“When you can’t be arsed, you’ve got to get up and grind. That’s what has got me to where I am today,” says Team GB Paralympian Ashley Facey-Thompson. After competing in his first Paralympic Games in Rio 2016 at the age of 21 following his victory at the European Championships, the Stratford-hailing table tennis player has gone on to swipe silver medals from China, all the way to Slovakia and Japan. Despite being born with Erbs palsy, which has affected the nerves in the right side of his body, through table tennis, Facey-Thompson has been able to command great strength with his left. For that reason alone, his ever-expanding list of achievements speak for themselves.
We join the Facey-Thompson after a particularly punishing day at the gym. “It was horrible,” he laughs. “A lot of squatting, a lot of leg pressing. Interval sessions are really horrible.” It begs the question why he wakes up and puts himself through it every day, without fail. “Habits,” he answers simply. “Whether you’re training in the hall or the gym, your habits will have an impact on when you’re playing the match.” It can be down to something as foundational as getting out of bed when you’re supposed to, rather than hitting snooze for an extra ten minutes. “I get up straight away and try to make sure that even if I had a bad day yesterday, that today is a different day: be bright, be positive. Whatever you do day in, day out, make sure your habits are good. It happens to all of us,” he admits, “and I moan all the time that it’s not happening for me, but then when I look back and think, ‘Did I have bad habits that week?’ it can explain why. You need to make sure you have a good routine to get what you what.”
Determination and unwavering discipline is what Facey-Thompson has to thank for his success at such a young age – that, and sacrifice. Though he was born in London, growing up in East London town of Stratford, he uprooted his life with its comforts and familiarity, and moved to Sheffield to go all in with his training. Now, he is based at the English Institute of Sport, where he trains around the clock. “I could’ve stayed in London, but I moved somewhere I didn’t know and had no friends because I needed to change my environment to succeed,” he explains.
It was a gamble that took time to pay its dues. Facey-Thompson missed out on selection for London 2012. But he knew, even at 17-years-old, that his chance would come. Despite not making the team, he was selected to join the British Paralympic Association’s Inspiration Programme, which meant he could go into the Olympic Village and immerse himself that environment with the squad members with removed pressure. This paved the way for Rio 2016: after London, he was determined that for the next Olympic Games, he would not miss out.
“I’ve learned to work a lot harder. I know, now, what it takes to be an elite athlete,” he says. “I thought all it took was to go full-time, do this, do that, and go to the Games. But there’s a lot of self-discipline, drive and self-confidence, too. I didn’t realise you had to put so much extra in. If I walked away from table tennis right now, I know I could do it with my head held high. Whereas before, I didn’t know what to do – I was lazy. Now, I’m probably one of the most experienced athletes on the team.”
Failure, believes Facey-Thompson, is a necessity for success. “You definitely need to fail. You need to go in with a very broad mind and be like, ‘Okay, this might be difficult, but I’m going to stick at it’. You need help, you need coaches, you need links – you need a bit of ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’,” he admits. “And you need some luck on your journey. Have all these things, and it will all fall into place. I’m a big believer in that. Your time will come, but you have to put the hours in.” Prepare to say no when your friends ask you out on a Saturday night; prepare to pick training at 5am over an all-nighter. “You’ve got to come out of your comfort zone for you to improve. Not everything’s given to you on a plate,” he says, “you have to go out and get it.”
Making a career out of his passion has allowed Facey-Thompson to outrun the spectre of the office nine-to-five. “I’ve been given, well…” he hesitates, “a gift. This is my life, I’m a professional athlete. I’m getting paid to hit a ball over a net, and I’m getting paid to go to the gym, work hard and improve. Sometimes I’ve got to appreciate what I have. There are times when I’m training and I think the grass is greener, but it’s really not. At present, it’s so hard,” he says. “Today, I’m not going to lie, I didn’t have the best session. I didn’t hit the targets I wanted to on the bike. I still gave it my all, but tomorrow is going to be another day. That’s what I love about it: whatever you put in, you’ll get out.”
But it can be hard to know where to draw the line. Downtime is a rarity when athleticism is just a much a matter of the mind as it is the body. “I would probably still go to the gym but tone it down,” he says. “I still go to the gym two or three times a week, just to keep healthy and moving.” Facey-Thompson also cycles in the Peak District to clear his mind and take in the vistas. And even though he’s a Paralympian, he can still indulge (“I’m not gonna like to you, I do have one or two drinks – but I know my limit”) – even if that means binging Suits, or relaxing in front of That Awkward Moment: “It’s a boy’s romcom, I actually love it.”
Ashley Facey-Thompson’s definition of success, as a Paralympian and multiple silver-medallist, is not what you’d expect: “You can easily slip into an abyss of success as medals. It’s true, of course. If you win medals, of course you’re going to look successful – and you are successful. But success, for me, is a mindset: when you’re having a hard time, you find a way. If you’re losing a match and you still carry on, that’s success. It’s consistency in the training hall: grinding, putting in the effort. The medals will speak for themselves. It will come. It might not come when you want it,” he promises, “but it will come.”
Interview: Dom Smith / Words: Sophie Walker