Sensational Smith in stratosphere of his own after brilliant boccia masterclass in Tokyo

·4-min read
Hampshire ace Smith, 32, delivered a dazzling display to triumph at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre
Hampshire ace Smith, 32, delivered a dazzling display to triumph at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre

By James Toney in Tokyo

David Smith claimed he felt the presence of his late grandfather as he secured an emotional defence of his Paralympic boccia title in Tokyo.

Smith made his debut in Beijing alongside his mentor Nigel Murray, whose four Paralympic medals he has now surpassed with his 4-2 victory over Malaysia's Chew Wei Fun in the BC1 singles.

You need to be a ruthless and shrewd tactician in this game and when he found himself behind early in his final, Smith simply outthought and outwitted his rival, getting inside his head and forcing him to make mistakes. It was a world-class exhibition of the power of mind games.

Victory secured, tears flowed as he hugged his coach, a new sensation for the normally stoic 32-year old from Eastleigh, who grew up loving planes and now flies in a stratosphere of his own as Britain's most successful boccia player.

"My Grandad Charlie passed away when I was about 16 and he never got to see all the things I became afterwards, I just had a weird feeling when I came out on court that he was there somewhere, that's what the tears were for," he said.

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"There are a lot of things going on in my head at the moment, becoming the first BC1 to defend a Paralympic title and becoming the most successful British player of all-time.

"You try not to think about it but it does matter, I do care about stuff like that.

"This is such a great sport and I just feel we are getting the recognition we deserve here, that makes me feel a bit emotional.

"The standard has been nuts, everyone has been locked indoors for the pandemic and they are coming out here and bashing it out the park. I feel like I've had about seven finals. It's just been so tough, I've never known it like that."

Boccia, designed so athletes with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy or any kind of neurological impairment that impacts motor function can take part, is one of those sports that, on first inspection, is incredibly easy to understand but then even more complex to explain.

It's part chess and part snooker, with similarities to the French game of boules.

Each player has six leather balls of different weights, filled with plastic granules so they don't bounce and are easy to grip. Some are soft for deft lobs, others rock hard for 'explosion' shots - a high risk but high reward strategy.

Players in wheelchairs use throws from hands, feet or are a helped by assistive devices such as ramps and pointers.

It's four ends, with six red or blue balls per player, the player closest to the jack sitting out until the momentum shifts or their opponent runs out of balls.

Tension builds slowly and incrementally, often concluded with the sort of final ball drama the brains behind The Hundred would kill for.

Jonnie Peacock said his 100m final - in which the first four athletes across the line were separated by just three hundredths of a second - was the greatest 11 second advert for Paralympic sport possible.

And so was this, though it lasted an equally attention-grabbing 49 minutes, an example that there's a sport for everyone at these Games.

"My message is people should have a go - you don't have to be disabled to play boccia," added Smith. "Although you can certainly expect the disabled guys to kick your arse."

Smith is remarkably candid about his sporting ability, which you can take as gold medal self-deprecation after claiming his third Paralympic title.

"I swim like a brick, I can't run, I'd be rubbish at goalball, useless at sitting volleyball and my team-mates can tell you I'm absolutely crap at table tennis," he said.

However, in boccia Smith, with his trademark red and blue mohican, is the dominant force in his sport. So he is the Lionel Messi of boccia?

"I think I'm more like Ronnie O'Sullivan or, perhaps, Ronaldo," he jokes.

"I like to be creative and I always want to put on a show. I like to play well but I also prefer to win."

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