Ranked as the world’s number one Paralympic table tennis player, Will Bayley MBE speaks to Lorne Gillies about swapping his tennis stroke for the cha-cha-cha during his time on this year’s Strictly Come Dancing.
As the sun shone down on London during the 2012 Summer Paralympic Games, Will Bayley won the silver medal during the table tennis tournament. Four years later, Will went above and beyond to bring home gold during the Rio 2016 Summer Paralympic Games. In autumn of 2019, Will was announced as the next contestant on Strictly Come Dancing.
Taking a step away from the table, Will moved in new circles to dance his way to the top (which is well out of his comfort zone as he admits) and shine the glitterball on disability.
“I think it’s good for all of us to learn more about it,” emphasises Will, who has arthrogryposis which affects all four of his limbs. The term arthrogryposis is used to describe over 300 conditions that cause multiple curved joints in the body from birth.
For Will, he overcame many challenging experiences including battling cancer at the age of seven.
But, it was overcoming cancer which saw Will discover a love and passion for table tennis after he began playing during his recovery. Whilst honing his table tennis skills, Will felt there was a distinct lack of representation for disability when he was growing up.
And, unfortunately, this is something many disabled people have felt in the past, too.
“The first sportsman I knew with dressage champion Sir Lee Pearson, and it’s so important to see these positive stories,” enthuses Will, who is now sharing his story on Strictly Come Dancing to put a spotlight on disability and representation.
“I’m really happy to be able to be part of that,” he adds. Will and his dance partner Janette Manrara are taking the dancefloor by storm – even leaving judge Motsi Mabuse in tears after their contemporary performance in week five.
Dedicating the dance to doctors, nurses and patients at Great Ormond Street Hospital: Will is showing the general public that it is possible to overcome barriers and challenges that can be thrown at you.
For Will and Janette, determination, practice and adapting dances has seen the Paralympian flourish on the dancefloor.
Will continues: “It’s extremely challenging, but Janette is brilliant at pushing me, and understanding me, and she knows what will work for us. One of the things we had to do was use my knees more, to compensate for having no ankles to try and create the rise and fall that one of our dances, the foxtrot, needed.”
Through discovering what works best is changing perceptions of disability and enjoying every pirouette.
“Everyone should try it,” enthuses Will. “I never thought I would enjoy it so much, and it’s also really positive and therapeutic. You don’t know what you can do until you try.”
Going from one stage to another, alongside preparing for weekly dances and performances, Will is gearing up to represent Great Britain at the upcoming Tokyo Summer Paralympic Games in 2020.
“I’ve had my best ever season this year, winning gold in Italy, Slovenia and Japan, and I am really looking forward to Tokyo next year,” continues Will excitedly.
“I think the training I am doing for Strictly is going to help my table tennis as it is improving my balance and movement and strengthening my core.
“Once I finish Strictly I will be fully focused on Tokyo and it would mean the world to me to successfully defend my Paralympic title next year.”
Will, and an estimated 4,400 Paralympians from across the world, are preparing for the Summer Paralympics set to start on Tuesday 25 August 2020.
The road to Tokyo and the Paralympics can be gruelling with intense training and hardship, however, it is another opportunity for Will – and many others – to shine a light on the abilities that the disabled community have.
Not to mention a plethora of new or adapted sports that people at home can get involved with.
Will adds: “It’s really important to show what people can do, and to see them on television so people can push themselves.
“When I was growing up I never saw anyone like me on television and I’ve had some amazing messages from parents whose children have the same disability as me and are being inspired to try new things.
“Sport is a brilliant way to improve confidence and just to make friends and meet other people who may have the same challenges as you,” continues Will.
“Table tennis is a really inclusive sport as you can play in a wheelchair or standing; anyone can have a go and it caters for such a wide range of disabilities.”
During the upcoming Games, 22 Paralympic sports will be featured from archery, judo, swimming and, of course, table tennis, which has been part of the Paralympic programme since the first Paralympic Games held in Rome, 1960.
With more scope for physical activity in 2019 and into 2020 for the disabled community, events such as Strictly Come Dancing and the Paralympic Games are not only beneficial to highlight what sporting opportunities are available for disabled people, but to showcase disability to a wider audience.
During rehearsal for week six Will was injured and unfortunately had to leave the show. As hard of a decision as this was, Will is continually making big leaps for representation of disability and accessibility on stages worldwide.
You can watch Will’s previous performances on Strictly Come Dancing on BBC iPlayer. The final will take place on Saturday 14 December 2019.