It's time I wrote a quick overview as I'm sat here at home preparing for the upcoming few weeks. My final two tournaments between now and September are fast approaching and my main aim is to try and improve my seeding position a little bit before the big one in September.
I know Rio is still a few months away but it's a crucial time in the run up to the Games and may have a direct impact on how things go. I haven't been feeling that great recently but I don't want to be playing my best just yet…it's all about peaking for Rio! But let's not get ahead of ourselves…
As you all know, I have been knuckling down after being officially selected to the team for Rio last month by the British Paralympic Association. This will be my third Paralympic Games and qualification for each one has been getting gradually tougher and tougher as the standard of Paralympic sport continues to reach such a phenomenal level (especially in table tennis). Special congratulations to Melissa Tapper who has just become the second table tennis player to qualify for both the Paralympics and the Olympics!
Personally, the last four years have been an absolute rollercoaster and I am so relieved to have finally ticked the box. I have suffered many ups and downs with injuries, amongst other setbacks, and the training has noticeably taken its toll on my joints but it really makes me appreciate my place on the team that much more - especially when I compare how much harder it has been to qualify this time around. It simply wouldn't have been possible without the support of many. Another huge thank you to my wonderful sponsors in the supply chain industry, LCP (and subsequently Uniserve), who have been synonymous with my journey along the road to Rio.
This Paralympic Games will be a different beast to the ones I've experienced before. My 18-year-old self was match point away from a place in the semis in Beijing and my 22-year-old self broke his arm in the run up to London so I maybe haven't had the run of the green in the past. However, I have massively changed my style of game since then and am so much more polished than the player I was four years ago. I've played minimal tournaments in this transitional period so I won't go into too much technical detail but let's just say I am very excited with the prospect of repaying everyone's faith in me by trying to win my first Paralympic medal. I am now better prepared than ever before and, as good an experience as it was, I am looking forward to playing without the pressures of a home crowd.
Last year was certainly my best season yet. Domestically, I had a good campaign with my British League team and, although it's not something I'm really concentrating on at the moment, I was proud to get into the top 150 able-bodied players in the country. Internationally, I poked out from behind the closed doors mid-season and won my comeback tournament at the Romanian Open in June before reaching back-to-back semi-finals at strong Asian tournaments out in Thailand and Korea. All the while I'd been struggling with injury but managed to win my first major medal at the European Championships in October. It wasn't an easy ride as I'd left it late for Rio qualification but thankfully these strong performances managed to pull me through and hopefully I can build on from that.
And so we arrive to 2016. As mentioned, I haven't been playing so well at the start of this year and was disappointed in myself to lose in the final of the Malmo Open and the semi-finals (again) of the Italian Open back in February. Yet things have picked up a bit since then and it's time to make amends out in Slovenia and Slovakia. In general, things have been on the up for a while now and someone has kindly pointed out that I have now reached the semi-finals or better in the last 10 open tournaments I've played in since London 2012. That certainly gives me some cause for confidence.
A lot of my time has been split between my two main training bases at home at Joola Plymouth (Table Tennis England's Talent Development Centre in Eggbuckland) and at our national centre in Sheffield (at the English Institute of Sport). It is a great privilege to train in two such fantastic venues and many thanks must go to all my coaches and teammates for helping me with some great practice. Special mention to Kev Buddell because I give him a lot of stick and just want him to know all his hard work is most appreciated!
One of the big improvements I've made recently has been on my leg strength. I have been working very hard on them down at the Gardens in Torpoint and it has definitely improved my speed around the table. My fitness is something which I feel is even more important for me and my disability and it has certainly helped compensate for my lack of mobility as well as help to keep the injuries at bay this year. We have the honour of training alongside some amazing athletes up in Sheffield and it really spurs you on. I just need everyone to please keep their fingers crossed I can stay injury-free this time, especially between now and September!
In the meantime, the training continues and I'm always on the look-out for further opportunities. Thanks to the multitudes of people who have already helped me along the way, and thanks to those who make it all possible! I am playing in Doncaster this weekend before another week training camp in Sheffield between now and Slovenia. I just want to wish a quick best of luck to the rest of my teammates and to the able-bodied guys out in Sweden at the moment for the European Olympic Qualification tournament. Giddy up, it's nearly squeaky-bum time!