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Reigning Paralympic champion Will Bayley is eager to shrug off his reputation as a “rubbish” Strictly Come Dancing contestant by reinforcing his greatness with a table tennis bat.
The delaying of the Tokyo Games by a year handed Bayley a lifeline after a serious knee injury suffered during his time on the BBC show in late 2019 initially left his hopes in tatters.
He went around 10 months without hitting a ball but now feels in peak condition to defend his class seven title following an intense period of rehabilitation.
The 33-year-old, who won gold at Rio 2016 following silver at London 2012, admits Strictly raised his profile but is keen to remind the world of where his true talent lies.
“I probably am known more as a dancer, which is just one of those things – and I was rubbish at that, so it’s not ideal,” he told the PA news agency after being confirmed in Great Britain’s 13-strong team.
“But I want to go out there in Tokyo and show people exactly what I can do as a table tennis player.
“I always said I was a great player, so I need to go and prove it again.
“I do feel I’ve got more support this time in terms of people knowing who I am and people looking out for my results, which I just see as a positive.
“Sometimes I hear from some of the (Strictly) guys, which is really nice, and I know they will be supporting me in Tokyo, for sure.”
Bayley was forced to withdraw from series 17 of the popular programme in week seven after jumping from a stage in rehearsals and tearing his anterior cruciate ligament.
The Kent-born athlete, who has a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects all four of his limbs, and was also diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma during childhood, underwent reconstructive knee surgery in January last year.
He acknowledges being extremely fortunate that his lengthy recovery process coincided with the sporting calendar being put on hold by the outbreak of coronavirus and is determined to capitalise on the unprecedented circumstances.
“I kind of got more hungry because of it. I felt I was missing it every day,” he said of the enforced layoff.
“I was born to play table tennis and to win gold medals, so I feel like it’s destiny that I’ve been given this chance to compete because I would have probably missed the Games if it had stayed at the same time, so I am pretty lucky really.
“I’m better mentally than I’ve ever been because of my injury and because of setbacks that I’ve had.
“I just feel that this is a good time for me: I’m 33, I’ve got a lot of experience and I’m as hungry as I’ve ever been and hitting the ball as well as I’ve ever been. I believe that I’m playing better than I’ve ever played so let’s just go for it and enjoy it.”
Bayley, who trains at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield, produced one of the standout memories of the Games in Brazil five years ago by standing on the table arms aloft following his dramatic victory over home favourite Israel Pereira Stroh.
Since that milestone moment, he has become a father to three-year-old Bella and nine-month-old Grace.
In addition to inspiring his daughters, the former world and European champion aspires to be the finest class seven player in table tennis history.
“It’s just sport and it’s not life or death. But it is more than that to me, in a way, because you’re also there to represent Great Britain and I’m there to show my children that anything is possible,” he said.
“I was always told that I couldn’t do this, couldn’t do that and things weren’t going to happen and I was never going to win a gold medal and then it’s impossible to retain your gold medal.
“If I want to be the best-ever class seven, I have to win the Europeans, the worlds and the Paralympics all over again.
“I’ve won them all once so I need to try and do the double and then people would start saying I’m in the mix as one of the best-ever class sevens.”