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Road To Rio: Refocused Drinkhall ready to return in North-East
NEWCASTLE'S Eldon Square Leisure Centre might not be the most auspicious of sporting venues, but North-East Olympian Paul Drinkhall is hoping it will be the starting point of a journey that will encompass a medal at next year's Commonwealth Games and an appearance at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
LONDON MEMORIES: Paul Drinkhall in action at last year’s home Olympic Games
Since exceeding expectations in the table tennis tournament at the the London Games, Drinkhall, who hails from Loftus, east Cleveland, has been struggling with a niggling hip injury that eventually required an operation in May.
He has not played since, missing the World and European Championships, and the climax of the German Bundesliga campaign that saw his club side, Werder Bremen, win their first title.
He is due to return to action in this weekend's Tees Sport Newcastle Grand Prix, the region's premier table tennis competition and a tournament that offers a reasonably gentle reintroduction into the competitive environment.
“It'll be good to be back,” said Drinkhall, who has not appeared in England since he lost in the final of March's National Championships to rival Liam Pitchford. “It feels like a long time that I've been out, but it was something that needed to be addressed and now it has been.
“I've had a few little hip problems in the past, but they've never really been serious enough to require surgery. This time, a scan showed that a bit of extra bone had grown and I had to have it shaved off to prevent it getting worse.
“I've missed some big competitions, but at least it happened during the summer and most of the season is still to come. And after everything that's happened in the last couple of years, it probably wasn't a bad time to be able to stand back from things and take stock.”
Like a number of Team GB's London Olympians, Drinkhall has not found it particularly easy to reacclimatise after the once-in-a-lifetime experience of competing in a home Games.
Despite only being 23, the North-Easterner has been competing at the highest level for the best part of a decade, and with memories of London finally beginning to fade, has been forced to readdress what he hopes to achieve in his chosen sport.
This summer's enforced hiatus has enabled him to do that, and he will return feeling refreshed and committed to the new cycle that will lead all the way to the Rio Olympics in three years time.
“After the Olympics, I only had seven days off before I had to go back to Germany to start playing again, and looking back, that probably wasn't enough,” said Drinkhall. “There were games right through the Christmas period, so I didn't even get chance to come home and have a bit of free time then. Mentally, I was probably a bit tired.
“Nobody wants to be injured, and I've had to miss two major tournaments while my hip problem has been sorted. But to be honest, having a bit of time to myself hasn't been the worst thing.
“It's given me the chance to think about how important my table tennis is to me, and how much I still feel I can achieve in the sport. Now, it's all about getting back and getting ready for the Commonwealth Games.”
It hasn't been a completely quiet time, as Drinkhall recently got married to his British team-mate and occasional mixed doubles partner, Joanna Parker.
The pair have been an item for quite a while now, and while their wedding day was everything they hoped it would be, Drinkhall admits it is a shame he couldn't call on the services of a famous friend.
“I played table tennis against Michael Buble a while ago, and I kept on thinking it was a shame I didn't have his number any more,” he said. “It would have been good to get him along for a couple of songs, and then maybe we could have had a challenge match to round off the day!
“He was great when we met him. He's a massive table tennis fan and he often takes a table around with him when he goes on tour. He's a pretty decent player – he's certainly better at table tennis than I am at singing!”
Drinkhall will team up with his new wife in the mixed doubles tournament at next year's Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, while also competing in the singles and team competitions.
In the 2010 Games in Delhi, Drinkhall won a team silver and mixed doubles bronze, and suffered a narrow defeat to the eventual champion in the quarter-finals of the singles.
Next year, he is targeting even more success, even if the pressures of a major event have the potential to cause some marital strife.
“It's not as bad as you might think,” he laughed. “In many ways, it actually helps playing with Joanna because you instinctively know when's the right time to say something and when's the right time to keep your mouth shut.
“As a pair, we seem to blend quite well and hopefully we can be challenging for a medal in Glasgow. That would be great, but the main aim is to win a medal in the singles. I just failed to do that last time, but I'll be going to Glasgow with that as my number one aim.”
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