After months of uncertainty following the cancellation of the last three tournaments in the qualification period for Tokyo due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Megan Shackleton finally moved one step closer to making her Paralympic debut when her name was included on the initial list of athletes confirmed as qualified by the ITTF last week.
“It obviously means the world to me,” said the 21 year old from Todmorden, “because I’ve been training for years with the aim of going to a Paralympics so to finally see my name on that list just hammers home how much of a journey it has been and how much I’ve transformed over the last few years.”
The disappointment she felt after missing out on qualification for Rio in 2016 definitely made last week’s news even sweeter.
“I think it was great that I had the opportunity to be part of the qualification process for Rio so early on in my career,” she acknowledged. “It was obviously hard when everyone went off to the Games and I hadn’t qualified but I was very young and it motivated me to make sure I didn’t feel like that next time around.”
News of her qualification came from an unexpected source in the Swedish class 3 World number one and 2012 Paralympic champion Anna-carin Ahlquist.
“I didn’t know that I had qualified until the list came out,” said Shackleton. “Anna-carin sent me the list saying ‘congratulations’ so that was a nice way to find out and obviously a huge relief. Anna-carin has actually been really helpful to me throughout qualification – giving me some advice when times were hard, especially after a really tough Polish Open towards the back end of qualification. It is nice to know that players who have accomplished everything believe in you as well.
“She came over to train with us in Sheffield in February before the Spanish Open and gave me a little Tokyo key ring. She said ‘put it on your bag and take it with you to keep reminding you why you are going’. I’d just come back from Poland having not done great and I felt that I’d undone a lot of my work. At the time I didn’t know that Spain would be my last tournament for qualification so I thought it was a really nice gesture.”
Shackleton’s sporting ambitions were originally focused on competing in the Olympics as a swimmer until she fractured her spine in a machinery–related accident which left her in a wheelchair at the age of nine.
“I remember watching Rebecca Adlington in 2008 when she won two gold medals in Beijing,” recalled Shackleton, “and thinking that is what I want to go on and do. It was shortly after that I had my accident but that was when I realised I wanted to be involved in elite sport and go to a Games. I remember when I was in hospital after the accident and I said to my mum ‘does this mean I can’t go to an Olympics now?’ I had a doctor who told me about the Paralympics and he said ‘I hope to see you there one day’ so I was still hopeful but I was also very young so I don’t think I understood the severity of the situation. To be honest the accident is such a long time ago now it feels more like a story than something that actually happened to me.”
Although she returned to the pool after her accident, winning medals in National Championships, she started playing table tennis at the age of 12 at a Playground to Podium event in Leeds and the sport provided her with the new challenge that she was looking for.
“What I liked so much about table tennis was that I didn’t have something to compare it to before and after my accident,” she explained. “I did carry on swimming but eventually after I started table tennis I preferred that and it was a fresh start for me. I enjoy racket sports in general and with table tennis the speed element of it is a really big challenge. With the different spins there are so many different components to be thinking about. In order to have a good game and to be a great athlete you’ve really got to be on top of those things and it is quite a big skill set.”
The determination that has become the hallmark of her relatively short table tennis career was evident after her accident.
“I think to an extent I’ve always known what I wanted to do and been ambitious,” she said, “but I think having to adapt to life in a wheelchair and fighting for my independence a bit more has definitely brought out more determination than was there in the first place.”
The support of friends and family was also an important factor in helping her to deal with her new situation.
“I think I was quite lucky,” she said. “I went back to the same primary school that I’d been to beforehand and nobody treated me differently. They were just glad to see me back and happy and well. My family have always been there for me. When I was in hospital my mum stayed with me and slept by my bed for six months because I was too scared for her to leave me. Throughout the years whether it was school or training they have always been 100% behind me and I’ve always known they were there to support me. When I found out that I had qualified for Tokyo I told my mum and had a little cry. They know I have been trying for years to get to a Games so it is nice for them as well.”
Shackleton was only 14 years old when she made her international debut in 2013 and when she won her first singles title a year later followed by selection for her first major championships in 2015 she appeared to be on the fast track to the top but, although she continued to improve, her progress was steady rather than spectacular as she juggled training with GCSEs and then A levels.
“I think I was always quite aware that it would be a fairly long progression,” she said, “but I do think I saw the opportunity of how I could be a top player and maybe over the years it has taken me a little bit longer. I think I placed quite a lot of pressure on myself and I’ve really wanted to be taking medals at major tournaments so I think maybe that has slowed my progression a little bit. I think it has done me the world of good now because I’ve been able to put things into perspective and also I have a lot of respect for the players around me so I think that has put me in good stead for the future.
