World champion Will Bayley heads a 16-strong squad that will compete in the Lignano Master Open in Italy next week (February 17-20), the first international competition of the season for the GB Para Table Tennis Team as it prepares for this year’s Paralympic Games in Rio.
Bayley, the current men’s class 7 world number one, faces tough opposition from the World number two and three from the Ukraine, Maksym Nikolenko and Mykhaylo Popov, as well as Dutchman Jean-paul Montanus, the world number six who beat Bayley to win the European title last October.
“Training has been going really well,” said the 28 year old Paralympic silver medalist. “The whole squad is playing brilliantly and we are really looking forward to playing in Italy. It is a fantastic tournament and I’m really focused on doing the best I can but obviously I want to peak in Rio and this is a stepping stone. The competition is going to be very strong but that is what I want – I was really excited when I saw the players list because I want the best players there and it is a great test for me to see where my level is at the moment.”
The GB squad for Italy includes fellow London 2012 medalists Aaron McKibbin, Ross Wilson, Jane Campbell and Sara Head, World silver medalist Sue Gilroy and 2015 European championship medalists Tom Matthews, Paul Karabardak, Megan Shackleton, Billy Shilton and David Wetherill.
Aaron McKibbin secured his qualification for Rio by winning gold in the men’s class 8 singles at the China Open last November, beating the Chinese World number two in the final. After a tough winter’s training he is looking to continue that good form in 2016.
“I’m excited to kick the season off and start what is going to be a big year for the whole team and the country so I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “China taught me a lot about myself and gave me a big confidence boost and it’s now time for me to use it as a stepping stone to push on to better things. Obviously everyone would like to make a good start in Italy but it is a long season and still eight months away from the Games. The key is to be at our peak for Rio but every opportunity we have to play internationals we want to be as ready as we can and play as well as we can so it will be good to see what happens.”
Ross Wilson won a team bronze with Bayley and McKibbin in London as a 17 year old but has had to contend with a string of injuries over the past three years that have restricted him to only four international competitions. However, the 20 year old showed at the European Championships last October that he has the talent to compete with the best in winning a bronze in the men’s class 8 team event.
“The beginning of the winter was really tough,” he said. “That is always when I like to put in the most amount of work and I put myself through a lot of hard times at the beginning of the winter but I think now I am starting to feel the benefit of everything and I’m really looking forward to starting the season. Injury is part of sport and I’ve come to realise it is part of my disability but that is not a problem as I know I’ll be able to compete at the highest level no matter what affects me in the future and that is probably the biggest bonus that has come out of all my injuries. Obviously I’ll look to do my best in Italy as I always do – it’s the first competition of a big season for everyone and it’s always nice to do well but it’s not the main event at the end of the day. My main goal is Rio and always has been since London and I’m really looking forward to getting out there and competing.”
“The winter is always the time to focus on learning new things which we’ve done a lot of so I’m quite positive about it,” said Campbell. “Sara and I have also been working on things that will hopefully help us in the team event so it will be exciting to see how that goes in Italy and the few technical things in my game I’ve been working on. It will be great to make a good start and I’m sure everyone else will have that in mind as well so I don’t imagine it is going to be any easier than it has been before but I’ll certainly give it my best. We’re still in the early stages of starting to build for Rio but Italy is a preparation tournament for Rio which makes it exciting.”
“It’s been a novelty to be able to train through the winter and I’ve really enjoyed it,” she said. “It’s been a good challenge and it’s really inspired me to keep working hard rather than trying to catch up with everyone else. Results are important to me in Italy but also the fact that I achieve what I’ve been working on as that is something I need to build on now that will hopefully give me an edge in Rio. It’s been good to be able to work on my game and what I can improve so it will be interesting to see how all that’s going.”
Sue Gilroy combines her table tennis career with working full time as a primary school teacher and has been taking advantage of half term to train full time with the rest of the GB squad at the EIS in Sheffield.
“The first competition of the season is always difficult,” she said, “but I’ve been playing in the able bodied league so I’ve had lots of matches and been playing well there so I am hoping I can take that form into Italy. It’s been really good for me to train with the rest of the GB squad this week and I haven’t lost a game all week which shows me that the practice I’ve been doing has been the right practice so things are looking good at the moment.”
Paul Karabardak enjoyed a very successful season in 2015 after being reclassified as a class 6 athlete, including gold medals in Hungary and Slovenia. The 30 year old from Swansea, who also took team silver and individual bronze at the European Championships last year, is looking to continue that form in Italy.
“Training has been good,” he said. “I’ve been playing well and training hard and I’m quite happy with the way I’m playing. I’m excited about the new season and I’m hoping I can take that form into Italy. It is still early in the year and there is a lot to work on and Rio is the ultimate aim but Italy will still be important and hopefully I can get some good wins and take a medal.”
“When you are training all the time your game is in a constant state of fluidity,” he said, “and you are always trying to get better and I’ve been working on a lot of things recently. Although I was playing quite well at the back end of last season I’ve always been looking for improvements and there are a few things I’m really looking forward to trying in Italy. It’s a very important tournament but I’m going in with an open mind and I really want to just nail down the things I’ve been working on recently and hopefully I can improve my ranking and my seeding position before Rio.”
Megan Shackleton has made rapid progress since making her international debut just over two years ago and finished last season just outside an automatic Paralympic qualification place after taking a team bronze with Gilroy at the European Championships. Although she could still receive a wild card to compete in Rio she has been focusing on training and continuing her improvement.
