Jack Hunter-Spivey has been through quite a bit. Hunter-Spivey, born with cerebral palsy, has been in a wheelchair since he can remember. But he never let that define it. On Friday he booked his place in a final of the Commonwealth Games: the men’s singles class 3-5 (para) table tennis.
Moments after Hunter-Spivey won his semi-final, on a table a few lanes apart, Bhavina Hasmukhbai Patel won hers in the women’s singles 3-5. Where Hunter-Spivey started playing TT at a youth sports club, Patel ended up in her career. She too, who was stricken with polio before she became one, has never really known a life without a wheelchair.
Table tennis is a sport that is simple enough to understand; two people, two rackets, one ball… get the ball past the other. Most reading this would have played it one time or another, but even if you’ve just watched it, the basic dynamics are clear: side-by-side movement is key. The ability to manipulate the space on the table comes from the ability to manipulate it on the field behind and around it.
This is very limited in a wheelchair. In addition, the height; serving at eye level is one thing, but playing on it for the entire game is another. Judgment changes, the way corners are attacked changes, the duration of rallies changes. None of that has ever bothered these two champions.
“It was a sport I loved to play,” Hunter-Spivey said shortly after his win. “It was a sport I could play against my healthy friends… beat them.” That’s the beauty of TT, he says, “it’s an ego sport, I want to beat you and you want to beat me. That’s it.”
“I grew up in a deprived part of Liverpool, on Anfield’s municipal grounds,” he said in a sober tone, before adding with a laugh: “We have the best football team in the world, but maybe not the best TT teams. “
There is, however, a hint of pain in that smile. “I was really frustrated because I was a disabled child. I wanted to be like everyone else – I wanted to be the next Steven Gerrard, like every other Liverpool kid growing up.” With football out of the question, however, he went to play table tennis at a youth club for disabled children.
More than a sport, however, TT is an escape for Hunter-Spivey. “For me, sport has helped me tremendously to evolve. I started in a youth club with other kids and look at me now, I’m in a CWG final. I was a Paralympic medalist.”
“I’ve been through a lot in my life,” he says. “Mental struggle, depression. I’ve been through three suicide attempts in my life and I’ve come through the other side.” He is a bronze medalist of the Tokyo Paralympic Games and appreciates the positive influence sport has had more than anything else. “Sport has given me so much more than just medals, so much more than just grand finals… it’s been that anchor in my life.”
“The table is my stage to perform. If I were an actor it would be my screen, if I were a painter it would be my [easel]. Whatever problems I have, I can leave them at the door and be my true self.”
Patel’s problems were similar, with two major differences: the village of Sundhiya (in Mehsana district, Gujarat), where she grew up, lacked disability-friendly infrastructure. And she was a girl.
“I come from a small town. There were a lot of restrictions. People kept asking, ‘You’re a girl and you can’t do anything. What are you going to do when you grow up?'” she said Friday.
“Growing up, there were so many problems with my upbringing, my parents went through so much… if I had to go somewhere, even to school, my parents had to lift me on their back and take me there (and back). There were so many difficulties…”
She embraces those times now. “After overcoming them, I think if it weren’t for those difficulties, I might never have gotten to where I am today.”
She had first picked up a TT racket at the Blind People’s Association building in Ahmedabad, where she had gone to study computer science. “I saw some of my friends play it as I thought let me give it a try, learn the game.” As with Hunter-Spivey, TT was an area where she could compete evenly. That feeling gave her a high she’d never experienced before.
“I loved TT so much, I kept myself so happy, I would forget all my problems… sometimes I felt like I could just play all day,” she laughed. “Sometimes I even forgot to eat!”
“There were so many things like that that got me attached to the game. I won a medal at the national championships and then I started training even more seriously… and now I’m here.” Here stands on the doorstep of a Commonwealth Games gold, one year after winning Paralympic silver.
“When I started, I didn’t have a specific dream. I didn’t even see TT grow up, not even in my dreams,” she says. “But now I want to get a medal everywhere: CWG, the Asian Games, the World Championships, the Paralympic Games.”
Hunter-Spivey and Patel are very different personalities. Where the former is boisterous and a little brash and full of bravado, the latter is quiet and does its job with a minimum of fuss. However, both are here in Birmingham to prove their point. That by living their lives on their terms, by becoming the best in the world at what they do, people realize that anything is really possible. As difficult as life is, dreams are meant to be dreamed, pursued and achieved. It’s not a marketing cliché.
“Believe in yourself, believe with all your soul,” Patel says. “Then work hard for it. Everything will fall into place.”
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