Earlier, the partisan home crowd packed inside the Riocentro did all they could to intimidate him. Point by point, Will Bayley quietened them and then, as he edged closer to the brink of Paralympic gold and immortality in his sport, the silence became deafening.
After years of waiting, months of training and weeks of concentration, Bayley knew nothing could stop him now. Nothing, in truth, ever has and as that medal he craved moved to almost within touching distance, that steely focus began to wane and his mind started to wander.
To childhood and the 12 horrific, bone-breaking operations to reshape his feet after he was born with a debilitating muscle-wasting disease affecting all four of his limbs.
To 18 months of battling blood cancer, his seven-year-old body rejecting a revolutionary strain of chemotherapy like “something out of a horror film”.
To the day he promised a family friend that he would triumph in Rio, before she herself died from cancer.
To the hours of intense physical training, on the table and in the gym, defying the odds with every session; and to the defeat he suffered in the Paralympic final of London 2012. Different types of pain, but pain all the same.
He knew by then that one more point made all of that worthwhile. One more point and he was Paralympic table tennis champion, a class act at the top of his class. One. More. Point.
Israel Pereira Stroh, the Brazilian journalist and hometown favourite with cerebral palsy, stood in his way but appeared resigned to his fate, before the 13th shot of the rally saw Stroh’s luck finally run out. Bayley forced him onto the back foot, Stroh’s forehand went long and Bayley’s destiny had, at last, been fulfilled.
“To lose in the final of London 2012, my home Games, was incredibly painful. God, it hurt me for a long time,” said Bayley, his voice gently trailing off at the memory.
“The first day after that, I came into training with a Rio t-shirt on and that became my focus for four years. To get to two Paralympic finals in a row is pretty formidable, and I remember telling myself not to miss the chance again.
“To be honest, I felt destined to win it but I felt even more pressure because people were questioning me; ‘He’s won the Euros, the world championships, but hasn’t won the Paralympics’.
“So I was so focused in the final, just thinking about every point. Nothing else. Only when I got to match point did I start to think about other things, completely unsubconciously.
“All the training and all the pain; the things I’ve overcome, my disability and then the cancer.
“The months in hospital, in the operating theatre and having yellow chemo pumped into my body. Now, I was in a position to achieve what I’d always dreamed of and I wasn’t about to let it slip again.”
Bayley was on top of the world and seconds later found himself on top of the table, arms triumphantly outstretched, in what became one of the defining images of the 2016 Games. Just over two years on, Bayley laughs when he admits he has no idea how he ended up there, or how. “I’ve tried it a few times since,” he laughs. “It’s not easy.”
The 30-year-old, though, has been overcoming obstacles and achieving the unlikely ever since he was born, amidst the 1988 new year chill in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.
‘Difficult’ is how Bayley, with some understatement, describes living with arthrogryposis, a condition which affects around one in 3,000 babies and all four of Bayley’s limbs, as well as other parts of his body. His mother, Chrissie, suffers from a milder form of the condition, as does her brother, but was determined not to allow her son to be defined by it.
When it became apparent her son wouldn’t be able to wear football boots at school because of his misshapen feet, Chrissie wrote to the head of PE and demanded he be allowed to wear trainers to play football and rugby on the school field.
The teacher, Mr Byrne, has kept this letter to this day, the message clear; don’t make excuses.
“She taught me that I was capable of doing anything,” Bayley said, warmly. Distance divides them – Bayley now lives in Rotherham and trains full-time at Sheffield’s English Institute of Sport – but it’s clear they’re close where it matters.
“She never complained about the condition and being honest, I didn’t know I really had a disability until I was about 12. I was in the swimming pool with school and someone asked ‘what’s wrong with your feet?’
“They were basically nothing like feet. They were back to front and I basically have no ankles. I had to have them reshaped and rebuilt just to allow me to stand up and balance, so they’re locked into place. But it’s worked, because I’m standing and walking and can move around the table.
