In a little over ten months, athletes from around the globe will descend upon Japan to compete in the world’s biggest sporting spectacle – the Olympic Games, writes Tom Howe.
More than 11,000 sportsmen and women will vie for medals across the 50 different disciplines taking place under the famous Olympic rings in Tokyo, between July 24 and August 9, 2020.
The world’s foremost sporting competition – split into summer and winter events, staged every four years but always two years apart – is organised in parallel with the Paralympic Games, which features athletes who have a range of disabilities and which will take place, also in Tokyo, between August 25 and September 6 next year.
One man who harbours hopes of competing at Tokyo 2020, and who has hit form at just the right time, is Gloucestershire’s Billy Shilton, one of the hottest prospects in British Para Table Tennis.
Originally from Stonehouse, Shilton, 21 next month, is edging closer to a spot in the British team for next year’s event, and did himself no harm at all by winning men’s singles gold at last week’s Czech Open.
“It was brilliant to win a competition so close to the European Championships,” said world No.17 Shilton, who moved to Sheffield in July 2015 to train full time with the GB team. “I’ve taken a lot of confidence from that.
“To qualify for the Paralympic Games is something I have wanted to do since I started playing table tennis. I’m thinking about that every day and will just try and do what I can to make the plane.
“You need to achieve a certain world ranking [to qualify], I think it’s top 12 in the world. It’s definitely reachable, I’ve been training and working hard to try and make sure that I do qualify and compete in Tokyo.
“I’m just trying to train as hard as I can every day, to try and be the best in the world and take it match by match to try and improve.”
Ahead of any potential involvement in Tokyo, Shilton’s attention has been fixed firmly on preparing for the European Para Table Tennis Championships in Sweden, with competition getting under way in Helsingborg tomorrow (September 16).
“To win a tournament three or four days before we head out to the Europeans is quite a confidence boost,” said Shilton. “The players I played against in the Czech Open will be the ones that are going to be at the Europeans so I’m really excited and looking forward to it.
“Every player that is competing (for the GB team) believes that they can take a medal at the European Championships and I don’t see why not, we’re playing really well and I am really excited – not just for myself but I’m excited to see how my team-mates get on as well.”
Shilton started playing table tennis at the age of 12, after watching his father, Michael, competing in a local league tournament. Having been diagnosed at the age of five with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT), a group of inherited conditions that damage nerves outside the brain and spine – and also affects his father and grandfather – he was looking for a sport that he could play competitively.
“I used to play football for a disability team and then, as my CMT progressed, I made the decision to stop playing. I went down with my dad to a local league table tennis match, absolutely loved it and just carried on from there. The services me and the other players have at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield are great. We have a lot of support staff who are trying to make you the best player and person you can be every single day. I do a lot of physical work to try and be as strong as I can be on the table and in general life.”
Para competitions are split into different classifications, based on the severity of a competitors’ disability – with Shilton, a former European silver medallist, having found success at both class seven and eight.
“Moving backwards and forwards is a big problem for me,” he added. “It’s balance and co-ordination around the table. The disability gets progressively worse so trying to deal with that as I’m developing as a table tennis player is quite challenging.
“The classifiers believed it wasn’t enough to keep me in class seven so I got moved up to class eight, which is a big step in classification and in terms of level in table tennis as well.
“Class eight is a lot more challenging and I think in the long run it has improved me a lot. I have learnt a lot of things that maybe I couldn’t have learned in class seven, so in that sense it has been a really good learning curve for me.
“On a personal level, I want to try and be the best table tennis player I can be. I don’t want to think about how high I can get in the world rankings, I just believe in myself that if I can be the best player I can be, I feel that, that would be enough to take me to the top level hopefully.”
The Independent’s Head of Sport, Tom Howe, provides insight into the biggest sporting stories in each edition. To read more from him and the other writers at the Independent, including Gareth Davies, Andrew Clayton, Craig Bratt and Noah Barco, pick up a copy from your local newsagents for just £1.50, or subscribe via https://www.indyonline.co.uk/digital-editions/