Friday, 26 February 2016

Devastating news for Kelly Edwards

British judo champion Kelly Edwards, 24, from Telford, is recovering from the devastating news that, due to several concussion injuries sustained during competition in 2015/16, her hopes of qualifying for the Rio 2016 Olympics are over.

Having already won a Commonwealth Games Silver medal, in the -52kg category, Kelly was set to be an exciting prospect for a medal in Rio, however she landed on her head during the Mongolian Grand Prix in July 2015 and has since suffered repetitive symptoms from the injury.

Kelly explained “I landed badly on my head in Mongolia, and had a headache afterwards that wouldn’t go, but I just put it down to jet lag as I had been travelling and competing so much to gain the vital competition points to qualify for Rio. However, I saw the team physio who told me I had all the symptoms of concussion and we agreed I should take two weeks off to rest and recover.”

Returning to competition at the end of August 2015 for the World Championships, Kelly was symptom free and was believed to have fully recovered. After a bad landing during a fight at the Uzbekistan Grand Prix in October, Kelly then suffered more symptoms. Being a competitive and determined athlete, who was desperate to represent her country at the Rio Olympics, and thinking the symptoms would pass, Kelly still went to compete in Portugal just a week later, saying “I knew that if I fought in Portugal I had a big chance of a medal and gaining more Rio qualification points. At that time I just didn’t realise how serious my concussion was.”

Returning from Portugal, Kelly took two months off competition, during which time she saw a Neurologist and had scans to determine the extent of any injury and to ensure there was no underlying issue, before returning to training again just before Christmas without any problems occurring.  

The first international competition of 2016 was held in Cuba during January, where Kelly fought well without any sign of the concussion. However, two weeks later at the Paris Grand Slam, Kelly suffered another blow to her head and all the symptoms returned and it is following this, the decision has been made that in order to fully recover from the head injury, Kelly must take six months away from competition. 

Kelly gave her reaction to this decision “when I was given the advice of the medical team I was devastated as it meant my Rio Olympic dream was over. However, I’ve read a number of articles about concussion and the long term effects since I was first diagnosed and I now understand that I do need this time to heal.” Adding “I have to accept that as an athlete, I will get injuries and this is just another injury and whilst I would have loved to represent my country in Rio, I shall come back stronger and better after a six-month block of good training and I am excited about the long term future and will be focused on the 2017 World Championships in Budapest.”

You can follow Kelly on Twitter @kel_Edwards1 and via her website
Photograph of Kelly by Lukasz Warzecha @LukaszWarzecha

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Will Bayley, an article by Spencer Boston

Will Bayley knew this was the most important moment in his life. The years of sacrifice and hard work had finally paid off. The constant pain from his childhood was almost a distant memory as he stood in front of the crowd that still wouldn’t call his name. Will Bayley was standing in Beijing, in the final of the world para table tennis championships. As he stood there, he remembered the crowd in the London Paralympics in 2012, the 5000 people that were screaming for him.

He had secured a silver medal in London, losing in the final to the German champion. It had been a long two years of hurt, but that was in his past. His life's ambition was now in the present. Years of dreaming and training had led him to this one moment. Today he could officially become the best in the world. The time for dreaming was over, this was reality. The next few moments could change everything; the culmination of a battle that had lasted his entire life. 

Will Bayley was born in 1988 with arthrogryposis, a rare congenital disorder that affects all four of his limbs.

Arthrogryposis is a severe curving of the joints causing serious muscle weakness; this means that Will is unable to flex his affected joints. Most people who suffer with this condition, (one in three thousand in the UK.) are normally afflicted in two joints, Will is severely effected in four. As a baby, he underwent a multitude of bone breaking operations at Great Ormond Street Hospital including the painful procedure of having his feet cemented to his legs.

Will has no ankles, and doctors feared he would never walk. But Will Bayley was a born fighter. He refused to be beaten, and after many more operations that saw him spend a great deal of his young life in hospital, he began to walk.

The doctors and nurses were impressed and proud of his bravery, but pride however, can sometimes be followed by disappointment, and no one expected the shock and sadness that came next. 

At the age of seven, Will was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, a form of cancer that develops in the vessels and glands throughout the entire body. 

Yet again Will found himself returning to Great Ormond Street Hospital. Chemotherapy was painful and made the seven year old ill; so ill that he wondered if it was worth all the pain and suffering. Did every day have to be like this? One morning he asked his mother if he had to continue with the treatment. Chrissie, (Will's mother) remembers the moment. 

"We were all watching the television when he said, 'I don't want to do this anymore.' He looked up at me with tears in his eyes and said, 'Will I die if I stop?' I said yes. The next morning when I got up, he was sitting by the front door with his bag packed ready to go to hospital." 

