Contents

  • Early life
  • Life as a Paralympic athlete
  • Recollections
  • Retirement as a Paralympic athlete
  • Achievements and awards
  • Interview with Philip

Philip Lewis started playing wheelchair table tennis when he was a patient at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1963. He competed at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 1964 and Heidelberg in 1972 winning silver at the latter in the doubles event in table tennis.

Philip Lewis playing table tennis at Stoke Mandeville in 1963

Philip Lewis playing table tennis at Stoke Mandeville in 1963

Early life

Born in 1938, Philip Lewis suffered a broken neck in a car crash in Oxford in 1962 which resulted in a Level C6/C7, later becoming C8/T1 complete, spinal injury.

Life as a Paralympic athlete

After the accident, his parents were told he would probably die overnight and would spend the rest of his life in hospital. Having been moved to The National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire under the care of Dr Ludwig “Poppa” Guttmann, after four months in bed, Philip got some movement in a finger.

In a 2012 Channel 4 interview Philip said this ‘excited his doctor’ who said:

“Your lazy time is over.”

The pioneering treatment saw his condition improve and his days get busier:

 “I’d start with archery which is very good for the shoulders to strengthen muscles, then I’d be in the hydroptherapy pool, then into the gym. 4-5pm was table tennis and there was also occupational therapy.”

When he was leaving the hospital after 10 months of treatment and rehabilitation, Dr Guttmann told him he might live for another 20 years. 

After leaving hospital he studied to become a solicitor and practice law.

Recollections

Interviewed at a Wheelpower event at Stoke Mandeville's Paralympic Handover Day in the lead up to the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, Philip said:

“The whole thing started small and has built up with more and more different sporting events. I think people’s perception of disability has changed as the Paralympics has grown. When we went to Japan, disabled people were kept in villages up in the mountains. Disability represented something shameful, so disabled people weren’t allowed to mix with their own families. The games were seen by hundreds and thousands of Japanese who had come to watch them. In the aftermath, disabled people became much more integrated into society. Now we are hoping exactly the same thing will happen in China."

Retirement as a Paralympic athlete

In 1975, Philip was involved in setting up the Windsor and Maidenhead Sports Association for the Disabled (WAMDSAD), known as SportsAble after 2011. He also sat on the National Sports Council for six years and was Chairman of the British Sports Association for the Disabled (BSAD), which became Disability Sport England (DSE) before merging with the English Federation of Disability Sport (EFDS) in 2005, the organisation is now known as Activity Alliance and is an honorary member of the Sports & Recreation Alliance (formerly the CCPR). 

Philip is a Vice President of Table Tennis England, formerly the English Table Tennis Association (ETTA) and a former President of the British Table Tennis Association for the Disabled (BTTAD), renamed British Para Table Tennis in 2020.  

In 1983 he worked with Stan Eldon to enable the inclusion of wheelchair racers in the Reading Half Marathon one of the first town races to include wheelchair athletes. Later the same year, he worked with Chris Brasher, organiser of the London Marathon, to include wheelchair racers. In a 2012 interview, Philip said:

“They were planning to put the wheelchair entrants at the back until Stan Eldon and I were able to tell them about Reading’s experience and now the wheelchairs are at the front of the marathon in London as well.” 

Philip worked with John Jenkins and several others representing several disability groups, to create one organisation to represent disability table tennis which led to the British Table Tennis Association for the Disabled (BTTAD) being established as the governing body in 1993.

Philip and fellow paraplegic Mike Mackenzie set up a charity to raise funding for a commemorative statue of Dr Gutmann which was initially unveiled in June 2012 at the Stoke Mandeville Stadium, to coincide with the London 2012 Paralympic Games. The sculptor, Mark Jackson, also created a bust of Dr Guttmann which was taken to the Olympic Stadium for the Paralympic Games where it was handed over to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). A trustee of the Poppa Guttmann Trust, Philip said:

“And it will then travel all over the world to every Paralympic Games in the future.”

Achievements and awards

Paralympic Games

Philip first represented Great Britain in table tennis and swimming at the Tokyo 1964 Summer Paralympic Games, before going on to win silver in the Men’s Teams 2 table tennis, with Derek Williams, at the Heidelberg 1972 Games. 

