the Games due to the pandemic.
“I’d seen it coming but when the announcement came, I was gutted to be honest,” he said. “I struggled at the start to deal with the postponement because I was really looking forward to going to Tokyo as I was building towards it quite nicely. I’d put a few good performances together and won the Europeans again and I felt my fitness and on-table sharpness were coming along. So I was really disappointed but you’ve got to adapt – that is what it is all about and if you can adapt better than everyone else then you’ll be more ready than everyone else.
“It’s taken me quite a long time to mentally reset but I’m training on the table again and enjoying being back in that routine. I am looking forward to it now and can really push on towards Tokyo next year.”
With the Sport Wales National Centre closed for several months earlier this year Davies made the most of his time at home and discovered a passion for gardening in the process.
“We bought a new house a couple of years ago and lockdown has given me the chance to do what I wanted a bit quicker and get it done basically,” he said. “My grandad was a farmer and before my accident I used to spend a lot of time with him. As a builder I was always outside or playing rugby so I just love being outside. That is what I love about being in the garden – having fresh air and being outside gives you a bit of mind space which has been especially important this year. Just doing physical work again in the garden is what I have been enjoying, especially when it was nice weather.”
While wife Meg enjoys growing vegetables, Davies focuses his attention on flowers, topiary and shrubs.
“We’ve put a new lawn down since lockdown,” he said. “I told Meg that I would work on the garden and she could do what she liked with the veg. Roses are my favourite – the soil here is perfect and next year they should look really good.”
Although Gardener’s World now gets the nod over A Question of Sport on a Friday evening, sport remains as important as ever to Davies. Table tennis gave him a new direction when he was left wheelchair-bound after breaking his neck playing rugby at the age of 21, and he feels that table tennis has again helped him to deal with the challenges presented by the coronavirus.
“I think my table tennis experience has helped me manage this situation more than anything else because I know I can adapt to different ways to deal with things. I’ve managed to keep playing since 2013 despite a back injury; I’ve learnt how to train when you can’t put many hours in and still go and perform so that has helped me with this situation because it is about managing it any way you can.
“One of the hardest things for me when we went into lockdown was not having the routine that I am used to – going to Cardiff four days a week to train. I found that really difficult and was missing training and the table time. Looking back, I think how we managed has been really positive. Me and Meg have spent a lot of time together and we’ve made the most of being at home and getting out in the countryside around us. We’ve had to adapt to different situations, and I have learnt that life is just about being happy. As long as we are happy that is all that really matters. You get through it in your own way – we’ll probably come out of this better people.”
Tokyo will be Davies’s third Paralympic Games. Losing in the group stages in London 2012 lit a fire within him that propelled him over the next four years to the top of the World rankings in men’s class 1, two European titles and World championship silver, culminating in gold in Rio, and he acknowledges the value of both Paralympics.
“London was an amazing experience, and the disappointment helped build me. I’ll never forget London or Rio but both have done me just as much good in different ways.
“I know exactly what happened in the final in Rio and I know what changed the match in my favour. The relationship between me and my coach (British team head coach Greg Baker) in the corner had a big impact and without that I wouldn’t have been so successful. What we did in training leading up to Rio was probably more important and I just think we got it spot on. At the time it didn’t feel real but afterwards I felt it was an unbelievable achievement and one I will always remember.
“I’m still taking bits from Rio. I used to have posters in my gym of phrases to help me with motivation and one thing I’ve got in my gym at the moment is the banner that Brecon Rugby Club made for me when I won my gold in Rio. It says ‘Congratulations Rob, well done on your gold medal’ and it has a picture of me. It’s not a great picture – and my Nan hates it – but the actual picture means more to me than anything because you can see in my face the hurt and frustration and what winning the gold meant to me. I’m going to fold the banner up because I don’t want ‘Congratulations Rob, well done on your gold’ anymore, I just want the picture to motivate me.
“I can take confidence from winning the gold and all the experience I have but I need to get that fight, determination and hunger back that I had before Rio and that is what I am going to take from that picture. I look back on the video of Rio sometimes and remind myself of why it meant so much and take that to motivate me and push me on for Tokyo and to keep going in my career. We have the best coach in the World in fellow Welshman Neil Robinson – who better to keep you going than the most medalled GB table tennis Paralympian of all time.”
If London was a catalyst for his career, Rio resulted in a change of pace for Davies, who took time off to focus on family life and plan his wedding to Meg in 2017.
