Team GB Exclusive: All change for Pitchford since London 2012

At the tender age of 19 Liam Pitchford’s once-in-a-lifetime sporting moment, a home Olympic Games, had already been and gone.

He qualified for London 2012 by virtue of Great Britain’s home nation allocation, but with a world ranking of 143 he lost his first game and that was it, his Olympic experience was over for at least four years.

Those four years have now passed and 22-year-old Pitchford has booked his ticket for a second Olympic experience at the Rio Games, in a little over two months’ time.

With his world ranking now at 51 – it has been as high as 39 in April – Pitchford qualified for these Games by his own right and will be joined by fellow Brit, and London 2012 teammate, Paul Drinkhall.

Between London and Rio Pitchford has picked up two silvers and a bronze medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, reached the last 32 in singles at the 2015 World Championships and made a breakthrough this year with a bronze at the Team World Championships.

Pitchford’s confidence has been bolstered by those results, he now backs himself on the world stage and said anything is possible ahead of his second Olympic Games.

“In the past four or five major tournaments I have performed well, so I will kind of call myself a big tournament player,” said the man from Chesterfield.

“It feels amazing to be included in the Rio team, after London I told myself I wanted to qualify for Rio by my own right and I did it, I’m over the moon.

“In the past four years I’ve developed an awful lot, in London I was just there for the experience, it was amazing to be here but my table tennis game wasn’t where I wanted it to be, I was still young, only 19.

“But now I think I’ve matured as a player, I’m a more solid player and I’ve had the results to show I’m capable of beating any player in the world.

“I want to go as far as possible, I don’t want to say I’ll get to this place, or wherever, because I think then I might tense up.

“I just want to be free and anything is possible, we have shown that before so hopefully I will play well.”

March’s world team bronze was achieved alongside Drinkhall and 21-year-old Sam Walker.

The team had only achieved promotion to the world’s top group in 2014 and heading into the Kuala Lumpur competition in March were targeting a top-12 finish to just maintain their spot among the world’s elite.

Instead they won England’s first medal on the world stage since 1983 and were the first newly-promoted side to ever stand on the podium at the first time of asking.

Pitchford, who will be 23 come Rio, is now hoping the experiences of the last four years will stand him in good stead at his sophomore Games.

“It certainly helps having the experience from London and Glasgow, I’m not going to go there and be nervous or not know what to expect,” he added.

“I’ve been in that situation before so there’s not really any pressure, just go there and enjoy it and do what we’re there to do, play table tennis.

“It will be different, the home crowd was absolutely amazing in London but I’m sure there’s going to be a full stadium and good support so I’m looking forward to getting out there, seeing the venue, testing it out and I hope it’s nice.”

With such a wealth of experience at such a young age Pitchford could well go to his third Olympic Games in Tokyo, in 2020, aged just 27.

It could all have been so different though if it weren’t for a wet lunchtime in his schooldays.

“I was about nine-years-old, it was a rainy day and they had a lunchtime class on. Me and two of my mates went along just to test it," Pitchford said.

“We enjoyed it and it started from there.

“I used to play tennis but I chose this over tennis and now I’m here. I never would have dreamed of it back then.”

Sportsbeat 2016