“Training has been going really well this winter,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on last season and how I want to bring in the improvements and so far I’m feeling really strong with what I am doing. I think it is always good to make a good start to the season for confidence but I just really want to show that in pressurised years I can still put on good performances and not let occasions get to my head. Rio is out of my control now and I don’t want to waste my energy worrying about it. I always train hard and a wild card would be a great opportunity but I’ll have to wait and see what happens in March.”
Pathway players Tom Matthews and Billy Shilton also made impressive progress last year to medal at their first major championship. Both finished last year just outside a Paralympic qualification place but are still hoping to receive a wild card to compete in Rio.
“Training has been going well,” said Matthews. “I’m playing well so I’m really happy at the moment. I want to carry on playing well as I did at the end of last season and carry on working hard. The thought that I might go to Rio is always in the back of my mind but I’ve just got to carry on training hard and if I get a wild card I’ll go. Rio was always going to be a bonus and if I do go it will be amazing and if I don’t I will carry on training just as hard as ever.”
“Training has been going really well,” said Shilton, “and I’ve been playing a lot of able bodied competitions in England – Grand Prix and Junior British League – trying to get match sharp for Italy so I’m looking forward to it. I’m working a lot on my movement trying to get faster. Now that I am in class 8 everyone’s movement is a lot better so I need to improve but it is going really well at the moment. I’m really excited to play an international competition again – the last one was in Costa Rica and I didn’t play as well as I’d hoped but I am hoping that all the training I’ve done since then will come into play and I’ll play well in Italy.”
The squad for Italy is completed by Kim Daybell, Ashley Facey Thompson, Jack Hunter- Spivey, Martin Perry and Felicity Pickard.
Kim Daybell has taken a year out of his medical studies to prepare for Rio and has been dividing his time between training with the GB squad at the EIS in Sheffield and the national able bodied team in Slovenia.
“Training through the winter has been great,” said Daybell. “With the weight of meeting the qualification criteria for Rio off my shoulders I have been able to enjoy training a lot more and make the changes to my game that I feel will make me a better player in Rio. I think I am now fully settled in to full time training and feel good about the coming year. Training in Slovenia has helped me see another perspective on how the game of table tennis is played. I have learned to be a more complete match player and it has changed my mental approach to the game itself. I hope to be able to bring my best form to Italy. Though it is not the be all and end all it is important to play well to improve my ranking for when Rio comes around. I feel a lot more comfortable going into this tournament than the ones last year and hope to medal as I did last year at the same tournament.”
Ashley Facey Thompson is still waiting to see if his current world ranking of 15 will be enough to earn him qualification for Rio but has been training hard in London and with the GB squad in Sheffield.
“Training is going really well at the moment,” he said. “I’ve been fighting for every ball and keeping up the same momentum as I was when I was training full time in Sheffield. I’ve had a really good week training with the rest of the GB squad which has made me more consistent and more confident and hopefully I can produce my best form in Italy. I haven’t got a lot of pressure on me at the moment because I’m still waiting to see if I will qualify for Rio or get a wild card but it is out of my hands now. I’ve just got to carry on working hard.”
“Training through the winter has been really good,” said Hunter-Spivey. “I’ve been away to other countries training with different players and I feel like my game overall has improved a lot. In Italy I’m hoping to get as much match practice as I can, put what I’ve been working on in training into practice and see what results I get. I feel like I’m playing a lot better than I was at the start of last season and I want to show what I can do.”
“I think training full time with the squad has really helped my game,” said Perry, “but it is also quite physically demanding which is new to me. Going from training two or three days a week to two sessions every day is tough but I’m really seeing the benefit from it and I’m really enjoying it. I feel that I’m playing good at the moment and feel quite sharp so I’m looking to have a good event in Italy and crack on and keep climbing the world ranking list as I did at the end of last year.”
“Training has been going really well,” said the 21 year old from Burnley. “I’ve been progressing a lot and making some improvements because Belgium gave me the confidence to go forwards. I’m looking to dominate the games more with a more aggressive approach and seeing how that works. I can’t wait to get out to Italy – it should be good.”
“With the Paralympic Games less than seven months away Rio is obviously the main focus for this year,” said GB Performance Director Gorazd Vecko, “but there is a lot of work to be done before then. The team has been working hard through the winter and Italy will be a tough competition with many of the world’s best players competing. We obviously want the players to peak in Rio but this is an important competition for us in our preparation for the Games.”
The full list of GB players competing in Italy is:
Will Bayley – Tunbridge Wells/Sheffield (class 7)
Jane Campbell – London (class 3)
Kim Daybell – Sheffield/Leeds (class 10)
Ashley Facey Thompson – London (class 9)
Sue Gilroy – Barnsley (class 4)
Sara Head – Beddau (class 3)
Jack Hunter-Spivey – Liverpool/Sheffield (class 5)
Paul Karabardak – Swansea (class 6)
Aaron McKibbin – London/Sheffield (class 8)
Megan Shackleton – Todmorden (class 4)
David Wetherill – Torpoint (class 6)
Ross Wilson – Minster/Sheffield (class 8)
Thomas Matthews – Aberdare (class 1)
Martin Perry – Paisley/Sheffield (class 6)
Felicity Pickard – Burnley (class 6)
Billy Shilton – Stonehouse/Sheffield (class 8)