“The condition isn’t seen as progressive but it really is... muscle around my joints wastes away, so I’m basically fighting against my body to try and stay fit. It’s a difficult fight, but I’m doing alright so far.”
With world, European and Paralympic gold medals in his trophy cabinet, it seems like another significant understatement but Bayley is not being at all trivial when he remembers doctors saying that it was a victory, in its own right, for him to even walk at all, given the seriousness of the condition.
Kids at school would stare at his hands, and even now he often has grown men gazing blatantly at him in Meadowhall. But that physical and mental trauma helped plant a seed of determination in a young Bayley and would help him latter battle another significant hurdle, in the shape of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“That was another testing time in my life,” Bayley remembers.
“I was in the bath and my mum found a lump on my neck. She thought someone had punched me. Our local GP looked at me and thought it was just swollen lymph glands, but my mum wasn’t happy so she took me back to look again. A couple of days later, I was in Great Ormond Street hospital having chemotherapy for blood cancer.
“Maybe she had some kind of intuition? Who knows. But I owe everything to her. Obviously at seven I wouldn’t have picked up on something like that and blood cancer is horrific. It spreads like wildfire and I was very lucky to get through it.
“To see everyone around me suffer and watch friends around me die... for a seven-year-old kid, that’s really hard. And being honest it never leaves you, either.”
Seven-year-old Bayley was placed on a revolutionary strain of chemotherapy, which had never previously been trialled on children, and can vividly recall sitting in his bedroom when his mum called him for another dose of it.
“I told her I didn’t want to go. I’d had enough of it. I was waking up and my hair had fallen out, I had ulcers in my mouth so I couldn’t eat. I was in so much pain. But she said ‘you have to’ and I remember asking her, ‘will I die if I don’t?’
“She said ‘yes, you will’. Can you imagine saying that to your child? I packed my bag straightaway and didn’t ever complain again.”
Some of Bayley’s memories of his time in Great Ormond Street are truly harrowing, including the ordeal of chemotherapy.
“It was at times like something out of a horror film. The doctors connected these tubes to me and I could see this yellow fluid going into my body. Then, five seconds later, my body rejected it, this yellow fluid coming out of every orifice. My eyes, nose, mouth and a few others, too.
“But we had to persevere and eventually my body accepted it. And I was one of the lucky ones. I remember watching one of my friends in hospital, Dominic, dying in the middle of the night, from across the ward. And he had the same cancer I had.
“After 18 months I got the all clear and I don’t think it sank in, to be honest. I was more happy when my mum took me to a department store in London and bought me Brian Lara Cricket for the PlayStation to celebrate!
“I think I was just relieved that I didn’t have to go into theatre anymore. When I was first diagnosed I was surrounded by doctors and nurses, prodding me with needles like a pin cushion.
“I used to hate being put to sleep with the gas mask, so I tried to fight it.
“The doctors had to pin me down and once I lashed out and bit one of them on his face, quite badly. It’s mad, isn’t it?
“I think it was my fighting instinct kicking in. I think it’s incredible what the human mind can do. My mum used to sing ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’ to me as I went to sleep and I absolutely hate hearing it.
“I can’t listen to it now because it brings back all the memories. I can feel the sounds and the smells when I hear it, and can taste the gas in my mouth. Horrible.”
After the all-clear, Bayley threw himself back into education and his love of table tennis grew; a relationship which began when his grandma bought him a table to aid his recovery.
“It was the only sport I could really play with my Hickman line in,” the father-of-one recalls.
“When I went back to school, nobody ever felt sorry for me or said ‘you’ve been through a lot’. Maybe that was purposeful, so I didn’t feel sorry for myself either.
“Most people don’t go through something like that in a lifetime, never mind at eight years old with a disability as well. I admit there were times I used to think ‘why me?’
“But still my mum told me ‘there are people worse off in the world than you’ and she’s right. Some, like Dominic, didn’t make it.
