by Kabir Nagpal
KN: At what age and how were you introduced to the sport?
SE: I’ve always had a table tennis table at home since I was young but when I was 8, I moved to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates with my family. It was too hot most of the time to play my usual sports which were tennis and soccer. It was then that I was introduced to table tennis because I could play it indoors and when I was 11, I started to play table tennis competitions.
KN: Could you please tell us more about the journey to the international scene and the people who helped you become the player you are today?
SE: I played recreationally for a long time, but I started competing properly in 2007. I made my international debut in 2011, when I was selected to represent Australia at a World Junior Circuit even in Guam. At that stage, I hadn’t been classified so I was playing against able-bodied athletes, and in fact, when I was 16, I won a silver medal as part of the Australian Under 18 Junior able-bodied Team.
I always knew I had learning difficulties but when I was 15, I was told I had an intellectual impairment from autism. What that meant was I could be classified as a Class 11 athlete. When I was 20, I was classified internationally and that made me eligible to compete for ranking points and aim for the Paralympic Games. Not long after that, I achieved a career highlight when I won gold in the men’s singles at the Spanish Para Open in 2015 which was the first tournament I’d ever won a singles event in. The feeling of winning gold was like no other, and it made me want to work really hard to qualify for the Paralympics and go as far as I can.
In Rio, I became the first Australian to win a medal in table tennis at either the Olympics or Paralympics in 32 years when I won silver against Florian van Acker. It was a huge achievement and my career highlight to date. I really wanted to win gold that day, and that has motivated me to become a better athlete over the last four years.
My family and my friends and of course my support network at Table Tennis Australia has helped me get to where I am today. My family have supported me the whole way through my career, as have all of my coaches.
KN: You have achieved a great many things in your short six-year career until now as compared to many of your immediate rivals. What would you say is the key to your rise up the ladder and are you pleased with your progress this far?
SE: I’m so pleased with my progress so far but I’m hungry to achieve even more. Knowing how far I can get in a tournament keeps me motivated and having lost the gold medal to Florian makes me want to win it more next year in Tokyo. The key to my success comes down to a lot of hard work with my coach, and also the Paralympics Australia innovation team. I’m not based in the same city as the Australian Head Coach (Alois Rosario) but through new technology developed by Paralympics Australia, he can watch me train and coach me in real time, which has assisted greatly in my performance.
KN: After making a stunning silver medal winning Paralympic Games debut in 2016, how would you reflect on your time in Rio as a whole?
SE: Rio was an incredible experience and particularly amazing because it was my first Paralympic Games. Going into Rio, I was ranked sixth in my class so I wasn’t expected to get as far as I did. I was competitive but I was also there to gain crucial international experience, in a totally different environment. When you get into a gold medal play off though, you find yourself really wanting to win it but I was still very happy to come home with a medal. I hope that I can come home with one better next time.
KN: What was your biggest takeaway from competing at the Paralympic Games?
SE: My biggest takeaway from the Paralympic Games is that I could go further than I thought I could, and I could keep my cool under pressure. I learnt that competition gets really fierce at that level, and the professionalism of all the countries immediately goes up a level, so I was really proud that I could reach that final. It gave me a lot of confidence and affirmed to me that I wanted to push harder in my sport.
KN: Having missed out on the gold despite leading the final at one point, do you think there’s anything you would have done differently with the benefit of hindsight?
SE: I remember that match really well. I put up a good fight, Florian was the world number one at the time so I wanted to show what I was made of and ask the question if he could bring out his best on the biggest stage. Unfortunately, I lost in five tight games but I left knowing I couldn’t have played much better and gave me belief I could battle with the best on the biggest stage of all. I don’t think there is anything I would have done differently, the better player won on the day.
KN: You followed that performance up with yet another prestigious bronze medal finish at the 2018 World Championships. While it must be disappointing to miss the final, do you believe it was another positive example to prove you are up there with the very best in the sport?
SE: That’s right, it was disappointing to be one match off the final but to get that far meant a lot to me. As you said, it’s an example that I’m up there with the best in my sport, and that winning silver in Rio was definitely no fluke!
KN: You recorded two gold medals in 2019 including the INAS Global Games. Being clearly in form, what actions are you taking to carry over this promising form into 2021 and the Tokyo Paralympic Games?
SE: It was really cool to be able to compete in an international competition in Australia, and have people I knew around me. I defeated Peter Palos who was ranked number two and Lucas Creange who was ranked number three at the time, and that gave me a lot of confidence. I then paired up with Rory Carroll, who is part of the Australian Squad, and we won silver in the teams unfortunately going down to a strong Japanese team. I went in there with confidence and focus, and that helped me go really far. That, plus more hard work is my plan for next year.
KN: How different or similar will your approach be for the Games in Tokyo as compared to your time in Rio four years ago? With your aims to certainly match, if not better the 2016 results, what would be your biggest hurdle in 2021?
SE: I’ve come along way as an athlete since 2016. I’m more certain of myself, and with my coach, we’ve found new ways to train and new areas to focus on in my training, which will hopefully lead to a better performance. Obviously it always comes down to how you play on the day but I will be aiming for gold now that I know I can play as well, if not better than the best in my class. The biggest hurdle for me, and I think I speak for most athletes, is the lack of international competition available. Having that practice is crucial because you’re playing against people at your level. Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of class 11 athletes in Australia, so it can become difficult to replicate competition here at home.
KN: Finally, what would it mean for Para table tennis in Australia if you were to bring home the Paralympic Games gold in Tokyo?
SE: Well, for one, it would be only the third gold medal Australia has won in table tennis at the Paralympics Games, so that would be unbelievable! Para table tennis has grown significantly in Australia since I first began competing, but I would love my potential gold medal to bring more awareness to the sport. It would be fantastic to inspire more people with a disability to give table tennis a crack!