Paralympian gold medalist and Strictly Come Dancing 2019 contestant, Will Bayley MBE began playing table tennis when he was seven – at home on a table his grandmother bought and then at his local sports centre. Having access to quality, public training facilities had a massive influence on Wills life – not only in honing his world-leading skill but building confidence, developing friendships and supporting his overall wellbeing.
As an inclusivity champion for construction company Wates, Will discusses the real power of public leisure facilities in helping people and communities come together and break barriers through sport.
From the age of about eight, if I wasnt at home or school, I was at my local sports centre. Five or six days a week Id be there; it played a big part in developing my love for table tennis.
I could get there pretty easily as it was only 25 minutes away and having access to equipment that was of a good standard and within a clean and modern environment, really helped me to develop my game. Later, as I really got involved with the sport, I joined my local table tennis club and then started to use the sports centres other facilities to build up my physical strength. Id often be in the pool or at the gym or even just taking a break in the cafe with a group of friends. Theres no question about the huge impact it had on my professional success.
Confidence and wellbeing
But its not just the impact it had on my career that I look back on and value now. In my young years, I had to overcome a few challenges. My disability affected my confidence for a long time despite multiple reconstruction operations, plus the medication I was on to battle cancer aged seven caused me to gain weight. In a way, sport gave me the tools to fight for the life that I wanted. Playing table tennis, being active and mixing with people from my local area gave me a renewed focus away from illness and limitation.
Today Im fortunate enough to be able to visit schools, charities and community projects across the country, meet young people and talk to them about the barriers they face in todays society. In my opinion, theres nothing you cant achieve if youre determined and have affordable access to the things that interest you. Thats what community leisure facilities offer – a place to play, meet people and the potential to shape your own future. Money cant create success but amenities on your doorstep and the resolution to make a change can.
21st century leisure facilities
I now train at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield – five days a week for six hours a day. On weekends, Im usually playing matches and competing internationally to help retain my place as world number one. At the moment, Im focussed on qualifying for Tokyo 2020 and after that, major tournaments here in the UK will beckon. Seeing the facilities being built around Birmingham and its outer boroughs in preparation for sporting events is really inspiring. But its the legacy amenities that the likes of Sandwell Aquatics Centre will provide for the local community that will make the biggest difference to young people. Working with Wates and seeing the expertise that goes into building leisure centres in the 21st century gives me huge confidence that were gearing them up for future success.
For my part, I hope to continue to inspire young people in any way I can: to introduce them to table tennis; to show them the benefits of participating in sport; to encourage them to make the trip to their local sports centre and get stuck in; above all, to prove to them that anyone can achieve great things with the right attitude. Stay focused on what you want and just go for it. Every hurdle is an opportunity.
Will Bayley MBE has suffered from Arthogryposis, which affects all four limbs, since birth.
He is currently ranked as the world number one in Paralympic Table Tennis having won a gold medal in Rio 2016 and a silver medal in London 2012. He is currently training to defend his title at Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games and is also participating in the the UKs most popular television talent show, Strictly Come Dancing on the BBC.