This year athletes have experienced new levels of anxiety, a sense of the unknown and sadness and frustration as competitions were postponed or cancelled and training facilities closed.
But for Team England para-table tennis player Kim Daybell, this has truly been a year like no other.
In March, the Commonwealth silver medallist was thrown headfirst into life on the frontline. With thoughts of Tokyo pushed firmly to the back of his mind, he has spent this year working as a junior doctor at Whittington Hospital in North London.
Having finished his medical degree in 2018 (he was revising for his finals at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games), Daybell was working part-time to accommodate for his training in preparation for the Paralympic Games this summer. However, when the pandemic hit, instead of returning to training full-time as planned, he was thrust into long hours on the Covid wards.
“It’s been surreal and really difficult. Obviously, the health service is under a lot of pressure and I was very much thrown in at the deep end. It’s definitely been an experience and a big learning curve, but we’ve all pulled together and I’ve had lots of support from colleagues.
“Being in the spotlight was hard and not something I really enjoy. There’s been lots of pressure on NHS staff this year.”
But determined to see the positives, the 28-year-old who has just finished four months working in A&E, has learnt a sense of resilience he didn’t know he had.
“Going through the pandemic - Tokyo being postponed and being thrown into such a stressful environment, I learnt a lot about myself and how resilient I can be. I’ve learnt just how important those personal connections and support structures are and I’ve learnt how communication is key to being happy.”
Sheffield-born Daybell, who returned to the table in the summer playing with ex-professionals in London, is feeling positive about the future. He hopes to qualify for the Paralympic Games in Tokyo next summer and then play in front of a home crowd at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022.
“The London Paralympics in 2012 were insane and I’d love to be able to compete in front of a home crowd again. My Commonwealth Games experience in Australia in 2018 was amazing – it was the first year para-table tennis was properly included and it was an absolutely fantastic event. I loved being part of Team England – it felt like a big family and I absolutely loved it.”
But first, he is hoping for some time off. “Mentally I need a bit of time to recover – I’ve not had time to take my foot off the gas this year and I’m not quite ready to get going again. I need to reconnect again with the sport and get back to training properly – I feel a bit drained right now.”
But he’s confident he can return to the position he was in before and believes the long-awaited resumption of sport is what the world needs.
“It’s been a really, really hard year and athletes have had their livelihoods stripped away from them. It makes everything seem quite fragile. Lots of athletes are worried about careers in sport moving forward and it’s been a really scary time.
“But having seen what I’ve seen, I still think sport is so important. The world really does need sport – it’s a great thing to bring nations together in a time when the whole world has been separated from one another. Sporting events that the whole world can watch and appreciate and enjoy is a big thing. As athletes, you bring a lot of joy to people and it’s easy to forget that. We might think there are bigger things than us not being able to play sport but actually it’s bigger than that - the world loves sport and next year, it’s really going to need it.”