The first day of competition at the Rio2016 Paralympic Games is heralded by clouds and light rain but they don’t dampen the excitement as the clock ticks round to 9am local time and the table tennis events get underway.
As in London Aaron is the first into the fray and he plays well against the French World number three Thomas Bouvais despite a 3-1 loss and will go into his second match tomorrow against the Belgian Marc Ledoux with the knowledge that he has won their last three matches.
Next up is Jane and she also plays well in defeat to the World champion and World number two Li Qian from China. Her next match is on Saturday against Hatice Duman from Turkey and she heads off to see her family who have made the journey to Rio to support her.
Ash is not only making his Paralympic debut but is also on one of the TV tables so his match against Juan Bautista Perez Gonzalez is streamed live by Channel 4. The World number three is in top form but when Ash takes a 7-2 lead in the second set we start to hope that he may be able to repeat his win over Perez in Slovakia two years ago. However, the Spaniard is in no mood for a repeat of that experience and after taking a tight second set 12-10 he takes control of the match. Afterwards Ash is clearly energised by his first taste of Paralympic table tennis and his new status as a Paralympian.
The atmosphere in the hall has been building and the Brazilian crowd is approaching fever pitch as 18 year old Danielle Rauen has levelled at 2-2 against the women’s class 9 Chinese World number two Xiong and as she completes a famous 3-2 victory she leaps into the arms of her coach in the style of Will Bayley.
It is now time for David’s first match and his opponent Ibrahim Hamadtou defines the spirit of the Paralympic Games. The 43 year old Egyptian lost both his arms in a train accident at the age of ten and holds the racket between his teeth. In order to serve he plays without a shoe on his right foot, gripping the ball with his toes and throwing it up in the air before swinging his head and striking the ball with near perfect timing and at times astonishing speed.
After completing a 3-0 win David is full of admiration for his remarkable opponent.
“I’m here to get the job done,” he says, “and two weeks ago I was feeling the pressure and feeling a bit jittery and then you come here and see people like Ibrahim and you can’t possibly feel nervous because he kind of puts it into perspective with the things he can do. In table tennis it is skill vs skill and I know I won today but I think he has demonstrated far more skill than I have just now and I’ve got so much respect for him – it was an honour to play him.”
The morning session over there is a break until 4pm when Rob enters the hall for his first match against old rival Sylvio Keller. A crew from Channel 4 has arrived and sitting volleyball star Martine Wright, who is working for them here, is going to interview Rob after the match. At 2-0 up things are looking good but a table tennis match can change so quickly and suddenly Rob is 2-2 and facing a deciding set. Thankfully he calms our nerves by running away with the fifth set and Martine breathes a sigh of relief that her interview will be a positive one.
Will’s first match is going to be an even bigger challenge as he is playing the Brazilian Israel Stroh and Riocentro3 is starting to feel like a mini Maracana as the crowd cheer, clap, chant, stamp and wave their flags. Unlike tennis players who appear to be put off if they hear so much as a pin drop, table tennis players love a noisy atmosphere and it is certainly that as the players enter the hall. There are a few more GB flags in the crowd now and we have two tables to watch as Sara is playing the Paralympic champion and World number one Anna-carin Ahlquist.
Will takes a tense first set but Stroh is clearly inspired by the crowd and the noise levels increase as the Brazilian takes the next three sets and we are reminded once again that there are no easy matches at a Paralympic Games. Will is bitterly disappointed but he is not out of the tournament yet and vows to come back stronger tomorrow for his must win match against Liao from China.
Sara has lost to Anna-carin and our attention now turns to Ross whose introduction by the MC is greeted with a cheer by the small group of GB supporters in the stand behind him which is adorned with a GB flag carrying his name. His match against Emil Andersson is a repeat of their bronze medal match in London 2012 and we all hope that today it will be Ross who comes out on top.
Ross looks sharp and takes the first set but having unexpectedly lost his first match to Skrzynecki from Poland this morning Andersson is fighting for his Paralympic life and uses all his experience to take the next two sets. The fourth is nip and tuck all the way but Ross clenches his fist as he takes it 11-9 and we are into a decider. Meanwhile the noise from the Brazilian crowd is deafening as one of their players also levels at 2-2 and it is astonishing that anyone can concentrate in such a noisy atmosphere.
The last set is nerve rackingly close but Andersson takes it 11-9 and Ross must now beat Skrzynecki tomorrow in which case his group will be decided on countback. He is disappointed and deserved better for his efforts but he also vows to come back stronger tomorrow.
Our final match for the day involves Sue Gilroy competing in her fifth Paralympics. She has been drawn in a tough group and a 3-0 loss to World champion Zhang from China means she has to beat Pi-chun Lu from Chinese Taipei tomorrow if she is to have any chance of finally adding a Paralympic medal to her impressive tally.
So day one is over and it hasn’t been the day we had hoped for but all of our 13 athletes are still in the tournament. Who knows what tomorrow will bring but we can be sure of one thing – this team will not give up without a fight.