Paralympians choose Sheffield for 2012 Games preparation

There seems to be little that connects a social worker from Bratislava and a young actor from Tunbridge Wells.

But both Jan Riapos, 43, and William Bayley, 23, represent their respective countries, Slovakia and Great Britain, as paralympic table tennis players.

William Bayley demonstrates a few shots (Photo: Graeme Benson)

They are also both at the top in their game and yet admit there is no prestige.

Riapos, president of the Slovak Paralympic Committee, is in Sheffield after it was announced the city would be used as a pre-Paralympics training base for the Slovakian table tennis team, in addition to those of Great Britain and Slovenia.

He was wheelchair-bound after a car accident in 1993. He had to give up his job as a social worker and support himself as a social work teacher instead.

A modest man, he is unperturbed by most things.

“I’m still the same person before the accident and now,” he says.

Beneath the calm appearance though, there is a fiercely competitive and focused spirit.

He was the first winner of the table tennis Paralympics in the 1999 European Championships.

“Between 1999 and 2011, I never lost a match in the single event.

“After that, I went on to win gold in Athens 2004 in the single event, silver in the double, and gold again in Beijing 2008 at the team event, and was world champion in Korea, winning gold in the team event.”

Now preparing for London 2012, he has received a small grant from the Slovak government but raises most of the money necessary to compete from sponsors and through business.

He has also had to tour continuously in competitions around the world. In his other role as the president of the Slovak Paralympics committee, he works to improve facilities for disabled sports players in Slovakia.

Paralympic table tennis is divided between wheelchair-bound players who only play other wheelchair players – like Riapos – and those who have a disability but can stand, who play other standing players.

William Bayley falls into the second category. He was born with arthrogroposis, a non-progressive form of arthritis.

“I don’t have movement in my hands and my legs are affected; I don’t have balance and balance is very important,” he says.

Playing sport since he was eight, Bayley joined the Paralympics table tennis team for Kent at 18, and now trains six hours a day.

At present, he is the number two Paralympics table tennis player in the world.

He also won a place at drama school to train as an actor, and is the star of We’ve Got the Toaster, a low-budget comedy film.

“I hope to go back to acting, but with London 2012 coming up, I had to make a decision and chose table tennis.

“The public are starting to realise how difficult this sport is – it’s not a Mickey Mouse competition.”

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