Will Bayley: 'Mr O'Brien was intensely competitive'

The Paralympian gold medallist and Strictly contestant always had a competitive streak – but his PE teacher made it stronger

Will Bayley

I was disabled from birth, but I was always encouraged by my family to play sport, and never really thought about being disabled. From when I was 7, 8, I was really playing lots of different sports

I just thought: I can do this, and enjoy it, and do well in it and compete with others. My family encouraged me that it’s good to do stuff that’s sometimes out of your comfort zone. 

Mr O’Brien was my PE teacher at Beacon Community College, in East Sussex. Even though I had a disability, he was always pushing me to do well in every sport. He always put me forward for the teams: the cricket team, football team and table-tennis team, obviously. He put me in all those teams, and really got behind me.

Determined to make us succeed

He was quite passionate, and he was quite authoritative. He was very determined to make us all succeed, to make teams succeed. He was very competitive. 

I think that really rubbed off on me. I wanted to win, because there was always that competitive edge in his lessons. It felt very intense. Every sport we did, we tried to be the best school at it. Every lesson was competitive, and I liked that. 

There were a lot of tournaments: football, rugby, table-tennis, badminton. A lot of competition. We’d have sessions and then, at the end of four weeks, we’d have a competition. We were always working and training towards that. 

I think that competitiveness was already there in me, but he brought out that side of me. A lot of top sports guys really enjoyed the competition: everyone got behind each other, and we grew closer as a team. 

I don’t think some people enjoyed it as much as I did. But even the weaker people on the team were encouraged a lot. So they got to enjoy it as well.

Out of my comfort zone

When Mr O’Brien was teaching us, he was about 45, I’d say. In his mid-forties. He was very fit, so he didn’t really seem that old. 

I didn’t really know a lot about him, but obviously he was passionate about sport. 

I know he’s around – he’s my friend on Facebook and stuff. But I don’t really talk to him that much. He comments to say “Well done” and that. I think he’s proud to have a Paralympian gold medallist he’s taught. He probably speaks about me a lot at school, which is really nice.

I’ve enjoyed the competition of Strictly Come Dancing. I’d never danced in my life, but it’s more about having fun and enjoying every moment I can. It’s totally out of my comfort zone, but I still want to do the best I can. 

I don’t see everything as a competition. Most of the stuff I do now, I just try to enjoy as much as I can. I’m older now, and more relaxed. I know it’s not the end of the world if I’m not that good at something. I just relax, and try to enjoy it. 

Will Bayley is a British Paralympian table-tennis player, currently ranked world number one. He won a gold medal at the 2016 Paralympic Games. He's currently competing in the 17th series of Strictly Come Dancing

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