Watch archive film footage of table tennis being played at Stoke Mandeville in 1955, and a short clip of Philip Lewis and his partner playing the German team at the Tokyo 1964 Paralympic Games here.

Other sporting events

In 1966 Philip represented England at the second Commonwealth Paraplegic Games in Jamaica and in 1974 at the Commonwealth Paraplegic Games in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Other awards and recognition

In 1981 Philip was awarded Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to sport.

Interview with Philip Lewis

My former Physio Bill Preston who encouraged me greatly to play the game during my initial rehabilitation at Stoke Mandeville took this photo during the 1963 National Stoke Mandeville Games. This was held in the Archery Unit hut in the Hospital. How things have moved on since then. Now of course the wheelchairs are so different and everyone would be in tracksuits.

Some of the bats then had some sponge but the bats now have much more sponge in them to increase spin. I played with a plain pimpled Johnny Leach bat that took off the opponents spin, much to their frustration! I think it also meant my smashes were harder. Now of course competitions like this are played in Sports Centres with table surrounds and ball boys etc.but it all had to start somewhere and then evolve. The tables at least are the same!

One of the physios at Stoke Mandeville, Bill Preston, was a good league table tennis player and he spotted that I was a good player despite my high level lesion. Sometimes he would come back in the evening to practice table tennis with me so I got pretty good. He started talking to me about the forthcoming Olympic Games that were to be held in Tokyo in 1964; how it would be a hell of a trip and that I should try and get onto the team; but how in order to do that I would need to compete and win at the National Games earlier in the year. Only the top two players would be in the team; I needed to get to the finals of the National Games at Stoke to stand a chance. Well I played Tommy Taylor in the quarter finals; he had won Gold at Rome in 1960, but I beat him, but lost the final to Paul Lyall.

What was more remarkable was that I was playing in Class 2 (Thoracic). The way the classification worked for table tennis then was that you had a Cervical Class for high level lesions like myself, divided into subclass A (where the bat was strapped to the players hand with bandages) and subclass B like me (where the player had very limited hand and arm movement); then came Class 2, where the player had no hand or arm paralysis and on up to Class 4 where players had a very low lesion and had all their trunk muscles and full balance. That meant I would be playing against people with far less disability than me, mainly because Bill had told me that no Cervical class players would be going to Tokyo.

1964 Tokyo Games

So come the end of the National Games Guttmann and the head physios got together to discuss who would be in the team selection for Tokyo. Apparently Miss Bell said that she didn’t think Philip should go because he was really a Cervical class, but Guttmann said to her, “Zis boy, it would be good for him. Zis boy will go.” And of course what Poppa Guttmann said went. He liked the British team to be as big as possible and he also made a point of trying to send higher lesion competitors as part of the team; so Tommy Taylor, John B, Paul Lyall and myself were all in the team in the end.

At Tokyo I ended up getting beaten by Schumaker from Holland in my first singles game and John and I went out in the second round of the doubles to the Germans. But in spite of that the whole experience was quite amazing.

References

  • I.S. Brittain, From Stoke Mandeville to Stratford: A History of the Summer Paralympic Games, (Champaign, Illinois: Common Ground Publishing).
  • http://www.mandevillelegacy.org.uk/page_id__59.aspx
  • http://www.mandevillelegacy.org.uk/page_id__103.aspx
  • https://www.getreading.co.uk/sport/other-sport/champion-disabled-sport-bear-paralympic-4198025
  • https://www.windsorexpress.co.uk/news/walthams/6551/Former-Paralympian-has-high-hopes-for.html
  • https://tabletennisengland.co.uk/news/national-news/paralympian-john-jenkins-thrilled-with-mbe/
  • http://www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/Paralympic_Handover_day
  • https://poppaguttmanntrust.org/trustees/
  • https://www.channel4.com/news/paralympics-founder-sir-ludwig-guttmann-honoured#:~:text=On%20Sunday%2C%20outside%20Stoke%20Mandeville,also%20invented%20the%20Paralympic%20Games.
  • https://amp.en.what-this.com/1577206/1/reading-half-marathon.html