Without the intervention of the COVID-19 pandemic David Wetherill would have been preparing to compete in his fourth Paralympic Games later this month but paradoxically the months of lockdown have left the class 6 World number four in his best physical shape for many years.
“I’ve loved lockdown,” he admitted. “I’m not going to lie – I haven’t missed playing table tennis at all. I don’t miss things as such. It is good to be back playing again and I’m loving it but you can always find something else to do. I am an absolute unit at the moment and I feel so good. I’ve actually lost quite a bit of muscle but I’ve ripped up and been so active, which has been really good. I can go cycling, swimming and work out in the gym all day and not feel as knackered as I do after an hour of playing table tennis. Yoga has been my big lockdown activity. One of my best mates is a yoga instructor and I’ve been able to give it some time and thought so that has been cool as well.”
The 30 year old was born in Plymouth but was brought up on the Cornish side of the River Tamar in Torpoint where he has spent the last few months with his family and enjoying life by the sea.
“My life down here does revolve around the sea,” he said, “and it is what I definitely miss when I’m training in Sheffield. I feel very enclosed inland. I’m used to getting up and having a swim in the sea – it is like having an unlimited swimming pool in your back garden. I always feel that I want to do something after training but I am too tired to do it and going in the sea is such a nice, low intensity exercise and good for the muscles and recovery. When I am in Sheffield I go home after training and plonk myself on the sofa and I get myself in a rut sometimes doing that – just training, going home, sleeping. I do love having a low intensity exercise which is stimulating as well.”
Born with multiple epiphyseal dysplasia, which affects the growing ends of the bones, and a congenital heart defect Wetherill acknowledges that his physical limitations can be frustrating.
“I want to train all the time and I know if I didn’t have my disability I could go on for ages but I am so restricted because I have to rest. Table tennis is more and more painful for me these days so it does get frustrating and although I still love table tennis and am mindful that I need to train I have got to be careful of overstepping that line. You want that line to be further and you want to train more but sometimes it is not possible.
“If I push myself over the line next day I’m going to pay for it. My bones are like concrete in the mornings and it is a fine line between loosening your bones up and not doing too much. Morning matches are much tougher than evening matches – just from a physiological aspect. I’ve got to free myself up every single day and sometimes you think it is too painful and it is but then you get going and you realise it is not as bad as you thought. So it is a mental battle every day.”
Table tennis was a challenge he originally dismissed – preferring to swim, cycle and play football – but after breaking his leg at the age of 10 he discovered a sport at which he could continue to compete with his older brother and, more importantly, beat him.
“My dad used to play table tennis,” explained Wetherill, “and I used to scoff at it because at that time I was running around and playing football with my brother and there were other things I was more interested in. I wish I had given it more of the time of day when I was younger; when I broke my leg I was forced into it because it was the only thing I could do and I loved it. So I should have given it more of a chance when I was younger and more able physically.
“I think my love for table tennis is linked to my disability. I’m very competitive and I was never going to be able to run as fast as my brother or keep up with him at cycling or swimming so table tennis was my outlet. It is the little nuances in table tennis where you can make up for your physical limitations and still be able to win even if I couldn’t move as fast. I think that is what drew me to it. If I didn’t have a disability I maybe wouldn’t like table tennis as much and maybe I wouldn’t be as good. It is an interesting hypothetical question.”
Competition with his older brother Gareth was a big part of his life growing up.
“He is really tall and strong,” said Wetherill. “He was the fastest at running, the best at sport in the whole school and I wanted to try and keep up with him. He is only 13 months older than me so it was not much of an age gap and I looked up to him massively when I was younger. We started playing table tennis at a similar time and if he hadn’t played as well I may not have got into it as much. It helped that I was better at it than him.”
After making his international debut in 2005 Wetherill was only 18 when he competed in his first Paralympic Games in Beijing in 2008. He was unlucky not to progress to the knockout stages after winning two of this three group games and losing the third 3-2 having held match point, eventually missing out on a place in the semi-finals on countback.
“Beijing is a bit of a blur,” he said. “When you are that young people say it is all experience but you don’t really understand what that means. I didn’t really understand myself or know how I reacted to certain things. I was playing on pure adrenalin and instinct and you have to have those experiences to get better at them. I think I learnt quite a lot from Beijing and it gave me a bit of fire in my belly.”
He had reached a career high of world number two when injury intervened again in 2010, a badly broken arm putting him on the side-lines and affecting his preparation for London 2012. Once again he went out at the group stages on countback but he made the headlines when his spectacular diving shot against the German Thomasz Kusiak became a YouTube sensation.
“I went into London not having had the best prep because of my broken arm and I wasn’t in the best shape,” recalled Wetherill. “I did my chemistry degree in the four years between Beijing and London and I felt a lot of performance anxiety in London. I was very nervous and the home crowd increased the expectation and I was under a bit more pressure to actually win a medal. Looking back I wasn’t at the level that maybe I thought I was and obviously injury and other factors came into that. I think I put a little too much pressure on myself. It wasn’t a good time for me personally and if I had had a good run up it could have been different. When I look back I learnt a lot especially mentally because I have been in positions recently where I haven’t had the best prep and it has not affected me. I didn’t have that resilience back then so I learnt a lot from London – more than I did from any other tournament.
