From Redlands to Rio, Worksop’s Sam Walker says his remarkable table tennis journey is both surreal and immensely satisfying.
The 21-year-old has had his place in Team GB confirmed for the Olympic Games in Brazil this summer, achieving one of his biggest goals.
It’s been Walker’s dream to become an Olympian since he began his life in the sport at Redlands Primary School.
But as excited as he’ll be to pick up his Team GB kit and take up residence in the athletes’ village with some of the biggest stars of world sport, there’s no sense that Walker has ‘made it’ – there’s more to come.
While the British Olympic Association only confirmed the table tennis squad’s place in the games on 2nd June, Walker knew in late May that he would be on the plane.
Now that it’s out in the open, he can freely celebrate.
“It’s a fantastic feeling,” he said.
“I can’t really explain how it feels.
“When you’ve been playing your whole life in an Olympic sport, to get there is the pinnacle.”
A bronze medal for the England team at the World Championships in Singapore in March and the qualification of Walker’s team-mates Liam Pitchford and Paul Drinkhall for the Olympic singles have helped the former Valley student to realise his dream.
There was a time, not so long ago, when it didn’t look likely this time round.
He said: “There was a massive period of the season in which we thought we didn’t have much of a chance of qualifying a team.
“But after the World Championships we thought we had a great chance.
“I was stressed out about it.
“I went to Polish Open and there was debate about whether I should go or not, because we didn’t want to risk losing ranking points.
“But in the end I did play, I didn’t play very well, but we’ve got there and it’s an amazing feeling.”
Walker concedes that qualifying a team for the Olympics is an achievement for GB in itself, but he and his two compatriots will not be content to make up the numbers in Rio.
There is a lot of hard preparatory work planned between now and then.
“I’ve got a couple of days at home then on Sunday we go to Korea for a training camp and the Korean Open,” he said.
“We’ll be back in England for kitting out, getting everything ready, before camps with the Danish and German teams.
“Then we’ll be off to the holding camp in Belo Horizonte for a week before going into the Olympic Village.”
Excitement is building in stages for Walker, with the public confirmation of his place, kitting out and arrival in Rio all major events to be savoured.
His also excited to compete at the very top level of the sport.
Fresh from his first season in Germany’s Tischtennis Bundesliga, arguably Europe’s best league, Walker wants to make an impact in South America.
“The biggest goal is obviously to get a medal, but that’s even tougher in the Olympics than in the Worlds because it’s straight knockout from the last 16 and it can all depend on the draw,” he explained.
“I definitly think we can get to the semi-finals and medal.
“We’ll enjoy the experience and hopefully it will stand me in good stead for future Olympics.
“It’s an individual sport so the singles are the biggest thing and it’s still a massive goal for me to compete in the singles in future.
“This is one step in that direction.”
Walker has long enjoyed the backing of his family, who in turn have been over the moon with his inclusion in Team GB.
It was a brave decision for both the player and the parents when he left home at 16 to move to Germany and dedicate himself to his sport, full-time.
That decision is now paying dividends.
“People were saying ‘what are you doing?’ but I always believed I could do it.
“To actually do it and say I’m going to the Olympics is surreal but really satisfying.
“It just proves the hard work has paid off and it motivates me to keep working hard every day to improve and get even better results.”
Success on the international stage has been built on the foundations laid at a domestic level in Germany, where Walker is starting to feel right at home.
“It’s going really well, I’m still at ASV Grunwettersbach, I’ve just signed a new one-year deal,” he said.
“We were last in the division this season but luckily stayed up because no one from the division below wanted promotion.
“It was my first season in the top division and I was happy with how I did, winning six matches.
“Hopefully next season I can win a lot more and hopefully the team can do better as well.
“Training is going well, my German is getting there.
“Everything seems to be on the up for me at the minute.”