Will Bayley swapped table tennis for the tango to emerge as one of the breakout stars of Strictly Come Dancing. But the former TASS athlete tells Simon Rushworth that he’s fully focused on taking Tokyo 2020 by storm.  

TASS: An ACL injury famously curtailed your Strictly Come Dancing career…how is the recovery going?

WILL BAYLEY: It’s a few weeks since I’ve had surgery now and I’m cracking on. I’m building up my quads and hamstrings and working as hard as I can. I’m doing two gym sessions per day and seeing the physio twice a day. I’m doing recovery for seven hours a day in order to give myself the best possible chance of making the plane for Tokyo.

TASS: What’s your schedule like moving forward?

WB: I’m working in four-week blocks at the moment and reassessing the situation at the end of each of those blocks. I’ve got another few months of rehab ahead of me as I’ve only been in recovery for a couple of months. I’ve been told it’s a five to six month recovery period before I can play again so I’m hoping to be back by May or June. If I’m playing table tennis again in June then that would be fantastic. That’s the aim and the big carrot is the Paralympics in Tokyo. I couldn’t ask for a better target!

TASS: Is the Tokyo dream what drives you on during those seven-hour days in the gym?

WB: 100 per cent. I couldn’t be trying any harder or doing any more so hopefully I’ll reap the rewards. It has always been my aim to compete in Japan and fingers crossed I’ll be there later this year.

TASS: As someone who has experienced the highs and lows of international competition can you sum up the experience of competing in the Paralympics?

WB: I’ve experienced the full range of emotions from missing out on the gold medal in London to winning it four years later in Rio. When you train so hard for something that you’ve wanted all your life there’s nothing better than being able to showcase your talent on the biggest stage in the world. I love the challenge of testing myself against the best players in the world and Tokyo is where that will happen.

Will celebrating his gold medal at Rio 2016. Photo credit: onEdition

TASS: Are you expecting the 2020 Paralympics to be your toughest test yet?

WB: The sport is always growing and the standard is always getting better. Table tennis has always been one of the bigger Paralympic sports and it’s been in the games for years and years. In that respect it’s always been tough. There are some new players coming through but the same players who presented the toughest challenge in Rio will be back for more in Tokyo.

TASS: You were a TASS athlete for four years at the start of your table tennis career – how important was the support package at that stage?

WB: It was really, really important to me back then. I was a developing player who was world ranked in the 50s and 60s and I was trying to make my mark. The TASS support gave me the chance to attend competitions and do all of the training that I needed. There simply wasn’t the funding available within table tennis for me to do what I needed to do. I couldn’t have covered those costs myself and so my progress would have been so much slower.

TASS: How were you able to balance the demands of your studies and your sport?

WB: For a while the academic side of things was a real struggle for me because I was so obsessed with my table tennis! I got a wildcard to Beijing 2008 at the same time as I started studying and I found it very difficult. Other student athletes handled it far better than me and they did what they could to help me get through it. The dual career approach is fantastic but I can’t pretend it’s easy. TASS support is vital.

TASS: Would you encourage fellow athletes to pursue a dual career approach?

WB: Definitely.

If you’re like me and you’re obsessed with your sport and competing at the highest level then it can be hugely beneficial to have something else to focus on. Your studies and course work can actually be a release and take your mind off the pressures related to elite sport. If you’re having a bad day at the table then you can focus on the positives in your work. Devoting some time to something totally different can really help athletes.

TASS: Strictly Come Dancing was the cause of your ACL injury but how much did you gain from the experience?

WB: I was a bit worried before it all started as I’d ever done any dancing before. I remember saying to my mum that I was going to be awful! But I like to have a laugh in all walks of life and I never stopped laughing during Strictly. I had a good run and the injury was just one of those things.

TASS: Beyond Tokyo will you be leaning towards table tennis, dancing or something completely different?

WB: I want to carry on playing table tennis until France 2024. I still believe there are many more brilliant times to come for me as an athlete. You’re a long time retired and once you call time on your sport you never get those chances again. Anyone would give their right arm to perform at the highest level in their chosen sport and I understand that I’m in a very privileged position to be one of the best players in the world.