“And that doesn’t leave you. It makes you a stronger and more determined person but you also never get over those sort of things. Maybe as a child you don’t think about the bigger picture as much but now, as an adult and a father, you look back and think ‘wow, I was in trouble there’. And that’s putting it politely.
“But that’s where my resilience comes from. The determination to train hard and push myself even harder. To play in big tournaments and endure physical pain in the gym is nothing.
“It doesn’t scare me because I know what it’s like to be on the brink of dying, having to fight for your life.
“That’s what I got out of that time, I think. The determination to make the most out of myself and make the most of every single day.”
The battle may have been won, but the scars remain: chemotherapy damaged one of the ventricles in Bayley’s heart and there may yet be further harm to his organs in the long term.
But for now, as he relaxes in the cafe of his local health club between typically-gruelling sessions, Bayley is healthy and happy. Perhaps his biggest triumph of all is that, unlike Dominic and so many others, he’s still here. With many points to win, and even more to prove.
‘I CAN MAKE HISTORY AS ONE OF BEST PLAYERS COUNTRY HAS SEEN… AND DON’T WRITE ME OFF’
After overcoming a debilitating disability and then beating childhood cancer to reach the top of the world, it’s perhaps unsurprising to hear that Will Bayley thrives on conquering adversity -– both on and off the table tennis table.
The man whose journey to Paralympic, European and world gold medals began when his grandma bought him a table as he recovered from blood cancer believes he’s ‘destined’ to end it on the highest of highs, with another victory at the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
Beyond that, a tilt at another title in Paris 2024 hasn’t been ruled out either and it’s difficult to argue, after hearing his story, when Bayley insists that no-one should ever write him off.
One of his favourite memories of beating the odds takes him back to 2008, when he was reclassfied and found himself competing in the same class as more able-bodied athletes.
“I was told I should retire, that I wouldn’t be able to cope and hit the ball hard enough. And that was from a former GB coach!” Bayley said.
“In 2014 I lost in the Euros to Jean Paul Montanus, who’s a brilliant player, and one of his teammates told me I had zero chance of winning gold at Rio 2016. So I promised him I’d send him a picture of me celebrating when I did. Did I send it? Of course I did! And to be fair he replied congratulating me.
“Even now I have quotes in my bedroom, of people writing me off. ‘Will can’t do this’ or ‘Will’s too old, too slow’ or whatever. It’s always nice to prove people wrong and it’s something that motivates me, massively.”
As does that feeling of winning silverware.
“I honestly feel like I’m destined to be a multiple Paralympic champion,” he says, with an air of confidence that stops a long way short of arrogance.
“But it’s not just about medals. Sometimes you need a bigger ‘why’, a higher motivation. I want to inspire people with disabilities and show they can do whatever they want to do. Sometimes people think - or are told - that they can’t do anything, and live their life that way, but I’m proof it doesn’t have to be like that.
“The day after I won in Rio, I got a letter from a parent whose daughter has arthrogyprosis in all four limbs, like me, and started playing table tennis after watching me. That’s priceless, isn’t it?
“That feeling is worth more than any gold medal can give.”
Bayley will be 32 by the time Tokyo comes around but despite a bulging trophy cabinet, which includes an MBE for services to his sport, the hunger still remains.
“To retain my title in Tokyo would put me in history as one of the best players this country has ever seen, but to inspire people with my condition, or that have overcome cancer, is huge for me as well,” he said.
“There’s a lot to work with there, isn’t there?
“Doing this takes a massive toll on my body, battling against my condition, but I just have to think about why I’m doing it. That makes up for the pain, for me. Can I do it again in Tokyo or Paris? A lot of people try and write you off and say this or that isn’t possible, and you hear that a lot from humans: ‘it can’t be done’.
“But that’s not my mentality, and I feel really fortunate to have that because of what I’ve been through.
“Anyone is capable of anything if they have the right attitude – and I think I’ve showed that no-one should ever write me off.”
Will is seeking sponsorship to help him compete in future tournaments. For more information, or to contact him, visit his website at www.willbayley.com.