Simon Heaps insists “there’s life in the old dog yet” as he plans to climb the world rankings and win an international medal, despite having lost his second leg to diabetes earlier this year.
The 1970 Cadet European champion, who returned to the sport as a veteran in 2016, had his left leg amputated in January – but returned to international competition in March.
April is Limb Loss & Limb Difference Awareness Month – click here to find out more
Heaps had already had his right leg amputated below the knee in May 2019, when he transitioned to wheelchair class 5, beginning to compete in international tournaments as a self-funded athlete.
That was put on hold first during the pandemic, and then when he began to suffer complications caused by his condition with his left leg.
This was not necessarily a surprise, given that 50% of people who lose one leg to diabetes lose the other within five years, but 66-year-old Heaps still admits he was disappointed.
“I was determined to be one of the ones to beat those statistics,” he said, “but they don’t lie and if they say it’s a one-in-two chance of losing a second leg in five years, then that’s what it is.
“All the problems I had with the first leg came back and happened to me with the second.”
Heaps pulled out of the Costa Rica Para Open last December and was in hospital in early January, when it became apparent that, at the very least, he was likely to lose a toe.
“Over the next couple of weeks, it was obvious things weren’t going to be very good,” he said. “I had a toe amputated on January 4th and within a couple of days they were saying what I would need to do to recover.
“For up to 12 months, my foot would need to be raised – I wouldn’t be able to walk, drive, play table tennis, anything. And after that they might still have to take off my other toes or my foot.
“My wife Pauline and I spoke that afternoon and said it would be no quality of life for me, and certainly not for her, and there would be no guarantee I’d recover.
“So, the following morning, the surgeon came round and I asked him for a private word. We knew what we had to do to have even a chance of keeping the leg, so we came up with the decision to ‘go big or go home’ and decided to take off the other leg.
“We were certain it was the right decision and so was the surgeon, and he took it off the next day. “We’ve not regretted it since. After around 10 weeks, I’m walking – not very well but virtually unaided. I have a walking stick but that’s only for if I fall.
“Life goes on, and I’m very positive. Both prosthetics are okay, I’ve had my car adapted to hand controls – though I need some more practice and I’m back playing table tennis in international events.
“Pauline has been brilliant. She’s gone through twice as much as I have. Our whole lives have changed but we were determined to get through it.
“It was 100% the right decision – there was no real chance of keeping the leg.”
Heaps is not sure whether or not reaching the top of European table tennis have stood him in good stead to cope with the life-changing loss of his legs.
He said: “I was playing internationally at the age of 12 and I’m very proud I was European Cadet champion. Sportspeople need to have a certain mindset and if you have that positive mindset, that helps. Whether I was born with it, or table tennis in my younger years helped, I don’t know.
“Over three years since I lost my first leg, I’ve had two bad moments. The first was coming out of hospital and the second was, a day after moving house, trying to help put up curtains and I couldn’t do it. I lost it a little bit – I’m useless, I can’t do anything – but apart from that I’ve not wallowed in my own self-pity and I’ve thought ‘how can I overcome things?’
“Table tennis has been unbelievable for me and helped with my mental health.”
Heaps’ original aim in transition to para table tennis was to qualify for this summer’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, although with Jack Hunter-Spivey and Dan Bullen ahead of him in the rankings, it was always likely to be a big ask.
He said: “When I missed Costa Rica in December, I pretty much knew that was that and Dan went and won that tournament, so congratulations to him.
“In hospital in January, I had pretty much given up any hope of qualifying, but I had a letter from (Team Leader) Matt Stanforth saying I was on the long list for selection, so I filled in a form and then had the chance to compete at the Egypt Para Open at the end of March – so I knew I had one last chance to get in front of Dan.
“Dan and I were drawn in the same group and had to play in the first match, with no coaches, and I managed to win 3-1. I went through to the quarter-finals and lost, so ultimately, I fell short of getting enough ranking points to get ahead of him.
“Two or three years ago – when I had never sat in a wheelchair and had two legs – I never thought I would go to the Commonwealth Games, but I actually managed to give myself that chance and I’m very proud of that.
“While I’m disappointed, in the grand picture I can’t be disappointed because I was so, so close.”
Heaps warmed up for the Egypt Para Open by representing Alstersport Hamburg in a German para Bundesliga fixture – he is undefeated this season and the team are also unbeaten and set to win the league title.
And he has plenty more opportunities to compete in the months ahead, as he is set to self-fund appearances at Para Opens in France, Jordan, Mexico, Argentina and Thailand.
He said: “I’ve been lucky with my fundraising and donations, so that’s been brilliant. Thanks to the BPTT (British Para Table Tennis) for letting me self-fund, because I’m obviously not a long-term prospect. If I was a selector, I wouldn’t be putting money into a 66-year-old either.
“But there’s life in the old dog yet. I’m ranked 46 in the world and I want to go as high as I can before I retire. It’s possible to compete at a higher age in wheelchair table tennis and I’d love to get a medal – I’m desperate to get one around my neck, of whichever colour.”