It’s fast approaching the three year anniversary of the London 2012 Olympics. To celebrate the arrival of Ping! London table tennis tables to the East Village - the former Athletes’ Village at the Olympic Games of London 2012, I enjoyed playing a few games with Britain’s Number one table tennis player Paul Drinkhall and 14-year-old rising star James Smith.
East Village, on the doorstep of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London, is now home to more than 4,500 people. It is London’s best-connected neighbourhood, a perfect base to explore the capital.
There is a world of entertainment, history and leisure close at hand – from Westfield Stratford City, the largest urban shopping centre in Europe, and the Olympic Legacy venues to the canal side cafes, boutique galleries and exciting restaurants of Hackney Wick.
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“I have what it takes to take on this mere 14-year-old,” I proclaimed as I squared up to Smith. He’s a mature young lad who has been a pupil at Whitgift Primary School since year six.
The fresh faced youngster is thankful to his parents Ian and Lindsey who were both at East Village with him; “They have been one hundred percent supportive throughout and travel everywhere with me.
"Their encouragement also boosts my confidence and one of the main reasons why I’m doing so well in life.”
The teenager from Orpington, Kent has taken part in four major tournaments including the Spanish Youth Open, National Championships and the National Cadet Masters. It’s taken a shed load of hard graft to get him there; “I work hard all the time. It’s the only way to be and hopefully it will all pay off if I make the England senior team in the future.
Smith has reached a semi-final twice and is being sponsored by Get Living London at East Village through SportsAid. He is seen as a future Olympic Champion and competitor. He added; “Table tennis is a really fun sport and anyone of my age or younger can start playing.
"If young people want to do well like me then they should join a club and play regularly. I do the same and I now attend tournaments, make new friends all the time and travel to interesting places. It’s a life that young people like me can reach if they have the dedication. Thank you to my sponsors for their faith in me.”
Paul Drinkhall is ranked British number one and has won the English Championships four times. Drinkhall represented Team GB at the London 2012 Olympic Games: “It was totally surreal, he said.
“London became the centre of the planet for a few weeks. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything quite like it in my life. It was an honour to be a part of it all.”
Drinkhall took up the bat at the young age of seven. He was immediately scouted as a major talent and has since been a National Champion in every age group he has been eligible to compete in. Drinkhall’s rising star and success was further highlighted by being shortlisted for the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year twice. At the Commonwealth Games he has won two silver medals and one bronze and at the European Games in Baku in June, Drinkhall was seeded as world number 16.
In April 2014 Drinkhall became the first British player to win an ITTF World Tour singles event for 18 years by taking gold at the Spanish Open. It was the result of years of hard graft. He said; “I used to play a lot of sports alone and with my older brother who is five years older. My granddad used to play in the local leagues and my parents took me to a few local games. I started playing early and really enjoyed it. I haven’t really looked back since. That tournament win was pretty special.”
The family have recently welcomed a new face to the household. His wife and fellow table tennis player Jo gave birth to their son Douglas in May. Drinkhall says the new bundle of joy has added to the couple’s happy lives; “Yes, we have sleepless nights, but there’s a lot more positive energy and drive in our day to day lives. My son has added focus and I just love spending time just looking at him.”
The question on everybody’s lips there must be whether Doug Drinkhall will be a future Table Tennis star; “Who knows, says Drinkhall. “He’s two months old and it’s too early to say. Obviously there’s a good chance. I’m pretty sure he’ll be involved in sports but then you never know. He might be a genius at school. We are very interested in getting him involved in sports where he can learn about discipline and leading a healthy life.”
When talking about Table Tennis inspiration Drinkhall is quick off the mark; “The Chinese are at the top of the game, and a guy called Zhang Jike has pretty much won everything. He’s a great player and it’s great to be up there with him.”
For the benefit of readers memories, Chinese ace and table tennis star Zhang Jike was fined lost all of his £35,000 prize money for kicking an advertising hoarding in an overzealous celebrations last year.
Drinkhall has enjoyed a meteoric rise to stardom but just what is required to take the leap from being a good to great sports star. He says; “It’s a really tough question because I think it’s slightly different for each person. Dedication is a must, sacrifice is also a must. You sacrifice some things and you benefit more with other things.
"I have benefitted a lot and travelled the world. If it wasn’t for Table Tennis I would still be in Loftus (North Yorkshire). It’s a great place but I wouldn’t have experienced the world and the Olympic village. Lastly, believe in yourself even if others don’t. Use the negativity to feed your hunger and prove the detractors wrong.”
Drinkhall enjoys lawn tennis too; “In other sports I love Roger Federer and just the way he goes about his business. It’s tough to watch now when he’s getting so close but hasn’t quite got the edge to do it but hopefully he will have a few more days in the sun.”
Drinkhall understands the need to inspire the next generation of sports stars. He’s cool, intelligent, down to earth, very friendly and approachable; “I always advise everybody and anybody to get involved, try it. If you try it you’ll like it, you might even love it.
“It’s a great sport to try with your friends and when you see yourself improving you’ll really see the benefits.”
One wonders what a typical week is like for an Olympic and Team GB star. Drinkhall has had to make little changes; “Now it’s very different with my son Douglas. We work harder to balance everything. I train 25-30 hours a week. Apart from Table Tennis there’s the fitness side to it. I do a lot of training and toning to strengthen my legs. In the run up to a tournament I usually tone the training down to avoid being too tired for the competition.
“My routine is 6 hours a day, 6six days a week so it is really intense. Unless you’ve played at a high level it’s tough to understand why we practice and train so much. Looking ahead I’m focussed on Rio 2016 and determined to put on a good show.
“Table Tennis is not an expensive sport as in golf and tennis but my parents spent a lot of money on travelling. I played a lot of tournaments down South and we easily spent 6 hours travelling one way and then then spent nights in hotels. I suppose I’ve been lucky to have sponsorship from a young age to help me with costs. That way I have been lucky. A lot of people have to spend a lot of their own money so that can be tough and you don’t always get the rewards back.”
Drinkhall does have negative chinks in his armour and it didn’t take me long to work out that he supports Manchester United. He is optimistic about the season ahead: “We have enjoyed amazing success. I suppose there was always a feeling that there would be a dip after Sir Alex Ferguson retired but Louis Van Gaal has been given access to the club chequebook and United fans feel that this could be a big season in our quest to reach the very top again. It’s going to be an exciting campaign ahead that’s for sure.”
In more important news, I played both Smith and Drinkhall and cruised home with wins in both my games. It’s been positives all round and done its bit to rekindle my desire to start playing again. It’ll be a great story for my grandchildren.