“It is hard to get a balance and I definitely needed to get away from table tennis after Rio and have some family time. I’d been playing since I came out of hospital in 2006 and I needed to spend some time with family and put everything into that for a while. My wedding day was brilliant and I’m glad I gave up that time. Now it is about combining family and career and getting back to focusing on table tennis, getting the hunger back and enjoying the best of both worlds really. I’ve got a good support network – not only with the British team but with my family and friends – and I’ve got to make the most of that, be confident that I’ve got that behind me and go and enjoy myself on the table.”
While the four years since Rio have not gone entirely to plan Davies has retained his European title twice, winning gold for the fourth consecutive time in September last year. It has been said that you learn more from your defeats than your victories and the loss to the Argentinian Guillermo Bustamante Sierra in the last 16 of the World Championships in 2018 is providing more valuable motivation for the Welshman.
“I was absolutely gutted after losing and I was thinking about it the other day – how I felt afterwards. I just don’t want to be in that situation again and that is what keeps me going – not liking that feeling when you have lost. He’s a good guy the Argentinian – he played rugby as well and I get on with him really well. I knew he was working hard and I wasn’t in the right place at the time so I was happy for him that he won although I was obviously disappointed to lose. I think I dealt with it the best I could at the time and I can use that feeling, bottle it up and try to work harder and smarter for the next time. I don’t want to be in that situation again at the next World Championships that is for sure.”
Davies has benefited from tough competition in men’s class 1 within the British squad from fellow Welshmen Paul Davies, the London 2012 bronze medallist who retired last year, and World bronze medallist Tom Matthews, who Davies beat in the European final in 2017.
“It is good because it pushes you, doesn’t it? I’m trying to hang on to my career as long as possible and trying to help Tom along at the same time, so it works well in that way. Paul was brilliant for me and we are still friends off the table and keep in touch although he is not playing anymore. It is good to know that Tom is pushing me and I can’t slack because I know he is on my heels.
“I enjoy being on the table even more so now than when I was younger. I used to put a lot of pressure on myself and I don’t do that now, I just enjoy it. I do push myself to do different things and make improvements to my game. I’ve come up with a different serve that no-one has done before – Tom is doing it now as well – and if it can bring both of us on that can only be good.”
Although something of a reluctant hero, preferring the quiet life to the spotlight, Davies recognises the power of sport to inspire and the role he can play in helping others.
“I’m not one for the limelight,” he admits. “I don’t want all the media attention; it is just not me. I’m playing table tennis because I like doing a sport and having a competitor to beat. Until my accident I never used the internet. As a builder all I did was play rugby, do my weight training, S&C etc. Social media isn’t me either, but I do it now because you’ve got to haven’t you?
“One good thing about the media is showing other people they can be a Paralympian or just get into sport, and that took a while to get into my head. It is one reason to talk about what I do so I can show other people that they can get out there and do the same. I’m surprised how much the kids love seeing us playing table tennis – it doesn’t matter to them that we are disabled; it is about watching us play and win. One thing that has opened my eyes since Rio is how much it does mean to the children and to other people who have got disabilities and need motivation.”
A proud Welshman, Davies attributes his will to win to his Welsh roots and rugby heritage.
“We are a proud nation,” he said. “Not many nations are based on rugby as much as Wales and we’ve been going to the valleys to play rugby since I was four years old and there is something about it. Everyone works hard for what they want and it gives you some backbone and the want and desire to do better. The biggest thing that rugby gave me was the support of friends who all have a similar way of thinking. Rugby gives you camaraderie and a work ethic – to work hard for your teammates and for yourself, and to never give up.”
While Davies acknowledges that past achievements can generate confidence, he views Tokyo in just the same way as he approached London and Rio.
“It doesn’t feel different at all in my mind,” he said. “I’m not thinking that I’m Paralympic champion, it’s just another big event and I want to win it. I want to carry on playing as long as I can and bring Tom along with me – hopefully I can stay in front as long as possible and we can do well as a team together as well.
“My aim now is to get in as good a shape as I can for next year and go from there. I’m building my training up again really slowly, getting stronger and fitter. Lots of table time will be the plan over the next few months and I’m just looking forward to building towards Tokyo now. I really enjoy having something to aim for and getting ready for it, putting the routines in place and enjoying the excitement of it all.
“The thing for me now is the major titles and I’m going to try and make sure I am injury-free and ready for them every year. I don’t want to lose the European title and I still haven’t won the World Championships and that is definitely a big aim for me – I want that one as well.”