Paralympic gold medallist Will Bayley returned to his childhood table tennis club in Tunbridge Wells last week to challenge all-comers to a match in aid of Children in Need.
More than 100 people, mainly from nearby schools, came along to Byng Hall Table Tennis Club and paid £5 to take on the 25-year-old champion.
They could also challenge Will’s Team GB bronze medal winning team mate. Ross Wilson, who is from Kent too. The evening raised £1,600 for the CIN campaign.
Will’s Rio gold came in the Class 7 – he achieved notoriety for jumping up on the table to celebrate – and he also won a silver at London 2012.
He and Wilson were also part of the three-man team that claimed bronze medals in Class 6-8 at the Rio Games in September – repeating their success four years previously.
The Byng Hall event began with a demonstration match between the two athletes, followed by a doubles contest in which they were joined by club members Abby Hurley and Noah Featherstone-Csillag, both 11.
The Children in Need event had a special significance for Will, who comes from Groombridge and attended the Beacon School in Crowborough.
The Byng Hall Table Tennis Club provided him with a sport that he could play despite his disabilities – and it also made him stronger and more physically able.
Will was born with arthrogryposis, which causes congenital joint contractures in all four of his limbs and leads to muscle shortening which prevents the muscle tissue from achieving extension and flexion in the affected joints.
At the age of seven he was also diagnosed with cancer, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He underwent chemotherapy at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, which had also treated his disability with numerous reconstruction operations.
Whilst recovering from cancer, Will discovered he could play table tennis. His grandmother bought him his first table, and he joined the Byng Hall club at the age of 12.
Gary Howes, who has helped to run the club since it began in 1989, coached Bayley from the start. “We used to run taster sessions on Saturday mornings,” he said. “Will waddled in, he had just had some operations on his ankles and he could barely walk.”
He became a Standard 6 senior champion while he was still a junior and he was so talented that his disability was reclassified. He represented the able-bodied men’s team at the age of 17, then moved to the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield.
Mr Howes credits table tennis with helping Will fight the restrictions of his disability. “Through his training his movement definitely improved, oh goodness yes,” he says. “But he has had a traumatic journey.
“When he first came he was slightly overweight given his size because his movement was so poor. He was looking for a sport he could do, and obviously football and games like that were out of the question.”
And Mr Howes says the difficulties Will has overcome make him the champion he is today. “He always had that positive mental attitude. He had cancer when he was very young, and spent a long time at Great Ormond Street Hospital. So he had to deal with that too, as well as his disability.
“And the hospital was so positive from the word go, because that’s the way they are. So he had the same attitude, and I think that’s the thing that makes him a champion.”
Will’s rise has coincided with a growing interest and participation in the sport nationwide, leading to the British team’s best ever result at the Rio Olympics – a quarter-final defeat to reigning champions China – and a bronze at the World Team Championships earlier this year.
“If you look at the results at the worlds and the Olympics, it shows how table tennis is taking off in this country,” says Mr Howes. “It’s unprecedented, even going back to the days of Desmond Douglas [world No 7 in the 1980s].
“Now it even warrants TV interest, which it never has done before,” he adds. “I’ve never seen the like, to be honest.”
So did the occasion inspire the local youths who came along? “I think it definitely has,” he says. “There was a young lad, nine years old, who used to come here for a while and then lost interest. But he came along on Tuesday and he seemed to be totally inspired.”
Further funds for Children in Need were raised from a raffle, with local businesses providing generous prizes, and an auction in which the Paralympians auctioned their bats and shirts from Rio 2016 – Bayley’s jersey fetched a price of more than £200.