Ross first played table tennis while on holiday at Center Parcs and clearly showed an immediate talent for the game as a watching member of staff, noting the Arsenal shirt he was wearing, christened him the Thierry Henry of table tennis.
“I loved it straight away,” recalls Ross. “I’m very competitive so I wanted to win and that made me enjoy it even more. Mum and dad bought me a table for Christmas and I went on from there.”
Ross’s natural skill brought him success in abled bodied table tennis and as a junior he was ranked in the top ten in the country, winning two National doubles titles. However, as he got older it became clear that some physical problem was affecting his development although exhaustive medical tests failed to discover the cause. Finally, in 2011 he was diagnosed with multiple epiphyseal dysplasia, which affects the growing ends of the bones, after his cousin was diagnosed with the same condition by a geneticist.
“The diagnosis was a turning point for me,” admits Ross, “as I was on the verge of deciding whether or not to carry on playing. I wasn’t getting selected for the able bodied team because they knew I had something wrong with me but I wasn’t getting selected for Para table tennis as they couldn’t find what was wrong with me. I didn’t think I was getting anywhere. Then when I was diagnosed I went to Hungary and was classified and started training with the GB Para squad.”
Ross’s progress was rapid and his first international season culminated in a silver medal in the men’s class 8 singles at the European Championships in 2011. He was the youngest member of the GB table tennis team in London 2012 but belied his inexperience by finishing fourth in the singles, having led the Chinese world number one 2-0 in his semi-final, and then playing superbly to clinch the team bronze with Will Bayley and Aaron McKibbin.
“London was everything I could have wished for,” says Ross. “I expected to enjoy it but be quite nervous but I had no nerves and I was just enjoying representing my country. Everyone was getting behind us and it was an amazing feeling. I so wanted a medal and to get so close in the singles was horrible but to come back stronger with the boys in the team and get a bronze was amazing.
“Before London I didn’t know what to expect,” he says, “but the experience of 2012 has shown me what kind of level I need to be at if I want to do well in Rio and how to prepare for a major championship and that is a big advantage going in to the next Games.”
Following the London Games Ross, who was ranked two in the world at the end of 2012, was side-lined for two years with a shoulder injury but took the setback with a typically positive approach, showing a maturity beyond his years.
“I spoke to a lot of people,” he explains, “and they all said that when you get an injury it makes you more determined when you do get back because it makes you want it more. When you’ve got a lot of free time you can work on things that you wouldn’t normally work on so hopefully I can get those parts of my game better than anyone else and that will be to my advantage when I start competing again. Because the injury is in my shoulder I have still been able to train and work on my fitness by running, cycling and working out in the gym so I’ve been improving my speed around the table.”
In 2014 Ross was finally able to return to competition and came back with a bang by taking gold in the men’s class 8 singles at the Cote d’Azur International in October.
“It is really good to be back,” he said. “It’s been hard not competing for so long but getting back into it brings back all the feelings of previous competitions and memories of London 2012. Coming to a tournament and experiencing all the pressure again has been great for me and I can take that with confidence to the next tournament I play and hopefully carry on doing well.”
Ross began 2015 with silver medals in Hungary and Italy but was then side-lined with injuries to his knee and elbow. Strained muscles in his back then hampered his preparations for the European Championships but despite this he performed well at his first major championship since London 2012, beating top ten players to reach the quarter-finals of the singles and taking bronze in the team event with Aaron McKibbin.
“I think what I missed in the build-up to this tournament was match practice,” said Ross, “and I’m not 100% sharp yet so with sharpness and better preparation with dealing with my injuries then definitely I can compete with the best in the world. Rio has always been the main aim and hopefully the lead up to Rio can be good. I’m putting a lot of work in off the table to make sure that happens and I’ll work my hardest for Rio.”
In Rio Ross recovered from the disappointment of two narrow losses in the group stages of the singles event to take bronze in the men’s class 6-8 team event, combining with Aaron McKibbin to beat World champions China in the bronze medal match after losing to Ukraine in the semi-finals.
“We started quite slowly in our semi-final match against Ukraine,” he said, “so we really wanted to start well and we went out there and just gave it absolutely everything. We had a great start in the doubles but they came back and showed amazing fight and we went down in the fifth but we believed until the end. I was feeling the nerves the whole way through the last match but we believed in him (Aaron). We do that as a team – we believe in each other and I think that is what makes us get these results and I can’t believe we’ve done it.”
In 2017 Ross won gold in the men’s class 8 singles at the German Open and took bronze in singles and team events at the European Championships, coming agonisingly close to beating the World number one Viktor Didukh in the semi-finals of the men’s class 8 singles in a narrow 3-2 loss.
“I really wanted to win that match,” he said, “but looking back it is just more motivation for me to improve and I can see where I need to make that improvement. I think last year I wasn’t really pushing the top guys very much – I was always a level down and now I have really upped my level and my game again and I think I am competing with the top three guys in the world now. I just want to keep improving and come back even stronger.”
Ross was selected to represent Team England in the Commonwealth Games in April 2018 and he took gold in the men’s class 6-10 singles, storming back after losing the first set to beat GB and England team mate Kim Daybell 3-1.
“Kim is a great player and it was really tough playing him in the final,” he said. “It is always tough to play one of your team mates but we did what we came here to do. We wanted to secure a 1-2 for Team England and that is what we did with gold and silver so we’re really proud. It is an amazing feeling to be Commonwealth champion – it’s something I’ve always dreamt about but never thought was possible.”
In October 2018 Ross achieved his dream of becoming World champion, beating the double Paralympic champion from China, Zhao Shuai in the final of men’s class 8 to take the gold.
“I really can’t believe it,” he said. “I have been so logical through this whole competition and today I was just trying to focus on my game, what I was doing and how I was going to win points and then all the emotion just came out at the end. It’s incredible. I think every game was deuce apart from the second one. He clinched the third at 12-10 but I had chances to win that as well. After that game I just thought I’m going to have to stick in here, just keep going and keep my strategy. I was down in the fourth and the fifth but fortunately I put enough pressure on him to get back in.
“It is just about pushing on now. There is so much room for improvement still and when I get back in the training hall I’ll look at ways to do that. It has been an amazing year from me with the Commonwealths and now this – I really can’t believe it to be honest. I’m going for Tokyo now and that is my main goal.”
Ross has undertaken a lot of media work and public speaking. He is very keen on inspiring the next generation and has devoted a lot of time to young children as he feels with the position sport has granted him, he can influence them in a positive way.
Q&A with Ross:
Playing style: Attacking
Favourite sports team: Arsenal FC
Three words that describe you best: Kind, fighter and determined
Biggest inspiration: My mum
Sporting idol: Ian Thorpe
Favorite film: Coach Carter
Favourite food: Roast dinner
Biggest achievement: Becoming World and Commonwealth champion and winning a bronze medal in the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
Favourite sporting moment: Arsenal going a season unbeaten
What do you do to relax: Watch a TV series, usually vampire diaries or entourage and listen to music
What is your favourite sport after table tennis: It has to be swimming
If you could go to a sporting event, what would it be: The NBA play-off finals
What is the nicest country you have visited: Brazil
Favorite music artist: Ed Sheeran
Have you got any superstitions: I change my top every match