Kent duo Will Bayley and Ross Wilson have been included in the ParalympicsGB table tennis squad in Tokyo next month.
Bayley, a former star of Strictly Come Dancing, says his father figure status can help Great Britain’s table tennis players waltz their way to Paralympic glory. The 33-year-old from Tunbridge Wells shot to national fame on the flagship BBC show in 2019 after soaring to Rio 2016 gold in his Class 7 category.
Still ranked world No.1, the London 2012 silver medallist is the experienced head in the British squad and hopes his two-time podium experience can help his team-mates set the Japanese stage alight.
Bayley, one of over 1,000 athletes on UK Sport’s National Lottery-funded World Class Programme, said: "I'm a little bit more experienced – we've got so many experienced players in the squad and a lot of good young players as well.
"I think they should just take it in, try and take in the village and try to enjoy the moments where you get train before the tournament.
"Also, and it sounds weird, but try not to take it too seriously, try and have a bit of fun with it because it can become very stressful anyone.
"A little bit of fun is not a problem – I think it's quite a good thing, so I just tell them to try and enjoy the moment.
"I think I've struggled myself to do it because there's a lot of pressure – you've got a target and you've got to try and achieve it, so nothing else matters really.”
UK Sport’s National Lottery-funded World Class Programme allows Bayley to train full-time, access the world’s best coaches and benefit from pioneering technology, science and medical support.
And he’s firmly used that funding to maximise his potential both on and off the table since scooping Class 7 silver at the storied Games of London 2012.
He followed it up with an unforgettable gold in Brazil four years later and in 2019 penetrated living rooms up and down the country on Strictly Come Dancing.
Partnered with professional Janette Manrara, versatile Bayley was forced to withdraw from the competition but relished the experience of starring in front of the nation.
Attention has now reverted to claiming a third Paralympic medal and history-chasing Bayley, who knows that would add to the 864 Olympic and Paralympic medals won by Great Britain and Northern Ireland athletes since the advent of National Lottery funding in 1997, said: "We're just here to really do a job, enjoy the moment and focus now on a huge event – we're really looking forward to it.
"I believe I can achieve again, and I think when you've achieved something it gives you belief that you can go again. I certainly haven't put my foot on the break.
"I keep going full out and I want to try and create history. It would be a great achievement if I could do it again.”
Thirteen athletes have been selected for the Para team.
Wilson won team bronze in Rio with Bayley and Aaron McKibbin and the 26- year-old from Minster on the Isle of Sheppey is hoping to add Paralympic gold to the World and Commonwealth titles he won in 2018.
“I feel that in some ways I’ve got the experience behind me,” he said, “and in other ways it will be a completely different experience altogether because of Covid and the lack of competitions beforehand but I’m really looking forward to it.
“Because I haven’t played a competition for so long it will just be nice to be able to get out there and compete again no matter what the result is; I’m just looking forward to getting out there and seeing what I can do and I’ll give it my absolute best shot.
"It’s an amazing feeling when you know the whole country is supporting you and you are doing what you love and you just want to do everyone proud and just give it your all really. To add the Paralympic title to my World and Commonwealth ones would be incredible but I’ve just got to take each game as it comes. For me just playing out there and for everything to be going ahead is a really special feeling and I can’t wait to experience it.”
Bayley will compete in the men’s class 7 singles and men’s class 6-7 team event while Wilson will compete in the men’s class 8 singles and men’s class 8 team event.
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