Will had to undergo relentless treatment, but he never gave up. 

"I just knew that there was something inside him that was always going to cope and that he would come out fighting,” says Chrissie. "We had to remain strong for Will too. He couldn't know how worried and upset we were. He had so much to cope with on a daily basis that adding to his emotional burden would have been unforgivable.” 

Chrissie paused and looked down at the ground for a few seconds, remembering those dark times. 

“My husband Garry and I did our crying at night. When Will was asleep, we dropped the brave facade and broke down. It was heartbreaking watching our child suffer. But we always kept strong for him, we had to."

Even though Will is now twenty eight years old, he can still remember those terrible days. 

"Chemotherapy was tough. I went through a lot of pain and hardship as a kid and I kept having setbacks. I got infections, ulcers and had to keep going back into hospital. I did feel like giving up lots of times, but something inside kept driving me on." 

Will recalls the camaraderie of Great Ormond Street Hospital. 

"Even though the treatment was terrible, and I felt awful at the time, I slowly started to improve. That was because there were so many other children going through similar things as me. We all played together and gained strength from each other."

It was while he was gaining strength from his friends in hospital that his grandma bought him a table tennis set. The idea was to distract him from the realities of his illness and to help with his rehabilitation. 

"I was really into sport before my cancer was diagnosed," says Will, "mostly football, so while I was recovering my grandma said I should try to be more active. It's all because of her that I discovered table tennis." 

It couldn't have been more perfect, not only did Will have a natural aptitude for the sport, but the sport seemed to be suited to his problems. 

"You just need to stand at the table when you first start," says Will, "then you slowly get into it, moving faster with a focused purpose. It's a great sport for the mind as well as the body." 

Will loved his table tennis set and played whenever he could. The passion and potential he had for the sport was becoming obvious. After a while, the garage wasn’t big enough to hold his enthusiasm, Will needed a new challenge. With the support of his family, he ventured to Tunbridge Well's Byng Hall Table Tennis Club to see if he could improve his game and take on some new competition. He could barely walk, but he was ready to take on all challengers. Gary Howes, who has coached Will for fifteen years, was at the club that day. 

"When Will came into the club he could barely walk because of his condition. I had to specially cut one of the handles of a bat so that it would fit into his hand. But he showed incredible promise."

It wasn’t long before Will was winning local and national tournaments, and his hard work and dedication would soon be noticed and tested to the limit. At the age of seventeen, Will was asked to move from Groombridge in Tunbridge Wells to the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield. 

There he would be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Olympic gold medalist Jessica Ennis-Hill CBE and world champion boxer Amir Khan. Will describes how being among the greats has helped him and his colleagues. 

“Mixing with disabled and able bodied athletes is a huge inspiration. To be around such great sports people who were and are winning world championships breeds a new and stronger desire to win things. Since being at the English Institute of Sport I’ve worked harder and played harder. My game has improved so much, and that is because living among so many people with the same desire makes winning and training almost second nature. It’s something that must be instilled in every athlete with world title ambitions.” 

Will cannot praise the Institute highly enough. 

“We are drilled so effectively each day, that playing table tennis becomes a natural instinct rather than something to dwell on. When you are in a tournament and playing some of the best players in the world, you don't have time to think. Not even for a split second. When you are playing at an International level of sport, you don't think, you feel. You almost go into automatic pilot. All the years and years of intense training come down to one moment. I have practised a million forehands so that I can play one instinctive shot in a world championship final. That's how hard you have to train to be the best. A thousand hours of practice for one second’s use." 

Hard work is a strong trait in Will, and since moving to Sheffield he trains six hours a day six days a week. 

"We grind out techniques, lots of basic exercises in the morning and service practise in the afternoon. On Saturdays we play a competition. It’s hard, but you work through the pain. Sometimes I get home and I can barely walk, but it’s worth it because training regularly means that fatigue is never a problem in a big game or tournament.” 

It was this attitude that helped Will in the 2012 London Paralympics. Will was selected for the England team and was soon making his way to the final. Beating world class players in every round didn’t mean that nerves wouldn’t creep into his game. It wasn’t long before Will found himself standing in the wings anxiously waiting to play the final against his biggest rival, the German champion Jochen Wollmert. It was a sellout crowd and the pinnacle of everything Will had been training for all his life. 

"It's the only time I've ever been scared at a tournament,” says Will, “I was in the holding area in London waiting to go out and play the final. A ball girl came up to me and said 'Will, there are 5000 people out there waiting for you and millions of people watching on TV. Good luck.' I thought, oh God, that's all I need, more pressure." 

