With Paralympic medals from London and Rio already to his name Aaron McKibbin was heading for Tokyo this summer in the form of his life and with every hope of adding to that tally. Instead the 28 year old Londoner has taken the opportunity to complete his degree in sports science and is determined to make good use of the additional time created by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I started the degree after Rio,” he said. “The last few months have been the deadline for me to finish it so that has been a silver lining to the lockdown for me as it has allowed me to focus on my degree. It is nice to say that it is finished now and it gives me a year to focus on full time training for Tokyo. I played so well last year when I was balancing my degree alongside fitting in practice and now it gives me more time to focus on my training which is only a positive going forward.”
While juggling training and tuition has been a challenge McKibbin acknowledges that continuing his education has also benefited his table tennis career.
“When I moved to Sheffield to train full time I literally only played table tennis,” he explained. “I felt that this is what you have to do if you want to make it – you have to dedicate yourself 100% to sport and you can’t do anything else. I feel that I’ve played better since I’ve been in education because it gives you another perspective on life and also gives you a different focus. When you are playing sport day-in, day-out, six hours a day, if things aren’t going well you can beat yourself up about it because it is all you are thinking about. When I was studying if I had a bad session I had no time to think about it because I had to go to Uni and put my education head on for three or four hours of lectures.
“It allowed me to enjoy practice a bit more but I was also taking full advantage of my time in the hall because I wasn’t training as much as the other guys. I’d switch off from my education and want to get the maximum out of each session. Something I learnt during this time was how you can improve a lot in a shorter period of time. I also learnt to just enjoy it and take a step back and not take everything so literally which is what I was doing before and looking back it was having a negative effect on my performance. I’ve seen there are other things I can focus on and other ways that I can improve – I don’t have to be playing my best every single day. If I was playing badly it allowed me to focus on my head, if I was injured I could do video analysis – so I can look at things differently now and that is what education has helped me with.”
McKibbin enjoyed his best season in 2019, breaking into the world’s top 10 in men’s class 8 for the first time with singles medals in Slovenia, Poland and Japan and reaching his first major final in the men’s class 8 team event at the European Championships.
“Going into the season I was actually playing really badly and wasn’t very positive,” he said. “I feel that I’ve been through those scenarios quite often and I just stick to trying to improve every aspect of my game but I think I went about it a bit differently last year. I’d always tried so much to improve my potential weaknesses and those areas of my game where I’d always said ‘if I could just get that a bit better that would be the difference’ and I spent so long trying to do that I got to the point where it was clearly not working. So I started to focus more on my strengths and also enjoyed it a bit more.
“After two Paralympic Games I went into the qualification process knowing what was going to happen so I was ready for it and was looking forward to enjoying the season. Although the lead up to the first international competition wasn’t great, once that was out of the way I really enjoyed the whole season. I can’t remember a tournament I went to where I didn’t come away thinking that was really good fun and felt that I had given my absolute best. There was a bit of a momentum swing after the Slovenia Open and from there I went into tournaments with a different mentality thinking ‘I can win this’ rather than ‘I need this to go well for me’. My confidence is quite high now; I feel that I deserve to be where I am whereas before I always wanted to be where I am now and that is a big difference.”
McKibbin won team bronze in London 2012, sitting on the bench while Ross Wilson and Will Bayley won the vital bronze medal match against Germany. Four years later the three won team bronze again in Rio but this time it was McKibbin who secured the medal with victory in the deciding singles match against China having earlier combined with Wilson to win the doubles. He acknowledges now that London did leave him feeling that he had something to prove.
“I was obviously very happy after London for us to get the medal but from a selfish point of view disappointed that I didn’t play. I knew we were a strong three and I knew that any one of us could play and the team would be strong and it was the same in Rio. I played nearly every match in Rio and Will not playing in the final match was not because he was the weaker player. We were a three-strong team and who we were playing against determined who would play but it was definitely nice for me to be able to do it and prove to everyone that I was good enough.
“It is not nice to just sit on the bench and not play but it is a team event and everyone is important. My role in London was just as important as playing sometimes – supporting the boys and warming up everyone and being there for the doubles if we needed it. In Rio it changed round a bit and I was needed for the singles. Obviously being a bit more mature I could look at it in a different way and I felt it 100% helped me to have my moment in Rio.
“I proved to myself that I could do it and that was the changing factor – it maybe released a bit of pressure and I didn’t have to try so hard. I didn’t have to play amazing every time to get a victory, I could play smart and I feel that is something I’ve done a lot better. Once I broke into the top 10 it was a big change for me. I sense a bit of fear in my opponents now and that has given me a few points before I’ve even started. Some of the games where I’ve not been playing well I feel that I’ve come through them because my opponents have got a new-found respect for me.”
