The GB team begins the vital qualification season for the 2016 Paralympic Games this week with seven players competing in the Hungarian Open (March 13-15). Paralympic medalists Ross Wilson and Aaron McKibbin (class 8) will be joined by fellow Paralympian Paul Karabardak (class 7), Ashley Facey Thompson (class 9), Megan Shackleton (class 4) and Pathway Squad members, Billy Shilton (class 7) and Tom Matthews (class 1).
Wilson and McKibbin won Paralympic team bronze with Will Bayley in London 2012 and both hope that experience will help them as the build up to Rio intensifies.
“Before London I was a bit nervous about trying to qualify and it was always on my mind that I wasn’t going to get there,” admitted Wilson. “But this time around I want to get my spot back at the top of the world rankings and achieve more than just qualifying for Rio.”
Wilson returned last October from a two year absence due to injury to win gold in the men’s class 8 singles in France and the 19 year old, who was world ranked number two before his injury, has his sights firmly set on Rio and this year’s European Championships.
“Winning in France was definitely a boost,” Wilson admitted, “but I think more than anything it has motivated me even more to win tournaments. I’m excited and ready to be part of the team again because I have missed that. It’s been a while since I was part of a full strength GB squad at a competition so I’m looking forward to that.”
“For me it is key to try and approach this year the same as other years,” said 23 year old McKibbin, “as if you try and build it up the pressure can become too much. It is everyone’s goal this season to qualify for Rio and the year before London there was definitely more of a buzz around the circuit so I’m looking forward to the season starting now.”
Despite some good wins against higher ranked opponents last year he has struggled with consistency and knows that is the key to improving his current world ranking of 13.
“I’ve shown I have the level to play against the top players,” he said, “but the better players maintain their level and that is where I struggle as my form dips too often. So finding a way to keep my level high is hopefully going to take me to where I want to be. It is partly a mental thing but also down to playing at that level all the time in training and for it to feel normal which is slowly starting to happen. I feel that I am playing more quality day in and day out which is the way I need to go to be able to play at a high level in matches.”
Swansea’s Karabardak represented GB in both the Beijing and London Paralympic Games and won a bronze medal in the team event at the World Championships in China last September.
“Training has been going well,” said the 29 year old, “and I’m playing at a good level so I’m pleased with that. The main things I need to improve on are my confidence and self-belief and also my fitness – I’ve been working hard in the gym and also with the team psychologist which has helped and hopefully I can take that into these competitions.
“It’s a tough year because everyone wants to go to Rio – it’s always the toughest year on the calendar trying to qualify for the Paralympics but it’s a nice year to be a part of as it’s very exciting. The Paralympics is one of the biggest events in the world so it’s very special.”
Facey Thompson, 20, showed great improvement last season and finished with a bronze medal in the men’s class 9 singles at the Cote d’Azur International in October.
“That bronze medal helped me a lot,” he said, “and I have a lot of confidence going into the new season. Training has been going well – I’ve been working on my movement which is improving slowing but getting better. I feel so much more comfortable in my game and I feel that each match I go into I have a chance.”
Having missed out on qualification for the Paralympics in 2012 he experienced some of the atmosphere in London as part of the Paralympic Inspiration Programme.
“I was gutted that I didn’t get to London,” he admitted, “but the PIP inspired me a lot and has made me strive to get to Rio.”
Last year was a breakthrough year for Shackleton, winning her first singles medal in Romania in June and then finishing the season with two gold medals in the Cote d’Azur International in France.
“France has given me a lot of confidence for this year when the results are really going to matter,” said the 15 year old. “Last year I was able to put in some good performances and hopefully I can maintain that into the new season. I’ve had a good winter’s training and I’ve been working on my fitness and making sure my stamina is good in matches which will hopefully help me this season. I’ve also been working with the team psychologist making sure I’m mentally prepared for all my matches and the things I’ll be facing in different countries and different environments.”
Having won his first singles medal in Spain and finished last season with a second team gold medal at the Cote d’Azur International in France 16 year old Shilton is hoping for more medals this season and a rise up the world rankings from his current position of 25.
“Winning gold in France has made me more confident and I believe in myself more now,” he said. “I know I can do it and I just need to work hard and hopefully my form from France can continue into this year. I want to try and win another singles medal and get out of my group in a factor 40 as I haven’t done that yet. I also want to compete in the Europeans in October which would be my first major championships.”
Matthews, from Aberdare, is aiming to reach his first Paralympic Games but after an up-and-down season in 2014 he is focusing on making improvements to his game and winning more matches.
“Training has been going really well,” he said, “we’ve been working on touch play, spinning the ball on a bit and coming up with a bit more variation in play so I have more than one plan when I go into a match. My new chair means I can move around a lot more and reach short balls now. Rio is at the back of my mind but I’m focused on the next competition and I’m going to take it match by match rather than thinking about a big goal. Everyone in the squad is excited by Rio and it’s always the main goal to get to a Paralympics.”
The 22 year old was a promising mountain bike rider before an accident left him wheelchair bound at the age of 16 and is thriving on the challenge that his new sport brings.
“Some people say table tennis is easy but it really isn’t,” he said. “Before my accident I would never have thought of doing table tennis but now I love it – it’s so competitive even in training. The competitive background I had in cycling is back and I’m really enjoying it.”
GB Performance Director Gorazd Vecko said: “It is important for the GB players to compete at the National Championships but the players we are taking to Hungary need to play in as many international tournaments as possible to give them the best chance of qualifying for the Paralympic Games in 2016. Our athletes need to qualify by the end of this year so it is a massively important season and we also have the European Championships in Denmark in October, which will be the last major event for the team before Rio.”