The match lasted forty long gruelling minutes. Nerves from playing in front of his home crowd had an effect on Will's performance, and his opponent Jochen Wollmert played an excellent tactical game. Will eventually lost 3-1 and collapsed on the ground in tears. Jochen, a long time friend and sporting nemesis walked around the table and picked him up. He paid tribute to Will and showed some sympathy at the way a home crowd can sometimes be a hindrance in the biggest sporting event in the world. 

Jochen says, "It was a big game and a fantastic crowd. My dream was to make it to the final against the local matador Will Bayley. The last time I won against him was in Beijing, and since then, I have lost against him six times. It was emotional for Will in front of his home crowd because they celebrated him with every shot he played. He respected that and returned the favour with lots of fist pumps and fought with his life for every point. But that kind of pressure can make you nervous. I could see that today."

Will left the 2012 Paralympics with a silver medal. For most people that would be a major achievement, but Will Bayley isn’t most people, he was proud but devastated. He had lost in front of his home crowd at the biggest sports tournament in the world. He was determined to make things better, but he would have to wait two long agonising years before he could do that. The World Championships were to be held in Beijing in 2014, and Will had already made his mind up, he would become World Champion. 

Hard training was followed by even harder training until finally, Will arrived in Beijing. The World Championships were exactly as Will expected, and his opponents were as focused as he was. Game after game, round after round, Will beat everyone that was put in front of him. Soon he was in the final, the biggest game of his life. 

His opponent, Maksym Nikolenko was, and is an exceptional player. Becoming world champion was about to get even harder. The final was tough and the two players were evenly matched. The points were close and as the match came to a close, Maksym needed time to gather his thoughts. He was two points away from being world champion, he needed to focus. Will only needed one more point, and it was his serve. The pressure was unbearable.  

Maksym walked to the left side of the table and rubbed his fingers across the wooden structure. He stroked the table, almost touching the net. He was breathing slowly and trying to regain his composure. He stroked the table again.  

The umpire spoke coldly,  

“Continue please,”

Maksym walked back to his side of the table. Will watched him, equally trying to keep his cool and remain focused.

 “Are you ready?” Will asked calmly. Maksym replied,  

“No,” he paused for two, maybe three seconds, Will waited patiently, then Maksym crouched down. Slowly, with a voice filled with emotion, he said “Now I’m ready,”  

Will bounced the ball on the table, then again, twice more. He paused, taking it all in. This was it, one shot away from being World Champion. The nerves were coursing through his body, but the years of practise were kicking in. He needed to focus. He bounced the ball three times more. One last breath, and then he served. The ball came back, Will countered with a backhand, but Maksym returned again, backhand, return, backhand. Game over, Will Bayley was World Champion. He screamed, he punched the air; he pulled his shirt off and threw it to the ground.  

“Yes!” he cried as he fell to his knees.  

Exhaustion, nerves and relief ricocheted through his body as he fell forwards and lay face down on the ground weeping. Crying for England, crying for his coach, crying for his friends and family and most of all, for himself. For all the years of pain and trauma. For the countless hours of exhaustion on the training tables and operating tables. For the courage and determination that had driven him to this one moment in time.  

Will Bayley was the World Champion. He was officially the best in the world. A world where we complain so much about so little. A world and life so many of us take for granted. Will Bayley started life with a disability that caused him tremendous pain every day. Facing cancer as a child and defeating it. Finding his passion and using all of his inner strength and determination to become the very best. 

Using this power of positivity, Will wants to make a difference to people around the globe. He is convinced that table tennis is the right sport for children with disabilities and wants to encourage as many kids as possible to pick up a paddle.

"From the minute I picked up the bat I loved it! I think overcoming the hurdles I’ve had in my life has made me more determined to be successful and get the best out of myself every day. I see life as a gift. We should all try to get the most out of every second. My dream is to inspire other cancer sufferers and disabled children into sport and show them that nothing is impossible."  

Will Bayley can teach us all a valuable lesson about life. He doesn't have time for self pity and he doesn’t allow the minor irritations that plague most of us on a daily basis. He knows what is important, because he nearly lost it all. He understands what matters. Life is a gift we should open every day. We should unwrap it with the smile and joy of a child. We all have problems, but we all have reasons to be thankful. We all have the power to choose how we feel every day. Will chooses to be happy. He chooses positivity. He chooses to embrace every moment of life and live it to the full. How many of us can say that?
Our thanks to Spencer Boston for his permission to reproduce his article in full.
Follow Will Bayley on Twitter @WillBayleyTT
Follow Spencer Boston on Twitter @haikushadow