World Para-badminton Championships: Jack Shephard & Krysten Coombs battle for Paralympic qualification

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Friends and foes fighting for a Paralympic place

As friendships go, few are closer than Jack Shephard and Krysten Coombs.

Pals since they were children, they now train, travel, and win medal after medal together. Side by side, they have risen up the Para-badminton world rankings, and are now ranked first and second with little over a year to go until their sport makes its long-awaited debut at the Paralympic Games.

But sport can be cruel sometimes.

With only one place per nation available in their SS6 class - for athletes of short stature - only one of them can go to Tokyo 2020.

"It is tough, but it's how it is and both of us have accepted that," Coombs - also an actor who has appeared in Game of Thrones - tells BBC Sport.

"It's how the sport is, sadly. The best two in the world can't go together but it's something we have got to accept.

"We're a new sport and there are only so many bed spaces available at the Paralympics, so we can't take everyone. It's a shame."

World number one Shephard, 22, adds: "It's going to be upsetting for one of us, but the fact that we are close friends and close rivals on court is pushing us both to the max."

'Together we'd make the perfect player'

Shephard was four when he was introduced to Coombs - six years his senior - through the Dwarf Sports Association.

"He is a bit older than me but within dwarf sports that doesn't really matter," he says. "Me and Krysten created this bond from the off and from a young age I have always looked up to him as a role model and friend.

"He's come a long way with me, he is the one who got me into badminton and we have been a solid rock since we first met."

Together, they have won world and European titles in the men's doubles, while Shephard defeated Coombs in the singles final at the last World Championships in 2017.

"I think we both have areas of our game that the other wishes they had. If you put us both together as one, you would get one hell of a player," Shephard says.

"Of Krysten's attributes, I would like his speed and his power, and I'm sure he would like my technical abilities."

Coombs agrees.

"He's a lot more skilful than me, he's a bit better with the racquet and I struggle sometimes with that," he says.

"For me, it's more about the speed and the power but if he can hang on and keep the rallies going and use his skills, it gets me."

Krysten Coombs and Peter Dinklage on the set of Game of Thrones
Coombs (pictured with actor Peter Dinklage) appeared in a season four episode of Game of Thrones

'The Paralympics will make our sport bigger and better' - on Tokyo 2020

Badminton was added to the Tokyo Paralympic programme in 2014, having tried - and failed - to be included in the Rio 2016 Games.

Only six players will compete in the SS6 class; one of 14 events across men's, women's and doubles to be contested.

"We were actually on a plane to Japan when we got the news," says Coombs. "We managed to get a bit of WiFi for half an hour or so and managed to look. It was massive.

"It is amazing, especially with badminton being such a big sport in Japan. I think that will give a really good start to its Paralympic legacy."

Both Coombs and Shephard say playing at the Paralympics would mark a "dream come true", a Games that has been a long time coming for Para-badminton.

"It's just amazing that a sport that I love, and that I have loved since I was kid, is a Paralympic sport and I have the chance to go to a Paralympics," says Shephard.

"You watch it every four years and see the atmosphere, the tears of athletes winning and the happiness. To be able to go and work my hardest to achieve that would be a dream.

"The sport is growing and growing with the Paralympics on the horizon, it has made it bigger and better and I am sure after the Paralympics it will grow even more."

'The title is mine for a reason' - preparing for the World Championships

As the battle to qualify for the Paralympics continues, Shephard and Coombs head into this week's World Championships knowing a solid result will help their campaigns with double qualification points on offer.

The tournament, which starts in Basel, Switzerland, on Tuesday, is the first in which the badminton and Para-badminton World Championships will take place simultaneously.

In perfect timing, Coombs has recently returned to winning ways in singles, having not won a title in two years prior to his victories at the National Championships and Irish International earlier in the summer.

"I'm feeling really good at the moment," he says. "I've had a great few weeks of training so the prep has been amazing. I'm playing some of my best badminton."

For Shephard, however, only one result will be good enough.

"I want to go out there and retain my title," he says. "It's mine for a reason and I don't want anyone to take it off me.

"I'm still speechless now, it was a memorable, amazing feeling to be the first English SS6 to ever win."

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