The postponement of this year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games until 2021 may have come as a massive blow to many athletes but Joshua Stacey, who was hoping to compete in his first Paralympic Games this summer, has taken it as an opportunity to achieve even more in Tokyo.
“When the announcement came,” he said, “I just thought it’s another year to try and improve as much as I can rather than anything else because it is out of my hands. The athletes’ safety needs to come first over anything else so it gives me another year to push on and go to the Games in even better shape if I do manage to get there. For me, I’m just thinking it is a better opportunity to achieve what I want to achieve.”
This attitude is typical of 20 year old Stacey, who sees challenges where other people see obstacles. He was initially attracted to table tennis because in his own words he wasn’t very good and his determination to succeed has been evident since he first joined the British Para Table Tennis Team as a member of the Pathway Squad in October 2017.
“I’ve always liked to be the best at what I do,” he admits, “and when I first started playing table tennis during a PE lesson at school I was pretty bad. But as I started to play more – going to a local club and playing two or three times a week – I understood the sport more and I started to enjoy how different it can be on any given day and the pressure that comes with it. I wouldn’t say I loved it immediately – it was more that as I played it a bit more I found out more about it and it became interesting. I enjoyed the challenge and the fact that you had to work hard to get better.”
Stacey attributes his work ethic to his grandfather who he credits as the person who has influenced him the most.
“He came from a large family and didn’t have a lot growing up,” he said. “From what I have seen he has always worked as hard as he can and never complained when things haven’t gone his way. He just dug in and kept going which is something that I would like to carry with me while I am playing and in the future – just having that grit to work even harder when things don’t go your way.”
That ability to see the positive in any situation helped Stacey again when he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy (CP) at the age of 17. During a visit to Grantham College, where Stacey was combining his table tennis with his studies, BPTT coach Mat Kenny noticed that the young Welshman was walking on his toes and suggested that there may be a physical reason for his inability to place the weight fully on his feet.
“The Pathway manager Shaun Marples chased it up pretty quickly,” explained Stacey, “and I went to see a specialist. They decided I needed an MRI scan and it came back that I had brain damage on one side of my brain which was consistent with a CP diagnosis. For me, knowing I had CP wasn’t really a big thing in terms of how it would affect me in general because I had lived with it and it didn’t really affect me in a negative way.
“The one thing that my coaches had tried to get me to do was to balance the weight on both of my legs – I had never realised that I couldn’t do it because of the CP and I used to get frustrated because my brain was saying do it but my body could never quite manage it. Little things like my flexibility was never as good even though I stretched twice as much as everyone else – which I had just shrugged off as being my body – made sense when I had my diagnosis. I wasn’t shocked by it – I always thought there might be something wrong but I never thought it was something as drastic as brain damage. Once I got the diagnosis it just meant I would get more opportunities so I’m not going to complain about it now.”
Stacey went to the Belgium Para Open in October 2017 to be classified, winning bronze in the men’s class 9 singles and gold in the men’s class 9 teams, and has never looked back. Having completed his studies at Grantham he moved to Sheffield to train full time with the British team and immediately realised what it meant to be a full time athlete.
“It was definitely a change of mind-set,” he said, “partially just being in a full time environment but I was also training with players who all had a consistent goal of being one of the best players in the world. At Grantham there were some players who would really work their hardest every session but there were some who would just go through the motions whereas in Sheffield there is no-one that ever does that. So it was a welcome shock that there was a whole group of players who pursued the same thing and it definitely helped me realise that it was a very good environment to be in to progress.”
Stacey did indeed make rapid progress. Having won a bronze medal for Wales in the Commonwealth Games in 2018, he represented his home country in the 2019 Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships in India and the 2019 World Table Tennis Championships in Hungary. He also became National U21 champion in 2019, a title he successfully defended this year, and swept the board at the British Para Table Tennis National Championships, taking the Open Standing Singles title, the Open Standing Doubles title with Billy Shilton and the men’s class 9 title.
Despite men’s class 9 singles titles won in Czech Republic (2018) and Poland (2020), Stacey sees the men’s class 10 team bronze at last year’s European Championships as the highlight of his career so far.
“It had always been Ashley (Facey Thompson) and Kim (Daybell) in the team event,” he explained, “and then I came in out of nowhere and had to find my feet. After the first year I progressed a lot quicker once I was in Sheffield full time so I was able to contribute to winning that medal. With the three of us we’re going to be a team that can win medals at every major. So it was great to experience it with the boys and know we can do it when it really matters.”
Having broken into the world’s top 10 in men’s class 9 Stacey’s progress was confirmed in February this year when he joined the Performance squad.
“I was just happy that I had managed to break down that barrier and make the next step,” he said. “When you get into the Performance squad the next step is not just to compete in major championships but to medal at them. So I’m looking forward to competing in the next major and doing my best to medal. I think I am performing at the level now where it is becoming more and more possible so I just need to keep working.”
The coronavirus pandemic may have brought a temporary halt to Stacey’s rise up the rankings but he is able to see that sport has little significance in the current situation.
“To miss playing table tennis the most in this situation is a little bit naïve, for me anyway, because there is a much bigger picture and people going through a lot worse. Being around the team is always nice and one of the best things about going into training every day so I do miss seeing the team and having a routine to my day. You don’t really have it at the moment because you sort of wake up and decide what you are going to do and what you can do. Realistically you can still go out to exercise and I do enjoy running. I’m just keeping active and trying to make sure that when I do go back into training I don’t get too many niggles and injuries because my body isn’t ready; so I’m doing what I can even though I can’t play. It is not ideal but there are worse situations and you’ve got to take the best out of it.”
Like the rest of the British team Stacey is more aware of the bigger picture thanks to team mate and junior doctor Kim Daybell’s return to work full time on a COVID-19 ward at a North London Hospital.
“We’re all just supporting him as much as we can,” he said. “We know what he is doing and there is not much else you can say but thank you. I’ve learnt a lot from playing with him in the team events. Whatever conversation you have with him he’s always got an opinion but he is very open-minded. I’ve always enjoyed discussing things with him because he always lets you speak your piece. He’s just someone who is really good to go to for advice. In general he is just a really nice guy and what he is doing now magnifies that.”
Part of a large extended family with three sisters, a half-sister and two half-brothers, Stacey is currently back home in Cardiff with his mother, step-father and three sisters.
“My middle sister Lauren also plays table tennis so she is joining me in some of my fitness work which helps if you’re not feeling like it. She gives me that kick you need to do it when you’re tired which is always good. I enjoy watching movies – at the moment I’m watching all the Marvel films in sequence and I’m about halfway through – and I play on my PlayStation with the boys from the squad and with my brothers and sisters.”
While his Paralympic debut will have to wait Stacey’s focus remains the same.
“I want to replicate what Will (Bayley) has been able to do – to medal at all the majors,” he admits. “That is my real goal. I want to eventually be viewed as one of the best in the world in class 9. I know I’m ranked number eight now but I think when you break into that top three that is when you are recognised as one of the best. So that is my goal in the next year and then I want to push on to try and medal at each major and go from there. I want to win titles – I’ll never be happy just competing.
“Table tennis is one of those sports where you never stop improving. If you look at (World and Olympic champion) Ma Long he has achieved everything and yet every time you see him compete he is always improving something about his game. So if someone who is probably the best player of all time is able to improve in so many ways I’m pretty sure I can improve. I just want to be the best I can be. I know it is going to take a long time and I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied even if I achieve what I want to achieve because there is always something else to work on.”