“I got a lot of stick for that shot. People who don’t know table tennis said it was amazing but at the end of the day results matter and I lost the match. It did make me change the way I played; I became a lot safer and a lot more results driven. London influenced me big time for the next four years and in the way I play now.
“It is the tactical nuances that really make a good player not the big shots and it is hard going into a match when people are expecting flamboyance all the time and you know that is not what you should be doing. So I guess it did affect my thought processes for a while and was a bit of a negative distraction in some respects. When people are watching you play and are expecting things you feel like you have to play in a certain way. You learn when you have to take a few risks and you know when you have to up the gears a little bit. The way I play now I have to stay very disciplined and get the ball on the table.”
While his talent was never in doubt major medals eluded him until the European Championships in 2015, when he took bronze in the men’s class 6 singles and silver in the team event with Paul Karabardak. The tournament was a turning point for Wetherill, proving that he could produce his best when it mattered most.
“It was a relief,” he admitted, “and I think validation more than anything that what you have been doing has all been worth it and is actually working. A lot of the time when you are training you don’t feel the improvements day in day out – you have good days and bad days and you just have to trust that the process is working. Obviously I had failed a number of times; injuries had played a big part in that and you need a bit of luck. More than anything it gave me the confidence that I am at a level where I am good enough. My results since then have been solid and I feel confident I can do the business when I need to and that was not the case before.”
The following year in Rio he outplayed the World number one Alvaro Valera for two sets in their quarter-final and held match point against the Spaniard before losing 3-2. Although bitterly disappointed with the result, he takes confidence from that performance and feels that the experience will be even more valuable in Tokyo next summer.
“There is nothing in that match I would have changed,” he said. “I played class and I honestly believe that if I had won that match I would have won (the gold). I feel good from that, especially going in to Tokyo next year. Although it wasn’t a medal match I felt like it was, so I feel that I have been in that situation already.”
After losing to Valera again in the European final in 2017 Wetherill finally defeated his nemesis in the quarter-finals at the European Championships last year, a performance that was all the more remarkable as it came less than a month after undergoing heart surgery.
“It was nice to finally do it. It was probably up there with my best performances so I’m really proud. I wasn’t best prepared to capitalise on it and I don’t want to use it as an excuse for losing in the semi-finals but it was a major factor – having major surgery before a competition is not ideal but you can’t change these things.”
A complex character Wetherill admits that age and experience have changed his perspective on life, describing himself as a ‘rapscallion’.
“I care about the things in life that matter but I don’t care about the things that don’t,” he said. “I used to get so uptight over ridiculous things that really don’t matter whereas now I just want to have fun. I love making friends and I love helping people. This is my outlook now and table tennis gives me a bit of an identity and it gives me a goal to work towards. I love having a good time but I definitely need to harness that. There are ways of harnessing your character and values in a good way that can help me on the table. If I could transfer my personality and outlook off the table on to the table then that would be the Holy Grail. I feel like I have failed to do that in the past but now I’m bringing it on to the table a bit more and if I am the real me on the table then I have no worries.
“Life can get a bit too serious sometimes and I think your own experiences and other peoples experiences can rub off on you and it has given me quite a nice outlook now. A lot of my friends have been through a tough time during lockdown and I have enjoyed being there for them. I think I get more value out of that than anything else and that helps me when I am away playing tournaments. It gives me a bit of perspective – seize the day, make the most of it and have a good time.
“I wouldn’t say I was an angry young man but I was going through a lot and I didn’t know how to deal with it. At the end of the day the best way to learn is to go through it yourself and that has made me into who I am. I know what really motivates me and what makes me tick and if I can stick to that then I know I am in a good place.”
Although unable to return to training with the squad in Sheffield yet he is back on the table in his local club in Plymouth but admits that thoughts of Tokyo are still far from his mind.
“I’m looking forward to going back to training in Sheffield but to be honest I’m not even thinking about Tokyo yet. I’m living in the moment, just taking one day as it comes and I’ll focus more on Tokyo next year. I need to tune up on match play and the mental side of things but I’ve really enjoyed the break from it, being at home and spending time with friends and family without too many performance stresses to think about.”
After taking gold in the team event at the European Championships in 2017 and 2019 Wetherill is looking forward to competing in the team event in Tokyo, when for the first time there will be a category for classes 6-7.
“Team event takes the pressure off and I’ve never had that before,” he explained. “There is a lot of pressure on the singles if you know that is your one and only chance and I’ve always felt that even if I was in the team event without too many chances it would have helped my singles performance. I’ve looked on with envy and some frustration that I haven’t had the opportunity to play the team event since Beijing but thankfully next year we have a big chance so let’s have it.”