The coronavirus pandemic has affected athletes all over the world but as a mother and a teacher as well Sue Gilroy’s world has truly been turned upside down. The 47 year old five-time Paralympian combines her table tennis career with a full time teaching job at Shawlands Primary School in Barnsley and the last few months have brought not only a change in routine but also the uncertainty and anxiety experienced by all parents with school-age children.
“I’m still working full time from home,” said Gilroy, “and I’ve had both the children at home as well although my son has just gone back to work. I’ve been trying to get them into a routine – particularly my daughter Lauren who is 16 so has not been able to sit her GCSE exams. She has not been able to see her friends and is worried about not getting into college so it has been difficult.”
Like many teachers Gilroy has had to adapt to the change in circumstances and develop a new way of working remotely.
“Our school has been open to some children throughout lockdown,” she explained, “and I went in initially but because of my disability I have had to be shielded. Some of the groups have gone back but it is not normal school as we know it. I’m still doing my SENCO (special educational needs coordinator) role and meetings and lessons on Zoom so to be honest a lot of my work I can do from home. It has enabled me to work with a lot more parents than I can normally do because usually I’m in class as well, so it has been a case of trying to keep up with as many parents and children as possible and making sure they are alright and offer support where I can.
“In the future I can see people being given the option of doing some hours at home because you do exactly the same work and are probably more efficient without lots of interruptions. I think it has given people a lot of insight into what is possible to do at home.
“What I love about teaching is the interaction with the children; seeing them grow and develop as people – not just academically but on the social side with sport and music which I teach as well. I have such a great rapport with all my colleagues at work – we are good friends as well – and I miss having that banter all day. You can still interact one-to-one and in small groups online but it is not the same. We have been trying to get a bit of normality back but I think we will all be glad when we are back in class again.
“I’m doing a lot of music lessons online and that works absolutely fine. If needs must it shows that certain things can be done online but I think teaching in primary schools particularly you do have to be in the classroom with the children. I’ve no idea when we will be able to do that again – I’m hoping July or September but it is all up in the air at the moment.”
The current uncertainty in Gilroy’s life also extends to table tennis. Injuries that affected her season in 2019 and the cancellation of tournaments in the final month of the qualification period due to the pandemic have left her participation in Tokyo next summer in doubt. Currently ranked 12 in the world her chances hinge on securing a place in the final qualification tournament next April or a wild card.
“Because I couldn’t compete for quite a bit of last year it meant I was behind everyone else,” she said, “and I missed the final tournaments this year which means that qualification is a question mark now. I’ve had a difficult couple of years and to not be given the chance to do the tournaments I’ve missed to try and get that qualification spot is a bit of a kick in the teeth really. Obviously the priority is to save as many people as possible and to protect people from this virus so in the grand scheme of things competing comes at the bottom of the list but it would mean so much to me to get to Tokyo.”
Having been originally inspired by her parents to play table tennis as a child Gilroy rediscovered the sport when she became wheelchair-bound at the age of 18.
“My mum and dad played in the Barnsley and Sheffield table tennis leagues,” she said, “and they were both really good. I used to go and watch them in league matches and my dad used to coach me a bit. I had to give up playing when I was 15 because of my disability and I didn’t realise you could play sports in a wheelchair. I’d been so active playing county cricket at junior school in the lads’ team – we didn’t have female teams back then which thankfully we do now – and playing netball so it was nice to discover sport again. I did shooting for two years and tried out different sports and got back into table tennis that way.
“Table tennis is something anyone can play irrespective of fitness or ability and it is very social. I like the competitiveness and it is not the same thing all the time because whoever you play it is a different game. It is such a fast sport and I think it keeps you mentally active as well.”
Next year Gilroy will celebrate 25 years as an international athlete and she has fond memories of those early tournaments.
“There weren’t many international tournaments back then but one we always did was Ireland,” she recalls. “We used to go Dublin each year and we absolutely loved it. Whereas now we stay in hotels we used to slum it then and sleep in classrooms; it was so basic but we had so much fun. There would be 12 of you in a classroom and there was a lot of camaraderie and that friendly competitiveness. They were very long days and it was not as organised as tournaments are now but that was my first experience of international competition.
“South Africa was my first real overseas tournament and it was quite a scary experience. We were picked up from the airport and put on these flatbed trucks – can you imagine that happening these days? When we got to the hotel there had been a car-jacking in front of us and someone had been shot so I just wanted to go straight home. I’d never known a country like it but the people were so nice and it seemed such a shame that there were bars on everyone’s windows because it wasn’t safe. It opened my eyes to how other people live and how lucky we are in this country, particularly for sport.
“I used to work three jobs just to fund my training and competitions and we had to do that for many years. Funding is so much better now and we have a training base in Sheffield whereas we used to go every other weekend to Stoke Mandeville or Lilleshall or Cardiff for GB training weekends. There was a lot more travelling back then for training and we certainly didn’t have the set-up we have now.
