Nine years ago, a young table tennis hopeful named Sam Walker was receiving his first SportsAid award at the age of 12. Earlier this month, he was proudly wearing his Team GB kit as he performed on the biggest stage of them all - the Rio 2016 Olympic Games - in the men’s team event alongside Paul Drinkhall and Liam Pitchford.
Sam, who starred in the team’s progression to the quarter-finals before they exited to eventual champions China, showed real grit and determination as he came back from three match points down to ensure Team GB beat France 3-2 in the previous round. There was additional pressure as his was the deciding game of the tie.
"We played in the team event this season in the World Championships where we won bronze so to come out and perform at the Olympics as well is an amazing feeling," said Sam directly after the victory. "We knew it would be tough right from the beginning and there were times we thought we were down and out. It means so much to do it at the Olympics.”
Sam’s 7-11, 11-8, 13-11, 9-11, 12-10 victory came over Simon Gauzy, ranked number 18 in the world, and helped create Olympic history for Team GB as they hadn’t won a match in the team event since it was introduced for Beijing 2008. Sam had been made to wait to compete in Brazil as Paul and Liam were chosen for the singles tournament.
“I managed to stay quite focused,” added Sam in his post-match interview with the BBC. “I like to play on this stage of course but mainly I just like to play table tennis. Our support was amazing and that helped me get through it but I think I was focused still at 10-7 down in the last and I never stopped believing that I could win it.
“I received serve really well but in the rallies I think I was quite positive as well. Gauzy is a great rally player so I tried not to go into the rallies as much as I could. Even in the rallies I was playing quite well. At the end of the day, it’s a team game and the team won so we’re all really happy to be in the next round.”
Unfortunately, the next round didn’t see Team GB produce the performance they were looking for to overcome China as they were soundly beaten 3-0. Nonetheless, Sam, who has received support from SportsAid in 2007, 2009, 2010, 2015 and 2016, put in a spirited display with Paul, a previous beneficiary of the charity’s support, in the doubles.
Team GB trailed 2-0 following defeats for Paul and Liam, also a member of SportsAid’s alumni, in the singles clashes. Paul and Sam were two games behind to Xu Xin and Jike Zhang before they stole the third with a 13-11 scoreline. Xin and Zhang then stormed to victory in the fourth to confirm Team GB’s exit from the competition.
"It was hard but enjoyable out there,” reflected Sam. “I think we did ourselves proud and I hope we did Team GB proud as well. We showed that we can compete with the best in the world. They definitely looked a little bit nervous at times. I think it's something we can look at and go forward next time and hopefully next time we can push them even further.
"It's definitely been a great experience and I think I've performed quite well on the big stage. I will sit down and look at the matches and just assess everything and look at where I can improve and go from there. I think we've got quite a good team spirit but competing against each other all individually pushes us to improve so that's a good thing to have for our team."
Sam, who was provided with his SportsAid award this year by the Nottingham Building Society, started playing as a two-year-old when he would stand on a chair to reach the table. Still very much in the early stages of his career, he has vast competition experience having already won silver in the men’s team event at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.
Since his return from Rio, Sam has started a new season with club team ASV Grünwettersbach in Germany. He considers his parents to be the biggest influences on his career ‘because they were the ones to got me into the sport and have given up so much of their time and invested so much of their money into my training and career’.
What will you do to #SupportTheNext generation of British sporting heroes? SportsAid needs your help to ensure talented athletes like Sam can continue receiving the support they rely on. To donate, please text ‘NEXT01 £5’, ‘NEXT01 £10’ or as much as you can give to 70070.