Paralympian Will Bayley keen to make amends in Slovenia

By Andy SwissBBC sports news correspondent
Bayley looks to stay on top of the world

Deep inside the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield, Will Bayleyexternal-link slams another forehand. And another. Twenty times he pounds the ball with unerring precision - until his practice partner is finally unable to scramble it back.

The 25-year-old, who is world number one in his class, grins. "I love my sport," he says. "To be the best in the world means so much to me."

All around him, the rest of the British team are also going through their paces. It is a final training camp before the major tests of 2013 - tournaments in Slovenia, Slovakia and Germany, culminating in the European Championships in Italy from 29 September to 5 October.

In the success story of ParalympicsGB last year, table tennis was one of the more remarkable chapters. They won four medals in London. And yet at the previous Games in Beijing, they failed to win any.

Enter Slovenian performance director Gorazd Vecko - with dramatic results. He introduced a more professional set-up. He cut the squad size to focus on those with real medal potential. And in an unconventional move, he invited some of the players to share a house with him.

Vecko lives in Rotherham with three of his squad - Bayley, Aaron McKibbinexternal-link and Ross Wilson.external-link All three hail from the south of England, but this arrangement allows them to train full-time in Sheffield.

Vecko's aim was to create a family environment for what was one of the youngest teams in the Paralympics - to be a father figure as much as a performance director. It certainly seems to have worked.

"We've lived through a lot" says Bayley, 25. "In sport, there are so many highs and so many lows. You get to know somebody's personality, and we know how to make each other feel positive."

Bayley, who has arthrogryposis,external-link a condition which affects the joints of his hands and feet, won silver in the Class 7 category in London. His joyous celebration after reaching the final, leaping in to Vecko's arms, was one of the Games' most memorable images. But in the final, there were only tears of pain - as Bayley lost a match he might have won.

"It's still painful," he admits. "I'm using that to try and make sure it doesn't happen again."

But he says he has already improved as a player since then - and has just regained the world number one spot, thanks to his victory in the recent Ligano Open in Italy.

"I feel fitter, faster and stronger than ever. I don't like losing, so I want to make sure I win in Rio," he added.

Bayley, who studied drama at the famous Brit School for Performing Arts in Croydon, says getting back in to the groove after the inevitable post-London comedown was far from easy, and he is not alone. Sara Head took bronze in London with playing partner Jane Campbell and then - like most of the team - took several months off.

"London was spectacular" she saif. "But when we came back, our first competition in Italy seemed very quiet - almost mouse-like. We didn't have the great British public supporting us any more. But it's great to be back."

Like all of the players, Head regards this year as a stepping stone to next year's World Championships in Beijing. And then of course there is the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. After their success in London, the team have been given an extra £1m of funding for the new Paralympic cycle. It means they will have more access to physiotherapists, psychologists and support teams.

It also means heightened expectations, but the confidence around the team is tangible. Bayley says the team are ready "to live the dream" in Rio. The journey begins this summer.

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