When I started, the GB team was nearly all wheelchairs so the diversity in playing styles was fantastic and it made us better players. It has changed now and there are many more standing players and so few wheelchair players and it is such a shame that we are not seeing more wheelchair players coming through. There must be people out there and I do think we need to get a lot more wheelchair players into the sport which would improve our level.”
Sydney in 2000 was Gilroy’s first experience of a Paralympic Games and it remains one of the highlights of her career.
“It was incredible,” she recalls. “We went to the Gold Coast first for the holding camp and then into Sydney. We met such fantastic people – from the helpers to the umpires and all the competitors. I was a bit like a rabbit in the headlights because it wasn’t like anything I was used to but I loved every minute of it and out of all the Paralympics I’ve been to that will always be my favourite.”
Success was to follow with a European title, two Commonwealth titles, the world number one ranking, a world silver medal and an MBE and honorary doctorate for services to table tennis and charity but winning her first major title at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002 remains her most special memory.
“It is so different when you have a home crowd supporting you,” she said, “and Manchester was fantastic but it was also very difficult for me because my dad had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and he’d been in hospital for seven months. His only two aims were to get out of hospital to watch the final in Manchester if I got there and to see my little boy. Goodness knows how he did it but we managed to get him out of hospital in the ambulance with all the oxygen tanks to watch my final.
“I was working full time, had a young son and was visiting my dad in Weston Park hospital in Sheffield every night so the last thing I wanted to do was train. But it was what he wanted me to do and that was his goal so I had to keep training and thank goodness I did because it gave him the incentive to get well enough to get out of hospital for the day and it was so important having him there. It was really difficult but the best thing I’ve ever done and so wonderful having him and my mum there. I think it is the highlight of my career because of that.”
A Paralympic medal has so far eluded her but she came heartbreakingly close in Rio four years ago, losing the bronze medal match to the Serbian Nada Matic after leading 2-0.
“I’m still devastated about that,” she admits. “I was 2-0 up and I still don’t know what happened. It was one of those things – I think I just wanted it too much and when you see it slipping away it is so hard to turn it round. I’ve been on the other side of those results – at the World Championships in 2014 I was 2-0 down in the semi-final and came back and won it against the World number one (Borislava Peric-Rankovic) so I’ve done it from both angles. It was devastating to get so close to a medal and then lose it.
“I’ve had a difficult time since then – particularly over the last two years after separating from my husband and becoming a single parent. Because of injuries I don’t feel I’ve been given the opportunity to be where I could have been. I haven’t been training and competing like everyone else so I do feel six months behind and that may cost me a place in Tokyo at the moment which I am absolutely gutted about.”
If Gilroy does make it to Tokyo next summer she is hoping to also compete in the team event for the first time at a Paralympic Games, having already won medals at World and European level with her young team partner Megan Shackleton.
“If I went to Tokyo as part of a team with Meg that would take the pressure off a bit,” she admits. “There is so much pressure when you just go for singles because if you miss out then you haven’t got anything else whereas at least if you struggle in the singles you’ve always got the team event to fall back on. I’ve never had that at a Paralympic Games and it would be great to do that if possible.
“We get on so well – we have that rapport and we know each other’s games. Megan has improved a lot over the last year so it is an equal partnership now which is good and we can rely on each other if one of us is having an off day. It would be gutting to get this far and not to be able to play team together at the Paralympics.”
While a sixth Paralympic Games remains in the balance Gilroy’s passion for table tennis remains undimmed and her motivation to train and compete at the highest level is as strong as ever.
“I want to give back to others,” she explains, “because I’ve got so much out of sport. Part of my teaching role at school is to coach the children at table tennis and it is nice being able to get children into sport. Not every child can be a footballer but every child can play table tennis and it has been nice, particularly with girls, trying to get them into sport.
“You can get so much out of sport – not just winning medals at the highest level – but the social aspect and fitness as well. It is about trying to show people that you can still excel at sport irrespective of disability. You can control your disability rather than let it control you.
“Table tennis has helped me so much – particularly over the last two years when things have been difficult at home. It has given me something to focus on as well as my children to get me through that. I just love training and I love the sport. I think my love of it has increased over the last two years which sounds strange after 25 years. It sort of dipped a bit but it is still there as strong as ever so if I can carry on for a while longer that would be great.”
Music has also played a big part in Gilroy’s life and she admits that she will always be a ‘rock chick’ at heart.
“I was a rock drummer at 15 – I played with a heavy metal band called Touch Wood and I used to tour round Yugoslavia, as it was back then, and Austria as lead flautist in an orchestra. Although I don’t play in bands anymore I’ve taught flute, clarinet and recorder from the age of 15 and that is something I’ve been able to carry on doing while I’ve been at primary school. Rock music is still my favourite – I’ve toned it down from my heavy metal days but I do like my rock music. When I went into a wheelchair I had to give up the drums but while I’ve been at home I’ve been looking for electric drum kits as a means of keeping fit. It’s a great way of dealing with stress so I could do with that at the moment!”