“I’d say the first time I really felt that everything was coming together was in 2018 at the World Championships when I won my match against the world number eight to make it into the quarter-finals. That was the first time I had shown on the bigger stage that I was a contender and I feel that is when people started to take notice of me and saw me as an up and coming player.”
At the European Championships last year she secured her biggest win yet against the world number four Sandra Mikolaschek from Germany, a result that helped her to break into the top 10 of women’s class 4 for the first time.
“It just reaffirms that everything I’m doing in Sheffield and working with all the different sports science teams is starting to pay off now,” she said. “That experience over the years is starting to come together; it really boosted my confidence and I feel that a lot of people know I’m now becoming someone to beat.
“I feel that definitely my serves have been something over the years that have really challenged top players. Also because I am quite agile for my disability and I’m young I can use that to my advantage. Over the last couple of years I’ve done a lot of work in psychology and that has put me in good stead. In those more difficult situations in matches I feel that I’ve got every chance of coming through on top now.”
Shackleton has already won medals at major championships, winning World and European bronze medals in the team event with five-time Paralympian Sue Gilroy, and she acknowledges how much she has benefited from that experience.
“Playing in team with Sue has definitely helped my progression over the years,” she said. “I’ve been able to watch Sue as I’ve been developing as a player and seen the level that I need to raise my game to. It is also great at a major tournament to build on the confidence after singles and still have the team event to play and try and make improvements. Now I have got older and have a bit more experience I do actually get to play quite a lot of the singles matches (in team) whereas when I was younger I used to be watching Sue and taking notes on how to raise my game to her level. I think I approach the team events with the same mind-set as the singles but it is nice to share it with someone else as well.”
Friends and family continue to play an important part in Shackleton’s life, as does her education.
“As soon as I finish my week of training I make sure that I always make time for my friends and family. Obviously I don’t get to see them as much as I did when I was younger with all the commitments to training but it is so important to me that I catch up with them especially now my friends are at University.
“I’m starting University this September – I’m doing English Literature at the University of Sheffield so I’m really excited about that. I think it will do me good to have something else to challenge me and focus on, especially in the upcoming year with all the pressures and attention that might bring. I really enjoyed English at school so I’m hoping that carries on and I feel that reading comes quite naturally to me. I’m really interested in journalism or potentially maybe one day teaching English. I had such a good English department at Todmorden High School and I think that is where I really became passionate about English.”
While the coronavirus resulted in the postponement of the Olympic and Paralympic Games it also put on hold the celebrations of Shackleton’s 21st birthday which she spent in lockdown with her family.
“I’d actually worked out at the age of 12 that my 21st would be on a Saturday,” she laughed, “so I was excited because I could go out but that didn’t quite pan out. It was strange having my 21st in lockdown. I did manage to see my grandparents but they had to watch me open my presents from outside the window so that was a little bit weird. I managed to chat to my friends online and I’m sure once lockdown has eased a bit more we’ll be able to catch up and celebrate our 21sts all together.”
A return to training in Sheffield is hopefully not too far off but Shackleton has been keeping busy at home with the aid of a table and robot as well as regular online coaching sessions with coach Andrew Rushton and team shadow play sessions.
“I’ve missed training with the rest of the team a lot,” she admitted. “I’ve been so involved with the team from 2014 onwards so to have that suddenly not in your life at all has been quite strange. I am quite close friends with a lot of the guys so we have kept in touch as much as we can and hopefully we can see each other in person soon.
“It’s been nice to make sure we are keeping in touch with each other especially under the circumstances. It has probably been more stressful for some than others but it has been a good opportunity to spend time with each other as people and not just athlete to coach or athlete to athlete.”
Although her qualification is secured, Shackleton will have to wait until next year before the team for Tokyo is officially selected and announced by ParalympicsGB. Despite the delay in finally achieving her Paralympic dream she knows that 2021 will come soon enough.
“I don’t find it so frustrating,” she said, “because I think it might have worked to my advantage in some respects as I have a bit longer to prepare than I would have otherwise. So for me I see it as more time to improve and get ready. I do want to take a medal in Tokyo – that is what everyone who is going wants – but I definitely want to soak up the experience, enjoy it and prepare myself for Paris when I really want to be taking a medal and hopefully the gold.”