The last three months have brought many changes and challenges but for Martin Perry they have provided an opportunity to finally begin married life. The 26 year old Scot married Siobhain in December 2018 but since then their life together has been restricted to weekends when Perry has made the journey from Sheffield, where he trains with the British squad, to Siobhan’s family home in Bearsden in Scotland so life in lockdown has certainly had its advantages.
“At the start of lockdown I thought ‘this is a bit rubbish’ and I think that is natural because we were thrown into an odd situation pretty much overnight,” he said. “But then I started to think about what I could be doing and what benefits it could bring me and then I became very grateful that for the first time since I’d got married I could have quality time with Siobhain. I’m actually getting to spend time with my wife and have married life rather than just fleeting visits at the weekend so in that sense it has been good for us. Whether Siobhain likes it or not we are together 24/7 at the moment.
“We have now moved into our first flat together in Dumbarton. It was Siobhain’s grandad’s flat until he sadly passed and we love it. It has been a great project because it needed a lot of work. Siobhain’s parents have been exceptional at getting jobs done around the house for us and we’ve got a place we can call home. We moved in on the morning of lockdown and for the first week we slept on a mattress on the floor. We loved some of the old furniture that Siobhain’s grandad had in the flat so we ended up dismantling and rebuilding some of it and we appreciate the fact that it was there for us to use because we started off with not very much.”
While Perry is enjoying married life for the first time he is also looking forward to the time when he can return to Sheffield and start training again.
“We’re all desperate to get back to training,” he said, “but the measures that the team has put in place to try and cope with that like the shadow play sessions, regular phone calls and S&C programmes we do from home are really helping. We’re all keeping in contact with lots of group chats and that shows that the team is still very much together although this is the most separated we have ever been. There is a lot going on that we need to be grateful for.
“It will be difficult to leave Siobhain again and go back to Sheffield but I have a job to do. I think table tennis will always be in my life to some extent but while I am able to play and I’m young, fit and healthy I’ve got to seize these opportunities that I’m given and Siobhain understands that and is very supportive. We know what it is like to live apart so we know how to do it and what works for us.”
Born and bred in Paisley, Perry is the youngest of four brothers and acknowledges that the competitive atmosphere this created growing up has not only shaped his character but also helped him to thrive in the British team environment in Sheffield.
“When you have four boys in the one household it is naturally going to become quite competitive,” he said, “and I think that actually helped me transition into the training environment in Sheffield. Growing up you had four young boys always competing against each other and wanting to be the best at what we were doing; whether that was just having a kick about in the park or playing video games together we always wanted to be the best and beat each other. So when I moved to Sheffield to train full time with the squad I didn’t want to be at the back of the pack – I wanted to push on and be the best I possibly could be.
“You look at the fantastic athletes that we’ve got in the squad in Sheffield and I think it is inevitable that some people are going to excel more than others but I think we can all hold our heads high. We are all as determined as each other and we’re a competitive bunch but at the same time we have all got each other’s backs and we look out for one another. So I think definitely growing up with my brothers just fed into the mentality and mind-set that it is OK to want to be the best but at the same time we are going to help each other to be our best; it is that same family environment.”
Having played a number of sports growing up including football, rugby, basketball, badminton and hockey Perry was introduced to table tennis in 2011 at a Scottish Disability Sport summer camp, where he met the man who was to influence his career, Terry McLernon MBE, chairman of Table Tennis Scotland and founder of Drumchapel Table Tennis Club.
“Terry basically didn’t give me a choice,” laughed Perry. “The first day I met him I was playing table tennis and he told me ‘you’re going to come and play at my club’. I owe a lot to Terry and he changed my life. He saw something in me that made him want to coach me and playing table tennis has turned my life upside down. I’d never been on a plane until I started playing table tennis and the fact that I have had such amazing opportunities to travel, make new friends, to see the world and to just explore different cultures and environments – all of that comes from Terry and him seeing the ability for me to play table tennis. So Terry and Drumchapel will always have a big place in my heart because they literally changed my life.”
Having made his international debut in Hungary in 2013, Perry’s career has been something of a ‘slow-burner’ but he looks back at the Costa Rica Open in 2015 as the tournament that first put him on the map.
“For the guys who were in contention for qualifying for Rio it was their final opportunity to do so,” he recalled. “There were some top class 6 players there and I ended up getting to the final. I lost to the Italian Alecci in the final but I beat guys like Bastien Grundeler who was top eight in the world at the time. He was there fighting for a spot in Rio and I was just there fighting to try and establish myself as a player and get into the Performance squad because I was still a Pathway athlete at that point. I showed myself and the coaches that I could beat top 10 players and perform at a high level and when I won the US Open in 2016 I had already been to a final of a tournament and that experience gave me confidence. It was a breakthrough for me but in terms of what I want to achieve as an individual I’ve got a long way to go to be at the level I want to be consistently.”
Perry has won two European team titles with Paul Karabardak and Dave Wetherill and although his role has mainly been on the bench he acknowledges that the experience has been invaluable.
