Tokyo Paralympics: Cambridge United fan Will Hipwell wants team spirit to inspire success
Will Hipwell hopes that Paralympics GB will be able to engender the same team spirit in Tokyo that was displayed by Cambridge United in their promotion-winning campaign.
A long-time U’s fan, the 34-year-old will be heading to Japan as part of the nine-strong boccia squad.
It is a journey to the Paralympics that pre-dates beginning to follow the U’s, but has had its ups and downs along the way.
Hipwell was originally introduced to the sport at an after-school sports club for people with disabilities called the Upside Down Club.
He drifted away from boccia for a few years until, while attending the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham, going to watch a friend take part in the English National Boccia Championships in Sheffield.
Having seen how well run and competitive the matches were, it stoked the fire to get involved which happened upon graduating university and searching for a club on the internet, which led to Impington-based Camboccia.
“It’s great fun to play,” explains Hipwell, who is from Papworth Everard and works for the Papworth Trust.
“I’m a very competitive person so I love the competition opportunities boccia brings.
“I joined the club and found that I really enjoyed playing in the local league matches.
“I have a competitive nature and was eager to enter some regional tournaments and after some success managed to qualify for the national championships.”
He was invited to attend Boccia England’s talent programme, and gained extra coaching through the squad’s training camps. Two years later, Hipwell represented the England Boccia reserve team, the Lions.
“In October 2014, I was selected to represent England at an International Competition in Poland, which was a very proud moment for me,” he says.
“Whilst I didn’t get past the group stages, the experience was still a huge benefit to my boccia career.”
After attending an assessment day for the GB boccia squad in December 2014, Hipwell was given the opportunity to join the World Class Programme.
“I feel privileged every time I put on my Boccia UK kit,” he says.
“Being in full-time employment has meant that it’s been a bit of a challenge to fit in all the boccia training that comes with being in the squad.
“I’d like to thank my employers, Papworth Trust, for being so supportive and allowing me to take up this fantastic opportunity.”
Hipwell’s training has been centred on doing things individually or within the national set-up after his first club folded, although he is on the lookout for a new team.
“Currently, when I’m not at Boccia UK training camps, I train on my own and also with support from one of my coaches,” he says.
“It was difficult as I missed the competitive opportunities. Training on my own is useful but I really enjoy any opportunity to play against someone else.”
In terms of training, Hipwell had to take that to another level during lockdown. His father is a farmer and so converted a grain store into a boccia court to help his son continue while the local leisure centre was closed.
“I was fortunate to have access to enough space for a full-size court,” he explains.
“He also lent me a rowing machine so I could maintain my strength and conditioning program whilst in lockdown. I also used my dumbbells and medicine ball to help with this.”
The lockdown also denied Hipwell the chance to attend the Abbey Stadium, so just as the rest of the Amber Army, he was restricted to watching their success in League Two on iFollow.
“I’ve been a fan of the club since about 2008,” says Hipwell.
“I was so excited and happy when we got promoted into the Football League.
“I didn’t think we had the playing budget to put together a team capable of gaining promotion to League One but Mark Bonner and his staff have done an incredible job.
“The recruitment of the players has been really good and the team look solid. I’m disappointed that Paul Mullin rejected a new contract with the club but I’m sure we can do well in League One.
“I hope that we can replicate the team spirit that Cambridge United displayed when the team competes in Tokyo.”
He will play in both the individual and team events, and it is that camaraderie of the squad that is the most important and balancing all the different skills required.
“It’s useful to be able to multi-task, to be focused on the shot you want to play but also to be mindful of what shot your opponent might play next,” says Hipwell.
“Good communication and listening skills are required, especially for team matches.
“Sometimes you have to throw shots into a space where there isn’t another ball to use as a target, those types of shots can be tricky.”
Hipwell has already had success on the international stage.
He won a gold medal with the BC1/BC2 team at the Boccia Regional Open in the Czech Republic in 2019.
As a squad at the competition, GB won all seven gold medals across the different classifications.
They will be looking to recreate that in Tokyo, but just being selected to represent the country means a lot to Hipwell.
“I feel privileged to have been selected for the Paralympics,” he adds.
“It’s something that not many people can say they have done. Having the chance to represent Great Britain at such a huge event is an honour and a fantastic feeling and one that I’ll never forget.
“I just want to go out there, put all my training into practice and give my best performance and enjoy the experience.”
If Hipwell can do that, then he may also receive a hero’s welcome at the Abbey.