Grassroots to Glory - Jack Shephard
"People looked at me in a different way, think playing me was going to be easy and then they find out my ability and what I can do with the racket. That definitely surprises them."
You can't be what you can't see and Jack Shephard was sold as soon as he clapped eyes on Ellie Simmonds.
Jack was 11 when he watched Ellie, also born with dwarfism and only two years older than him, win her first Paralympic gold in the pool at Beijing 2008. Like a lightning bolt it hit a sport-silly boy who swam, played football, table tennis and basketball, helping him deciding: 'I can do that.'
"I saw the emotion that Ellie put into her sport and I can picture it even now," said Jack world No.1 in badminton's SH6 category.
"I'm a lot older now, but it was the first time I'd seen anything like it. As a badminton player, I was inspired by players like Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei, but Ellie inspired me with the work she put in and I really looked up to her. I'm hoping when I win my first gold medal, it will be as amazing a feeling as it was for her."
Jack and Ellie regularly met at events and competitions organised by the Dwarf Sports Association, a charity that has received funding from the National Lottery that aims to make sport accessible for those with restricted growth. The 24-year-old will join his hero - and now close friend - as part of ParalympicsGB in Tokyo, with badminton added to the Games programme for the first time.
Ellie had a hand in guiding his fortunes from a distance more than a decade ago, but ahead of Jack's Paralympic debut has taken a more active role.
"Being a new sport, I haven't got any team-mates who have done a Paralympics before," said Jack. "I've spoken to Ellie about her experiences and she passed on advice to put me in a better place. She said it was just about treating it like any tournament I normally go to, keeping your head level and not getting too overwhelmed by what's happening."
Jack picked up a racket for the first time aged ten at a Dwarf Sports Association event, drawn in by the fast-paced sport where no two games are the same. He also loved the fact that - unlike football, where he always had to play in goal - across the net he was on equal terms with the competition.
He is a two-time world champion, a favourite for Paralympic gold, and one of over 1,000 elite athletes supported by National Lottery funding to train full time and benefit from world class facilities, technology, coaching and support teams. However, Jack still recalls with relish the feeling of beating those who thought they were in for an easy ride.
"Of course people would underestimate me," he said.
"People looked at me in a different way, think playing me was going to be easy and then they find out my ability and what I can do with the racket. That definitely surprises them. It gives you satisfaction when people think they're going to beat you, then you smash them and you think 'you shouldn't have counted your chickens’."
Once he'd been playing for a couple of years, his grandfather David, a big influence, told him that before his knees packed up he also went to a local badminton club. It was as if David waited until his grandson took it seriously to tell him. There's something very Dronfield about that - now, you go and do what I never did.
"Knowing he went to a badminton club, even if it was only once or twice a week, it still feels good that I play a sport that he was into when he was younger," said Jack, who has seen the fortunes of ParalympicsGB transform over the past two decades thanks to National Lottery funding.
Jack who competed at the World Dwarf Games when watching Ellie win gold in 2008, has seen his own rapid rise coincide with a big bang moment for his sport. The para-badminton and non-disabled World Championships were held in parallel for the first time in 2019 and a growth in international competition saw it added for Tokyo 2020.
Jack is the dominant force in SH6, winning back-to-back world titles in 2017 and 2019, and European gold in 2018. He's ranked world No.1 for a reason. He will have a target on his back in Tokyo but whether he truly feels it or not, still plays with the spirit of an outsider.
"I can put my hands up and say in qualifying year, I didn't win every tournament," he said.
"There are other players in the category now and it's so strong, there are so many guys to keep fighting. Although I'm still ranked world number one, I've spent most of my career trying to climb."
"I still keep that same mindset that I'm not at the top, I've got to work harder than the person alongside me, my closest rivals and competitors, to beat them. I always try to play them as if I'm in the underdog, mentally, so I can perform well when I'm out there because I've been in that position for so long."
One of his closest rivals will be fellow Brit Krysten Coombs, ranked No.5 in the world, with the pair playing in the final of the 2017 World Championships. Coombs didn't qualify automatically with Jack ahead of him, but has been given a place at the Paralympics after a bipartite application came down in his favour.
Jack has always known - like the person who listened to the band before they were big - but the world is about to find out how good para-badminton really is. They will step into his universe, a world where anything is possible, one that has given him a shot at a place in the stars alongside Ellie.
"I knew that when I was younger I always wanted to go to a Paralympics, but the sport that I fell in love with wasn't a Paralympic sport at the time," he said.
"When the two of them came together, it felt like it was meant to be and I started working harder of achieving a dream of going to the Games in a sport I'd always loved."
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