Nearly eighteen months ago, I travelled something in excess of 370 miles to spend a short time in the company of five members of Team GB’s London 2012 bronze medal-winning women’s hockey squad—four of whom were also part of England’s wonderful EuroHockey final victory over the Netherlands on Sunday.
Yesterday it was back in the trusty old Vauxhall Corsa for another jaunt down the M1; this time to Milton Keynes, home of the National Badminton Centre, for the opportunity to meet and have a couple of games with Rhys Walker, England international, currently ranked no.4 in the country, multiple national age group champion, Commonwealth Youth and European Championship medallist....
Maybe I should have just asked to meet him.
I’ve never been to Milton Keynes before; the main reason being it’s a very long way from Middlesbrough. They could have built this New Town anywhere in the country, but chose to put it 220 miles away from where I live; poor planning if you ask me!
Before yesterday, I hadn’t swung a badminton racket in anger for a decade. It took me quite a few hours to actually find the racket, and thankfully, despite the passage of time, the strings were all intact; and once I’d bought some trainers and borrowed a bag to put my kit in, I was officially ready to go.
I did have a couple of fairly major concerns to mull over as I drove down to Buckinghamshire: could I still hit a shuttlecock over a net, and how long would my increasingly worn hips keep me upright (let alone mobile)?
I arrived slightly ahead of schedule, and was sitting in reception when Rhys appeared. He had no problem recognising me... I was the only one in the whole complex who was old, unfit and holding a twenty-year-old racket.
We were able to have a short chat before I ventured into the main hall. Rhys proceeded to tell me that the people looking on as I walked onto the bright green court were, in fact, the majority of the England squad... suddenly those ten years seemed an absolute age!
Happily when we knocked up, racket and shuttlecock connected... most of the time, and Rhys suggested that we play a few short games; first to seven.
At this stage, it is important to note that Rhys made sure the points were competitive without playing too many of the kind of shots that I wouldn’t have been able to see, let alone return. After the first couple of games, two things were apparent: I was even more out of condition than I imagined (being able to do a 100km exercise bike ride is not the same as skipping across court to retrieve a drop shot), but, on the plus side, there were one or two very brief glimpses of the old “Kirby magic”!
The fact that I lost those first two games (as well as all those that followed) was hardly a surprise, but although every scoreline started “Walker 7”, there was actually one that ended “Kirby 6” and another “Kirby 5”—and no one was more surprised than the portly wheezing 51 year-old who was in desperate need of a rest and a drink after every couple of games.
During the breaks, and at the end of proceedings, Rhys and I had what I found a fascinating chat about the physical and mental demands of international badminton; the dedication and determination it takes to be an elite athlete, as well as the invaluable input of the team behind the scenes. Sportsmen and women are essentially judged by their performances and results, but earning the right to compete takes unseen hours, days, months of preparation, fitness and skills work, as well as the all-important psychological aspect of top-level sport. For Rhys, this has meant moving away from home and an embedded support network that had clearly been successful, but sometimes there are decisions and sacrifices that have to be made for the opportunity to progress to the next level.
Rhys clearly has a mature head on his shoulders, to add to his talent and resolve; it was a pleasure to meet him, and a privilege to be able to share a court with such an impressive young man.
After forty minutes, I had nothing left to give. My legs were (and happily still are) fine, but the old heart rate was getting faster and faster (unlike my legs...) and sometimes you just have to accept that time has caught up with you.
That said, in amongst the occasional air shot and poor footwork, there were some really enjoyable rallies and a shot or two that received a positive response from the other side of the net. I’ve lost count of how many challenges I’ve completed as part of my work on behalf of Mind and “Time to Change”, but I will remember my final appearance on a badminton court as one of the very best.
I will also remember that what I thought was a stitch was actually a side strain that was either the result of one too many clears... or from repeatedly bending down to pick up yet another Rhys winner! If I was an athlete, I would tell you that the affected muscle group is known as the latissimus dorsi... but I’m not; and in my terms the pain that cost me a decent night’s sleep was officially caused by a punctured spare tyre....
It only remains for me to say a massive thank you to Rhys for his time and his company: I will be following his career (and the road to Rio) very closely. I am also grateful to Emma and Simon at Badminton England for helping with the arrangements, and to GB international Sophie Brown who took the “after” photo below and managed to make me look far healthier than I actually felt.
As with all the #challenge blogs, the underlying mental health message is as strong as ever... if you recognise you need help, please don’t be afraid to ask, because help is out there and things can... and do get better.
I’m now going for a long soak in the bath....