CWG 2022: 'The table is my stage' - how TT helped two para-sport champions cope with life

Bhavina Patel in action during the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Jack Hunter-Spivey has been through a fair bit. Born with cerebral palsy, Hunter-Spivey has been in a wheelchair since he can remember. But he has never once let that define him. On Friday, he booked his place in a Commonwealth Games final: the men's singles class 3-5 (para) table tennis.

A few moments after Hunter-Spivey won his semifinal, on a table a few courts apart, Bhavina Hasmukhbai Patel won hers in the women's singles classes 3-5. Where Hunter-Spivey started playing TT at a youth sports club, Patel stumbled into her career. Afflicted by polio before she turned one, she too has never really known life without a wheelchair.

Table-tennis is a simple enough sport to understand; two people, two rackets, one ball... get the ball past the other. Most reading this would have played it one occasion or the other, but even if you've just watched it the basic dynamics are clear to see: side-to-side movement is key. The ability to manipulate space on the table comes from the ability to manipulate it on the court behind, and around it.

On a wheelchair, that's severely limited. On top of which the height; serving at eye level is one thing, but playing the whole match at it is something else. Judgement changes, the way angles are attacked changes, the duration of rallies changes. None of that has ever bothered these two champions.

"It was a sport that I enjoyed playing," Hunter-Spivey said soon after his win. "It was a sport that I could play against my able-bodied friends... beat them at." That's the beauty of TT, he says, "it's an ego sport, I want to beat you, and you want to beat me. That's it."

"I grew up in a disadvantaged part of Liverpool, on the council estates at Anfield" he said in a matter-of-fact tone, before adding with a laugh, "We've got the greatest football team in the world, but maybe not the greatest TT teams."

There's a touch of pain in that laugh, though. "I was really frustrated about being a disabled kid. I wanted to be like everyone else - I wanted to be the next Steven Gerrard like every other Liverpool kid growing up." With football out of the question, though, he took up table tennis at a youth club for disabled kids.

More than a sport, though, TT has been an escape for Hunter-Spivey. "For me sport has helped me evolve incredibly. I started in a youth club with other kids and look at me now, I'm in a CWG final. I was a Paralympic medallist."

"I've been through a lot in my life," he says. "Mental health battles, depression, I've been through three suicide attempts in my life and I've come through the other side." A Tokyo Paralympics bronze medallist, he values the positive influence sport has had more than anything else. "Sport has given me so much more than just medals, so much more than just big finals... it's been that anchor in my life."

"The table is my stage to perform. If I were an actor, that would be my screen, if I was a painter, that's my [easel]. Whatever problems I've got, I can leave them by the door and go and be my true self."


Patel's problems were similar, with two big differences: the village of Sundhiya (in Mehsana district, Gujarat), where she grew up had no disability-friendly infrastructure. And she was a girl.

"I come from a small village. There were a lot of restrictions. People kept asking, 'You're a girl, and you can't do anything. What will you do when you grow up?'" she said on Friday.

"Growing up, there were so many problems with my education, my parents went through so much... if I had to go anywhere, even school, my parents had to lift me on their back and take me there (and back). There were so many difficulties..."

She embraces those times now. "After overcoming them, looking back, I think if those difficulties weren't there I may never have reached where I am now."

She had first picked up a TT racket at the Blind People's Association building in Ahmedabad, where she had gone to learn computer science. "I saw some of my friends playing it, seeing that I figured let me try it out, learn the game." Similar to Hunter-Spivey, TT was one area where she could compete equally. That feeling gave her a high she'd never experienced before.

"I liked TT so much, I used to keep myself so happy, I'd forget all my problems... sometimes I felt like I could just play all day long," she laughed. "Sometimes I even used to forget to eat!"

"There were so many things like that which got me attached to the game. I won a medal at the nationals, and then I started training even more seriously... and now I'm here." Here is at the doorstep of a Commonwealth Games gold, a year on from winning Paralympic silver.

"When I started, I didn't have any particular dream. I hadn't even seen TT growing up, not even in my dreams," she says. "Now, though... now, I want to medal everywhere: CWG, the Asian Games, the World Championships, the Paralympics."


Hunter-Spivey and Patel are very different personalities. Where the former is loud and a little brash and full of bravado, the latter is quiet and goes about her business with the minimum of fuss. Both of them are here in Birmingham, though, to prove a point. That by living their lives on their terms, by becoming the best in the world at what they do, people realise that anything really is possible. However hard life is, dreams are meant to be dreamt, and chased and achieved. It's not some marketing cliché.

"Believe in yourself, believe with all your soul," says Patel. "Then work hard for it. Everything will fall in place."