The ParalympicsGB table tennis team finished Rio 2016 on a high as Aaron McKibbin, Ross Wilson and Will Bayley took the bronze medal in men’s class 6-8 team, beating the class 8 World team champions China 2-1.
McKibbin and Wilson had pushed Zhao Shuai and Ye Chao Qun to five sets in the Slovenia Open team event in May and, having made a slow start to the doubles in their semi-final against Ukraine yesterday, they immediately took the initiative against the Chinese pair by taking the first set 11-7.
The second set was closer but a great forehand from Wilson secured the set 11-9 and GB led 2-0.
Zhao and Ye hit back to take the next two sets and at 0-3 in the fifth it appeared as if China now had the momentum. But McKibbin and Wilson came back to level and then moved ahead and at 8-6 down China called a time out. It worked initially as they took the next three points but GB levelled at 9-9 and then a short serve from McKibbin was netted by Zhao to set up match point. They only needed one as another short serve was netted by Ye and McKibbin and Wilson had taken the doubles 3-2 for a 1-0 lead in the match.
In the first singles Wilson faced Zhao, who earlier in the week had retained his men’s class 8 Paralympic singles title. The 21 year old was always playing catch-up in the first set which Zhao took 11-7 but matched the World number two all the way through the second, which he lost narrowly 9-11, and then took the third 11-6 with some clever play. Although Zhao took the fourth 11-6 and the match 3-1 Wilson can be proud of his effort.
That left McKibbin needing to beat Sun Churen in the deciding singles to take the bronze. The 25 year old made the perfect start, taking the first set 11-6, but the Chinese former World number three came back to edge the second 11-9. The third set was all McKibbin and a time out for Sun at 6-3 down did not prevent the GB player from taking the set 11-3.
Sun took an early lead in the fourth set and although McKibbin levelled at 7-7 the Chinese player pulled away to take the set 11-9 and level the match.
There can be no greater pressure than playing a deciding set in the deciding singles against China to win a Paralympic medal but McKibbin began positively and raced into a 4-0 lead and although Sun reduced the deficit to 4-3 McKibbin kept inching ahead and at 8-5 was within sight of a famous victory. However, Sun was not done yet and levelled at 9-9 but McKibbin set up a match point only to go long with his forehand. An error by Sun gave him another match point and this time he made no mistake to win the set 12-10, the match 3-2 and the bronze medal for GB 2-1.
“To be honest I think the fifth game was down to nerves,” said McKibbin. “I was so nervous but I could see in his face that he was praying for me to miss and at the end I thought I just need to go for this and play to win and if I lose playing to win then fair enough. He was playing for me to miss and I was going to make sure that I played to win because I believe that if I play to win I have a better chance. Thankfully it paid off and it is just phenomenal.
“We have a special belief about us and we believed we were going to do this today. It was a hard loss yesterday and we came back and we believed genuinely that we could do this if we performed to our level and we showed it out there. I’m over the moon for the boys – we won a bronze medal in London but I personally think this is a greater achievement. We have had such hard opponents all the way through and the competition is getting stronger and stronger. I’m just so thrilled for the boys that we’ve done it.”
Wilson has endured a series of injuries in the last four years and was playing in only his sixth competition since London 2012.
“We started quite slowly in our semi-final match,” he said, “and we really wanted to up it for this one so we really wanted to start well and from the go we went out there and just gave it absolutely everything. We had a great start but they came back and showed amazing fight and we went down in the fifth but we believed until the end. I was feeling the nerves the whole way through the last match but we believed in him (Aaron). We do that as a team – we believe in each other and I think that is what makes us get these results and I can’t believe we’ve done it.”
Bayley, who had secured the decisive singles win in the quarter-final against Spain, admitted that he would rather play than watch.
“It was agony watching,” said the 28 year old, “and I just feel drained now. They were superb – we’ve come through a lot in this tournament and had to beat some good teams. Overall the tournament has been fantastic for us and I’m proud of the boys – they held their nerve superbly.”