Jack Shephard has been making the most of his hotline to a Paralympic superstar as he bids to make the most of badminton’s elevation onto the programme for the first time when the delayed Tokyo 2020 Games get underway in 100 days’ time.
The Dronfield 23-year-old is the reigning world number one in the SS6 category, for athletes born with achondroplasia (dwarfism), and if his sport itself is unsure what to expect, the same cannot be said for Shephard, who has been good friends with five-time swimming champion Ellie Simmonds since his early teens.
Shephard told the PA news agency: “I’m good friends with Ellie and she’s told me all about her experiences and what it takes to be a Paralympic gold medallist.
“She’s told me how to control my nerves and block out everything that might be a distraction and try to treat it like a normal competition – don’t let the fact it’s the Paralympics overwhelm you.
“I’ve known Ellie since we were young and we first met at the Dwarf Sports Association, which is an organisation that puts on different sports for people with our condition to try out and meet others.
“I’ve been able to see more of the background stuff than what people usually see, the hard work and commitment that she’s put in to get where she is. She’s a great role model and an inspiration for me to achieve what she has achieved.”
Shephard starting playing badminton at the age of 10, long before the sport even began to be considered for a place on the Paralympic programme, and his junior career was abruptly put on hold four years later when he underwent an operation which required both legs to be broken in two places in order to be straightened.
After spending nine months in a wheelchair, Shephard began an often tortuous process of rehabilitation which culminated in a remarkable march to his first world senior title in 2017.
“I always knew I wanted to be a Paralympian, long before badminton got into the Games, so after I’d had my operation I was just spurred on even more to get better and get to where I wanted to be,” added Shephard.
“It was quite brutal trying to get back to fitness and I’d often see my team-mates or rivals doing well and think there was no way I would ever get back to their level.
“But I learned to accept the bad days and to use the bad days to come back stronger. I look back on my experiences and I feel like I will be able to use them to give me the edge.”
The inaugural Paralympic badminton programme, which won its place in the Games in January 2015, will be contested across six categories, with a total of 14 gold medals up for grabs.
GB head coach Richard Morris hailed the transformation the sport has undergone, exemplified by the way it has enabled Shephard to focus full-time on climbing to the top.
“We’ve been involved in para-badminton since 2011 when we were trying to work out what it was and how we were supposed to do it,” said Morris.
“Now there’s 50-odd countries with full-time programmes and international tournaments and sponsorships. The changes over the last 10 years have been absolutely incredible.”