Whatever happens in Tokyo next summer 2021 will be a milestone in the career of Paul Karabardak as it will be 20 years since he made his international debut and the Welshman known to his team mates as PK acknowledges that winning a Paralympic medal – the only major medal to elude him so far – would be the perfect way to celebrate.
“I think it could work out well,” he said. “I think I have a chance in both singles and team and it would mark the 20 year anniversary very nicely with a medal in the Tokyo Paralympics.”
Despite being only 15 years old when he made his debut for the British team in the 2001 European Championships in Frankfurt, Karabardak exceeded his own and the team’s expectations by returning with a bronze medal from the men’s class 7 team event.
“Going into the tournament I was really excited and didn’t expect much of myself,” he recalled. “I just wanted to go and play table tennis. I won three matches in the open singles, made it through the group in my singles and then won bronze in the team event with David Hope so I achieved more than I expected to do and managed to get a lot of ranking points which put me at number six in the world for my first competition.
“It was a really good time to get into the sport; there were a lot of older players around who offered me a lot of support. Playing with David Hope helped a lot because he was Paralympic champion in 1988 and very experienced; he had a lot of good advice about the game and how to handle different situations. I had played a lot of competitions in Britain and in an unofficial competition in Holland with a group of Welsh players the year before but the Europeans was a played in a massive arena with so many good players and it was very different to tournaments I had played in before.”
One player that Karabardak remembers well from the tournament was reigning Paralympic champion Jochen Wollmert, who took the men’s class 7 European title that year and went on to win Paralympic gold again in 2008 and 2012.
“I remember thinking what a special talent he was,” said Karabardak. “He was a top player then and he’s been a top player ever since. That was a stand out for me – seeing him for the first time. It taught me a lot to go to my first competition and see a player like Jochen Wollmert and see how good you could be with such a severe disability.”
A talented young footballer, Karabardak had been devastated when he suffered a massive stroke at the age of 10 which left him unable to play anymore.
“I was out most nights playing football and played for a local club,” he said. “I loved it and then I had my stroke and I thought it was just going to be something I’d recover from and I’d get back to playing football again. I didn’t realise the severity of what had happened and when I was told that I couldn’t go back to playing football I was lost.
“I needed something and my mum found out about a disabled youth club in Swansea. They made me very welcome and introduced me to a lot of new things like model trains but I was interested in sport. I tried playing snooker and darts but then one day I tried table tennis. It was difficult at first but I really loved it as it was fast and exciting. There was a man who had also had a stroke and I played with him a lot. I just really enjoyed it and then a year later I joined the local league and got into the team. “
Not only did table tennis provide him with a new sport but it also proved to be an important part of his rehabilitation.
“A big thing for my recovery was weight-bearing exercise to get weight through my bad leg so to be on my feet playing table tennis – and to be stepping on to my left leg and putting a lot of weight through it – definitely got my legs better. I also think it was great exercise because I was playing three times a week so physically it played a big part in my recovery and in getting me as fit and ambulant as I could be after suffering a stroke.
“Back then Paralympic sport wasn’t publicised very much so I didn’t know much about it. I just wanted to play table tennis. I enjoyed it and wanted to be as good as I could be but I never had aspirations to play for Great Britain because I didn’t know it was possible. But when I started playing with the British national team then I wanted to be a top player and win everything I could in the sport.”
Another player who influenced Karabardak in the early stages of his career was Paralympic gold medallist and fellow Welshman Neil Robinson, now a coach with the British team.
“Neil was fantastic for me as a player,” he said, “because he was also in the same league in Swansea. He was in a higher division but I watched him a lot; being such a fantastic player himself he has been great for me to look up to and made me want to be as good as I can, so I was lucky to have him around.”
Having just missed out on qualification for the Paralympic Games in Athens 2004, Karabardak achieved his ambition of competing in a Paralympics in Beijing four years later.
“I’d seen players going to Paralympics and it was definitely something I wanted to do so to finally qualify and get selected made me really happy. I think I played really well; it was a tough group in Beijing as only one player qualified for the knockout stages and I lost a very close match to Jordi Morales. I’d never really had much chance against him before but I remember matching him in all departments. It was really good to go to Beijing because there is no better experience than to go to a Paralympics when you are quite young.”
London 2012 proved another great experience although with only one player again progressing from each group Karabardak admits he was disappointed not to reach the knockout stages.
“Everything about London was fantastic, especially with great performances from players in the GB team like Will (Bayley) and Paul (Davies). For me it was difficult because I had Popov (World number one Mykhaylo Popov) in my group but I managed to win one match and again it was really good experience for me to get to compete in a Paralympic Games in my home country in front of a home crowd.”
