Table tennis star Daybell's in the form of his life ahead of World Championships

Kim Daybell is a man used to having a lot on his plate.

Kim Daybell.
Kim Daybell.

An international table-tennis player since the age of 19, Sheffield-born Daybell has spent the last eight years studying for a degree in medicine at the University of Leeds, and has the upcoming ITTF Para Table Tennis World Championships in Slovenia in his sights.

Now 26, Daybell is a qualified junior doctor, working part-time with stories of two Paralympic Games to entertain his patients.

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Compared to the day-to-day stresses of life in North London’s Whittingham Hospital, making his Paralympics debut at London 2012 must now seem like a walk in the park. At the time, though, he could be forgiven for being a little overwhelmed.

Kim Daybell.

“That was madness,” Daybell said.

“To have the honour of playing in front of your home crowd at that kind of age, especially for a sport like table tennis which isn’t the biggest sport, the crowds were amazing.

“I think to play in front of family, friends and that amount of people was something very special and we got treated very well by the British public for the time that London was on. I look back on it very fondly.”

But despite what must have seemed like a dream start to his international career, the journey from Sheffield to Leeds to London hasn’t been an easy one.

Kim Daybell.

Daybell was born with Poland’s Syndrome, a condition which meant he was born without pectoral muscles or fingers on his right side. He had surgery at the age of two, doctors stitching one toe from each foot onto his right hand.

The condition affects balance and movement but Daybell’s played able-bodied table tennis until the age of 15, and dabbled in county-level badminton for Yorkshire.

When he moved to Leeds in 2010, he had just won his first tournament, the Lignano Master Tournament in Italy.

Balancing such an intensive university course as medicine with his sporting career might have been too big an ask for some, but it was a challenge which Daybell relished.

He said: “It took a lot of dedication and hard work, a lot of early mornings, getting my work done outside of the afternoons so that I could train in the afternoons. It was a balancing act.

“My medical school were very good, they were always very supportive, I had a very supportive table tennis squad as well.

“Our national centre is in Sheffield. They have a full-time programme there and I used to travel over from Leeds to train there three or four times a week.”

His graduation coincided with his highest world ranking to date – fifth in the world in standing class 10, the most-abled level of players in para table tennis.

Already this year, Daybell has repeated his debut victory in Lignano, taken silver at the Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast, and won the Czech Open in Ostrava.

He is in the form of his life and has grown accustomed to life on the podium, but breaking into the world top three will be no simple task.

The current top four players in his class – Poland’s Patryk Chojnowski, Indonesia’s David Jacobs, Bulgaria’s Denislav Kodjabashev and China’s Hao Lian – all play professional able-bodied table tennis as well as competing on the para circuit.

Daybell is a confident character, but he knows the odds are against him in Slovenia.

“I think just a podium finish has got to be the goal,” he said.

“The top four players are all very strong, they’re really, really good players, so it’s a tough ask, but I think I’m playing well enough at the moment that I could definitely challenge for a medal.

“I’m really excited. At my last Worlds I finished fifth so I’m hoping to better that by a few places. I feel in pretty good form going into it.

“I’ve just come back from the Czech Republic. I won there a couple of weeks ago so it should be a good week.”

Beyond this tournament, Daybell has his sights on a third Paralympic Games, this time in Tokyo. It is a far cry from Leeds University’s Worsley Building, home of its medical school.

But far from the wide-eyed teenager he was at London 2012, he is now one of the senior players in the British para table tennis set-up.

Years of competing at the highest level alongside the more real-world pressures of his first medical job have matured Daybell, and he seems to enjoy the added weight of responsibility that comes with experience.

He said: “We’re a very young squad, Most of the players came in just after London, so even though I’m only 26, there’s not loads of people older, especially in the standing set-up.

“I think in the wheelchair, the game’s a bit different. It’s a bit of an older team, but within standing I’m one of the senior players now.

“It’s good. The younger players look up to you. We have a mentoring scheme that runs through our squad so the senior members are all available to talk to the junior members of the team if they need help or advice on the table tennis, on the lifestyle, or on how to make the best of themselves.”

As well as responsibility, experience also brings expectation.

At 26, he is in his prime years as an athlete and the current cycle until the end of the next Paralympics likely represent his best chance at winning gold medals.

Rather than feeling the pressure, though, when Daybell talks about the World Championships he gives an impression of serenity.

He has seen and done it all before, and is growing into his role as elder statesman of the group.

He added: “Once you’ve been in that position before you really do learn from it and it helps you deal with the situation better each time you go through it. When you’re young it’s very hard. I think it’s quite overwhelming when you play on such big stages in front of so many people.

“Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I can be a bit more focused on the actual game itself and not get distracted by all that other stuff. In the big moments, that little bit of experience can make all the difference.”