When England took on Fiji at the recent Commonwealth Games, in the opposing line-up was an English-born 62-year-old former shark diver on a mission to take table tennis in the Pacific island nation to new heights.
Stephen Reilly and his two teenage team-mates, Jai Chauhan and Vicky Wu, did not trouble England, going down 3-0 in three straight and managing just 14 points across the nine games.
But for Reilly, who is also the nation’s table tennis development officer and coach, it was a useful experience as he helps to plot the future trajectory of the sport in Fiji.
Born in Plymouth on August 26 1959, to Scottish parents, Reilly was schooled in Scotland and then travelled the world in the Royal Navy. On retiring, he became a shark diver and dive instructor trainer in Florida and The Bahamas, before a similar job in Fiji led to him settling there 21 years ago.
A table tennis player since his teens and a Royal Navy champion, he soon swapped the water for the table and began a journey which has seen Fiji qualify a player to compete at the last two Olympics and which took him and his two young team-mates to Birmingham 2022.
“First two weeks in Fiji, I knew I wanted to stay,” said Reilly. “As a kid going to school in Scotland with an English accent, an Irish Catholic name, going to a Protestant school – that followed me all through school.
“Religion and religious warfare and the military, everywhere I’ve been, it’s been like that. Fiji doesn’t have that sort of thing, that’s the way the world should be.
“The sun shines permanently in Fiji, there’s so many good things. Scotland wears a kilt, we wear a sulu in Fiji, it’s a similar clan system. So, the friendliness, the warm-heartedness, is awesome. They’d give the shirt off their backs. That’s very similar to the Highlands in Scotland.
“I already had some contacts and a two-month contract initially stretched to six months, because Fiji time is Fiji time and everything’s done tomorrow. After six months I was given a job as an operations manager for a dive resort.”
Reilly started playing table tennis at 14 and it was a sport he kept up throughout his life.
He said: “I started table tennis about 14 years old, I switched from badminton, gymnastics and boxing, football, all sports – my dad was a physical training instructor in the air force, so I got involved in sports quite young and switched to table tennis about 14 years old.
“So, table tennis has been part of my life since about that age. I was Royal Navy champion for doubles, mixed doubles, veterans, everything and represented the Royal Navy, Air Force and Army in the Combined Services every year.
“So, I was offered a contract to be the Fiji development officer in 2002. I decided to focus on it rather than diving. This is my 21st year in table tennis, I’m now focused 100% on table tennis. My primary goal is to help with coach education.”
There have been successes, notably Sally Yee qualifying for both the Rio and Tokyo Olympics. On the men’s side, Birmingham 2022 is the summit of their achievements so far.
Reilly said: “Right now, it’s hard work. My team-mates are 16 years old and 17 years old and they’ve been through covid and they’ve lost the best part of their junior days, so this is a bit of a reward for them to come and stand up at this level.”
The highlight was competing against Liam Pitchford, Sam Walker and Tom Jarvis on one of the two show courts, despite the one-sided match.
Reilly added: “Obviously, we knew their reputation, and Liam is our youngest player Jai Chauhan’s hero. We mixed up the way we played for who was going to play doubles, hoping for the chance for young Jai to play against Liam and that worked out perfectly, because that’s exactly what happened.
“On the line-ups going out on to court, our tallest player’s almost 6ft tall. Liam’s tall and a rake like me, but the other two guys are built like boathouses and they’re all towering above us. That was a little bit daunting, walking behind them to the cheers of the English crowd.
“But it was a really, really nice experience and I’m really thankful that they (England) didn’t want to give us any points.
“We won a few points but it’s at a different level – but as a coach it’s given me the idea of what is required for the future, how we train, so really positive about the whole experience.”
Across the Games, Fiji were not able to win a match, the closest they came when Reilly & Touea Titana were narrowly defeated 3-2 (9-11, 14-12, 3-11, 11-5, 12-10) in the Mixed Doubles round of 64 by Mick Crea & Laura Sinon of the Seychelles.
But Reilly is a huge fan of the inclusivity of the Games, with para events staged alongside able-bodied competitions.
He said: “The ITTF motto is table tennis for all for life and everything about the sport is inclusiveness. We’re playing alongside athletes with disabilities at the same tournament, as opposed to something separate and this I really like. We’re integrated, we live in the same accommodation, we’re travelling together.
“Males and females can compete together and for equal prizemoney in the professional events. This is something I’ve wanted to see my whole life, so I really support it, it’s awesome.
“The friendship of the Games, we’ve got countries who used to be at war all getting together and making friends, swapping pins, sitting at dinner together, conversing and just having fun. And serious competition, but we’re all shaking hands at the beginning of the competition and at the end.
“So, it’s what the Olympic values are – friendship, respect and excellence – and all of this comes together at the Commonwealth Games.”