England’s para badminton stars will return to action on the global stage next week and coach Richard Morris is confident of a strong showing from a refreshed squad.
A quartet of shuttlers are heading to the Bahrain Para Badminton International, which runs from May 16-21, though Paralympic bronze medallist Krysten Coombs has unfortunately been ruled out due to a positive Covid test.
England will still have two representatives in the men’s SH6 category, with Jack Shephard and Isaak Dalglish making the trip, while Dan Bethell – who took home silver from Tokyo last summer – lines up in the men’s SL3 category.
The squad has also been bolstered by the arrival of Rachel Choong, whose women’s SH6 category has been added into the Paralympic schedule for Paris 2024.
Choong will take part in the women’s singles while her presence also allows England to enter the mixed doubles competition.
She had been due to play alongside Coombs but his enforced absence will see Shephard take to the court alongside the 10-time world champion.
“Rachel has made really big gains in the last eight weeks,” Morris said.
“She has gone from a part-time, three evenings a week programme to two sessions a day and S&C, so it has been physically demanding but she has managed it very well.
“She has been managed very carefully by us, too, as we didn’t want to cause injuries.
“Jack and Krysten are chomping at the bit to play mixed [doubles] with her. Rach has been nothing but perfect and applied everything to the programme.”
The other change to the squad which enjoyed a memorable fortnight in the Japanese capital last year is the absence of Martin Rooke, who retired after the Paralympics.
His decision to hang up the racket did not stop him pushing himself to the physical limits, however, as Morris explained.
“We had a little farewell by doing a half marathon in Sheffield in a wheelchair – I wouldn’t recommend it, I couldn’t lift my arms for three days!”
“We had joked about doing it and it kept us in contact for the six months after he retired. It’s a big change for all of us not to have ‘grandad’ knocking around but he’s enjoying the retired life and he’ll still promote and be involved in the sport.”
The Paralympic squad enjoyed a well-earned period of rest between the Games and Christmas, after which they returned to full training ahead of a trip to the Iberdrola Spanish Para Badminton International which saw Bethell and Shephard emerge victorious in their respective categories.
Morris is not setting expectations for Bahrain, which will see several heavyweight Asian countries entering the fray, with a priority on performance over outcomes at this stage of the cycle.
“Since Spain, we’ve had a full eight-week block where we can develop as a squad, and Rachel joining the programme has added another dimension to it,” he said.
“Everyone’s in a really good place. It will be the strongest field since the Games and it’s a building tournament for us.
“We don’t talk about expectations on the players, they are all fully aware of what they are capable of doing. I just want a performance we can build on over the course of this year going into [Paralympic] qualification next year.”