Bayley was Karabardak’s team partner for a number of years until the Welshman was reclassified as a class 6 in 2015 and the pair won medals together at World and European level.
“I think being such good friends made us a successful partnership,” said Karabardak. “We played for each other and supported each other and it was always good times playing with Will. Not just for the success but the enjoyment.”
Bayley knows Karabardak better than anyone and the Paralympic champion is full of admiration for his friend and former team partner.
“When I first came in to the British team PK was someone who I wanted to be like and I looked up to him,” said Bayley. “When I was losing all my matches it seemed PK was winning his but he was never big-headed about it or made me feel rubbish – he just encouraged me. When he tells me about his story and what he has overcome it inspires me, it’s quite incredible. I’m also very lucky as I’ve roomed with him for the last 10 years so I’ve got to know him so well. PK can be shy when you first meet him but he has got the most incredible, funny, dry personality and he’s the one who can make the whole team laugh.”
Winning silver with Bayley in the men’s class 7 team event at the European Championships in 2011 remains one of Karabardak’s fondest memories, along with taking the deciding singles match to clinch men’s class 6 European team gold in 2017 with David Wetherill and Martin Perry.
“There are so many memories but the stand out would be the Euros in 2011 where me and Will beat Spain in the semi-finals. Spain were a top team with Morales and Alvaro Valera so for me to beat Morales and then for us to win the doubles in the fifth set was amazing. Also, winning the Euros in Slovenia with Dave and Martin against a top player after being 2-0 down – that is another great memory of mine.”
After two European singles medals and a number of singles titles Karabardak can look back on many fine performances and it is one of his most recent that he rates the best.
“I think the best match I’ve ever played would probably be in Slovenia last year against (World and Paralympic champion) Peter Rosenmeier. He is one of the greatest players of all time and it was really important that I beat him to gain points for Paralympic qualification. It was quite comfortable so to beat probably the best player in the world in recent years like that in one of the biggest competitions of the year was a great achievement.”
Despite his success in singles Karabardak acknowledges that it is the team event that tends to brings out the best in him.
“I think I have played my best in team,” he said. “Although I have done well in singles I think I feel more comfortable in team events, especially having such good team mates as I’ve had with Will, Dave and Martin who have offered me a lot of support. That support relaxes me and gives me more belief.
“I do sometimes lack belief – or lose belief in the middle of games – because sometimes it is hard to remind yourself that you can do it. Lacking belief is a big part of why I have struggled to do well in some competitions but I try my best to be confident and tell myself that I can do it. Table tennis is hard because it is all on the day and if a certain thing isn’t working it can affect your whole game and your confidence. It is a game of fine margins and fractions – in Rio 2016 I lost two very close games and if I had had that bit of luck and things had gone the other way it could have been a very different story. When you get those edges I think it gives you the belief that things are going your way.”
Finding ways to relax is important for all athletes and along with walking his cockapoo Teddy and spending time with his seven year old nephew Mason and two year old niece Jasmine, football continues to play an important part in Karabardak’s life.
“I have a season ticket for Swansea City so I go to every home game unless I’ve got a competition or I’m training and I also try to get to two or three away matches a season. Obviously I’m missing it at the moment but not as much as I thought I would which is quite nice. I am missing live sport because I watch a lot of sport when I’m at home so it has left a big gap but one I’ve filled with TV shows, exercising and taking my dog for a walk.
“I am missing spending time with my niece and nephew. To see young children without any worries and being happy with the simple things in life helps me. It’s nice to have fun with them and gives me the chance to go the cinema and watch children’s films which you wouldn’t do unless you had children with you.”
After nearly 20 years as an international athlete Karabardak is still hungry for success and hopes that Tokyo next year, when he will be reunited with Bayley in the men’s class 6-7 team event, will see him win his first Paralympic medal.
“I still love to play table tennis,” he said. “I still love everything about the sport and get excited about training sessions and about competing. If I keep training hard and keep believing I have a lot more to achieve. Next year in Tokyo there will be a team event for me and I’ll get to play with Will again, as well as Dave (Wetherill) and that is really exciting for me to be able to play in that team.”
If Karabardak does achieve his Paralympic dream next summer no-one will be happier than Bayley.
“In my opinion PK deserves more than anyone to succeed in Tokyo 2021,” he said, “and it drives me on as I have never been so motivated to have our most special moment together potentially in the team event in 2021. He’s extremely talented and the most down-to-earth guy I’ve ever met. There will never be another PK.”