Having reached a career-high of number seven in the world McKibbin has realistic medal hopes in the singles and team events in Tokyo but is philosophical about having to wait a year to compete in his third Paralympic Games.
“It’s two sides of a coin really,” he said. “Obviously it was very disappointing because I was going in to Tokyo in potentially the best form I’ve ever been in so I was really excited to see what could potentially happen. But on the flip side it is another year to try and improve. I had a bit of a tendon injury coming in to this year and I hadn’t actually played that much before we went into lockdown. The added time for me to practice is potentially going to be a benefit but then I think also what has happened is much bigger than sport. After the initial disappointment I knew the Games would happen at some stage and I’m pretty sure that as a team we’ll be prepared to go there when it is safe to do so. At the moment there are bigger things to worry about.
“I feel that I am very good at trying to find the positives in situations. As soon as we went into lockdown I didn’t look at the fact that I couldn’t play table tennis but it was potentially an opportunity to do more fitness work. It has also allowed me to see my family as I’ve not been home this much since I was about 17.
“I believe that there are bits of my game that I can improve over this period even though I’m not at the table and I want to do as much as I can so when I get back to practice I won’t feel that I am behind but I’m actually better. Maybe I’ll be able to move a bit quicker because I’m fitter; I’ve done a lot of shadow play and maybe my technical movements might be a bit better; my understanding of tactics might be different from watching videos over this period. I’ve just tried to do as much as I can to give myself the best opportunity.”
Having completed his degree he is now taking a financial marketing course that has been set up for athletes during lockdown.
“Apart from working on my fitness I’ve got a lot of spare time on my hands now and learning how to manage my money is an interest so I thought I’d take it up and see how it goes. If I enjoy it I might take it further but for now it is something to keep me occupied. Having a structure is really important to me so from day one I got straight into a routine. I wake up the same time as I would for training and do my fitness in the morning so I’ve got the rest of the day to do other things.”
Born with bilateral talipese (club foot) McKibbin admits that when he was first asked to join the Para squad in 2009 he had his reservations and did not want to be seen as disabled but the growth of the Paralympic Games and his own experiences now make him proud to be a Paralympian.
“I still don’t look at myself as disabled,” he explained, “because I feel that we are accepted in society and we’re not seen as a disabled person playing sport but as an athlete. So I look at myself first and foremost as an athlete but I have definitely changed a lot since I was younger. I’m obviously a lot more mature and I’m very happy to speak about my disability in front of people. The perception of the Paralympic Games has changed dramatically – although Rio was not expected to be as big as London there was still a high level of publicity around it and a lot of interest from the public and it is only going to get better and better. Probably some day in the future when I have retired it will be even bigger than it is now and that is only a good thing I think.”
The maturity that has produced more consistency as an athlete is also evident in his role as athlete representative for the team.
“I wasn’t going to put myself forward at first but I went for it because a lot of the team asked me to. The perception is that it is a way for the athletes to fight against the rules but I look at it as a role where I can try and support the coaches a bit by giving them an insight into our views. While this lockdown period has happened I have been involved in a few meetings with athletes from different sports and I have been feeding back to Jill and Greg (BPTT head of performance support Jill Crompton and head coach Greg Baker). I feel they have seen that my insight is potentially going to be helpful – it is not me saying to them ‘you need to do this or that’ it is more of an insight into what the guys are feeling and it gives them a few ideas of how they can try and improve us or the situation. I feel that I know where my boundaries are, where I shouldn’t step in and where I should, so it has worked well really.”
McKibbin agrees with Baker and Crompton that the situation created by the pandemic will result in a stronger team.
“I think the team has come together really well,” he said, “but to be honest from day one it was something I was never worried about. I know our team is a tight-knit team – all the players have a lot of respect for the staff that they are going to be doing the best for us and in some ways the days when we have not spoken is a sign of how much trust there is. We know that things are going on in the background and they are going to do the best for us to come back. They also know that we are going to be doing our fitness training and doing everything to try and improve.
“As a team it has been very good. We’ve had shadow play sessions, fitness sessions and regular catch ups. I think we’ve dealt with it very well and that will be a big benefit for us when we do come back to training.”
For now, Tokyo next summer remains his focus and McKibbin admits that the coronavirus has illustrated how much situations can change over time making long-term plans impossible.
“I’m going to give it my best next year and try to be as successful as I can in Tokyo,” he said. “I’m not ruling Paris out but I will look at it the same as I did Tokyo after Rio. A four year cycle is a long time and a lot of things can happen in that time. When the time comes to retire I’d like to look back and have no regrets, to be happy with what I’ve done and feel that I couldn’t have done anymore. That is what I’ve tried to do my whole career and if you can do that then all you can do is be happy that you’ve given your best.”