“I’ve got incredible team accolades thanks to Dave and Paul,” he said. “The main thing I have learnt from the team is there are two incredibly talented athletes ahead of me; they are both top 10 in the world and for me to sit on the bench and watch these guys is great. But the main thing that I have taken away from that is to stay hungry and stay focused because as great as it is to win the European champs twice and have a World team bronze medal, at the end of the day I want to be playing myself – I want to be on the table.
“I’ll train and warm up and prepare for a match knowing that only Dave and Paul are going to play but I’m still in that mind-set of ‘I’ve got to prepare and do my best as a professional to make sure that I can help to prepare these boys as best as possible’. They are quite content to have me practice with them when it comes to these big matches and that gives me a lot of confidence because obviously they know I am not playing but they still want to practice with me in order to get prepared for the match. That is just keeping me hungry because I know that when the time comes – hopefully at the next Europeans – when I get the nod to play in singles I’m going to be ready for it because I think I’ve proved that I can play at the top level. I got to the quarter-finals at the Europeans last year in the singles so it is about making sure I stay hungry when I am on the bench watching these guys so that when the opportunity comes I can step up and hopefully repay the performances that they have shown me.”
Perry’s determination to succeed was exemplified by his initiative in launching a crowd-funding page to enable him to compete in additional tournaments last season in a bid to qualify for Tokyo which took him all over the world from Japan to Mexico.
“I look back on it and in one sense I’m proud of the fact that I am supporting the Para table tennis programme and what the ITTF and IPC are doing,” he said. “I played more tournaments than anyone else in the world during the qualification period for Tokyo and I didn’t qualify which is obviously very difficult for me to come to terms with. But the way I am looking at it is the amount of experience I’ve gained from those competitions has been massive and it has made me so grateful for the support that people have given me. When I set up the funding page people got behind me so fast and so generously that I was quite overwhelmed as I wasn’t expecting the response that I got. It is so humbling and a fantastic feeling that so many people – even some that I didn’t know – were donating and helping me along this journey.
“As it stands I can’t go to Tokyo and I need to win the World Qualification tournament next year in order to go to the Games but I totally believe that the team behind me can help me to get there. It has made me so thankful that everyone has dug deep and made sure that I am able to chase my dream literally around the world playing table tennis. It has been a fantastic experience and long may it continue because playing table tennis is definitely one of the best things I have ever done in my life and I want to keep doing that. Hopefully I can put in some good performances and repay the people who have supported me my entire career.”
Giving back is important to Perry and, having been born without either forearm or the bottom part of his left leg, he appreciates more than anyone the chances he has to prove that disability doesn’t have to be a barrier.
“The charity and coaching work that I have done are equally important as chasing my dreams in terms of what I want to achieve as an athlete,” he explained. “For me the whole ethos of the Paralympic movement and what my team mates have done has shown the world that disability in this day and age doesn’t mean anything. You really can do whatever you want – the technologies that are available to us are phenomenal.
“But the greatest technology we have got is what is between our ears. It is that mind-set of ‘regardless of this disability – whatever it may be – I can actually go on and do what I want to do’. So for me to be given these opportunities to coach and do charity work just encompasses everything that the Paralympics is about – it is about showing the world that anything is possible.
“Of course I want to compete at the highest level but ultimately I’ll think I’ve done my job if I can inspire people and show them that they can do what they really want to do. For me it is such a great feeling knowing you have helped someone shape or change their life. From a selfish point of view I want to get to a Paralympic Games and I haven’t done that yet but that doesn’t mean I am going to stop. I’m going to keep going and hopefully the more successful my career gets I can have more of a platform to help people.
“I look at the incredible work that Will (Bayley) is doing at the moment for Great Ormond Street Hospital – he has raised thousands of pounds for a charity that means so much to him and saved his life. I think one of the greatest things we can do in life is to help others and I definitely wouldn’t be in the position I am today if people hadn’t helped me and continue to help me. I’ve been walking down the street and someone has stopped and tied my shoe for me because I’ve got no hands – that is just kindness and generosity that I want to put back into the world so if I can help just one person that would be incredible.”
A natural with the media Perry has recently started a new venture – PerryPOD – and recorded his first podcast last week.
“I’ve always wanted to do it but never taken that plunge,” he explained, “and during a time like this I realise how much I miss being around people and interacting with people. I recorded my first episode last week and it wasn’t the best recording and I could have done a few things differently but that is one of the joys of learning. I’m learning on the job how to record a good podcast. I’ve got a few others lined up and I’m really excited about doing that.
“The best podcasts I listen to are people having a chat – it is just conversation and natural and that is something that comes quite easily to me – just chatting to folk. I enjoy that and it gives me a lot of energy so I think definitely a media focused post–table tennis career would definitely interest me.”
With the future in mind Perry has also started a PRINCE 2 project management course which is keeping him busy while training is still on hold.
“If I’ve got this qualification behind me it is a good one to have no matter what industry I find myself in,” he said. “So I’m cracking along with it and it is going OK. Hopefully before too long now I can sit the exam and I’d be happy to get that qualification under my belt. It is something Siobhain already has – she is two levels above me – so she has been helping me with the study guides and the books. I’m having fun doing it although I’m completely out of my comfort zone; it is something I’m not very good at, that I want to get good at, so you work a bit harder at it. I’m using my brain in a different way which is a challenge and I love a challenge.”