British Paralympic athlete and coach Dan Bullen led an inspirational training camp for athletes and coaches from several Commonwealth countries as part of the GAPS programme.
Participants at the University of Birmingham camp came from countries such as Cyprus, Malaysia, Nigeria, Jamaica, Pakistan, Uganda, Solomon Islands, Falkland Islands and Sierra Leone.
GAPS is a sport for development and peace program for emerging Commonwealth athletes and coaches developed by the Commonwealth Games Federation and Griffith University in Australia. It aims to support the development of inclusive sport pathways, removing barriers to participation for people with disabilities and for women and girls to become actively involved in sport.
The aim of GAPS is to provide emerging Commonwealth athletes and coaches with access to additional skills, knowledge and resources through multi-stakeholder partnerships and the establishment of long-term collaborations with universities, sports organizations and government agencies.
It is hoped that these partnerships can begin to change mindsets and begin to positively influence communities to believe that it is a basic human right for women, girls and people with disabilities to be included in their sports routes.
The program in Birmingham included Para table tennis sessions led by BPTT athlete/coach Bullen, assisted by Pathway manager Shaun Marples, Pathway coach Matjaz Sercer and St Neots TTC coach Mark Mitchell.
BPTT held two table-top sessions a day for athletes and coaches with BPTT President Karen Tonge MBE delivering the presentations on the first day, assisted by her husband Ken.
“We started with 17 athletes and 17 coaches,” Karen said. “It was a slow start, but Dan was able to persuade some to participate in a warm-up. Flexibility was key, so I did introductions with those in attendance so they could play table tennis. Sign language and translation were necessary as not all participants spoke English.
“Slowly but surely we managed to organize warm-up rallies. All of the participants wore GAPS clothing and it was not always clear who was an athlete and who was a coach as the two continued to play warm-ups. But we got there with the participation of all the players. One player, Harriet, had a carer who played badminton in Africa. She wanted to join table tennis and was amazing playing on her knees.
“We then moved on to competitions to assess the level of the players and the coaches were given observation tasks – watching a player from another country and then discussing it with their coach. It was great to use all three tables used at the Mark Bates Ltd Senior National Championships which are designed for use by wheelchair users.
Dan Bullen, who combines his playing career with that of coaching and refereeing, was present throughout the week and said: “It was a very good week and I hope I have inspired the athletes a lot. Couldn’t have done it without the help of Shaun, Matjaz and Mark or the volunteers who picked up the balls all week.
“A big thank you to the University of Birmingham for their help in setting up the tables and a big shout out to the whole GAPS team here who have been amazing. Shaun once told me that I had done some very good job here, which has helped me gain confidence knowing I can handle it.
“I was worried when I arrived because there was a big language barrier and a lot of them saw me as a player on the first day and not as a coach, but we had a really enjoyable week and I would definitely do it again.”
Chris Nunn, GAPS Oceania Development Support, who was instrumental in identifying and securing Friana Kwevira at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games where she won Vanuatu’s first ever Commonwealth Games medal with a bronze medal in the women’s F46 javelin, explained: “What is happening in the Pacific Islands is that we are changing people’s lives; we are changing the perception of the community and we are changing the acceptance of disability and I don’t know what can be more powerful than that.
“Having athletes come back proud to have been part of the movement, proud to have been in Paralympic Games, Commonwealth Games, national championships, it all adds up and makes a huge difference in the acceptance people with disabilities and people with disabilities get involved in sport, creating the opportunity for people to grow and develop through sport.
Sandra Riettie from Jamaica said: “The GAPS camp was great and very informative. Coaches and athletes have gained a lot of knowledge over the past week and it is obvious that the organizers have done a lot of work to make this possible.
“I must say a big thank you on behalf of my country, Jamaica. It has been an honor and a privilege to be here to learn all that I can take with me to develop my athletes and fellow coaches. I must also thank the volunteers who worked tirelessly throughout the camp and the organizers who were always ready to sit down and explain no matter the time or place. Special thanks to all the table tennis coaches, especially Dan who made himself available to us.”
Razak Hamzah from Malaysia was also keen to say how much he benefited from the camp.
“It should be repeated in the future because it’s really a great experience for the athletes and the coaches,” he said. “Furthermore, during the two weeks we have been here, the program has inspired us to work hard to improve para table tennis also in our country.
“Thank you to all the coaches, program managers, the university and all the volunteers who have always helped out when needed. Thank you, UK and CGA.
It wasn’t just the coaches and visiting athletes who left inspired, as the University of Birmingham students who volunteered to help also enjoyed the experience.
“GAPS Camp was an eye-opening experience, it was great to meet so many inspiring and talented people,” said Evie Harms, a 4and MSci Sports Science student year. “Dan was a pleasure to work with – enthusiastic, organized and very knowledgeable.”
Emma Baker, an MRes student in Exercise and Sport Science, confirmed, “GAPS has been a great experience to learn about parasport and international competition. It was inspiring to hear all the stories from the athletes. I especially enjoyed working with Dan and the rest of the table tennis coaches who made the week more interesting and allowed me to learn more about para-table tennis.
Summarizing the success of the camp, Karen Tonge said, “I think it’s a good idea to inspire other nations who are not currently participating in Para Table Tennis events and to bring the next generation of athletes and coaches. Once we got them playing, they were very enthusiastic and we have maybe Commonwealth champions in the making.