The Paralympic doctor who sacrificed sport for the NHS

Alumni news

Kim Daybell sacrificed his Paralympic Games in order to save lives on the NHS frontline during COVID-19. The table tennis star was inducted into the Leeds Sport Hall of Fame for his achievements.

Ranked a career-high fifth in the world with 50 international medals, a Commonwealth Games silver and two European medals in the trophy cabinet, Kim Daybell (Medicine 2018) had the world at his feet. He was preparing to embark on his third Paralympic Games at Tokyo 2020. 

Then COVID-19 struck, and instead, he put his training on hold to join his fellow doctors on the NHS frontline. He dropped down the world rankings, and despite the circumstances, a wildcard entry to compete a year later at the delayed Paralympics was controversially rejected. 

“I felt a duty to do the job I’d been trained to do,” Kim said. “It was really tough, and unfortunately I missed out on the Games. But I don’t regret that decision.”  

While his competitors returned to training, Kim continued to work on an acute medical ward treating the most unwell patients: “People were dying who wouldn’t normally be dying. That was hard to face each day, and I think the strain of it all put a few things in perspective about what matters. 

“I also realised how important table tennis is to me. I lost a mental and physical outlet I’ve had throughout my life.”  

Sport gave me confidence to feel comfortable growing up, even though I looked different.

Kim Daybell (Medicine 2018)

Kim was born with Poland syndrome, a condition which results in missing or underdeveloped chest muscles and which also affected his hand. His parents recognised the role sport could play to help him remain healthy, and they installed a table tennis table at home when he was just seven. By the age of eight he had joined the local club in Sheffield; by 11, such was his talent, he’d been called up to the England junior squad. 

“Sport gave me confidence to feel comfortable growing up, even though I looked different. Because I was achieving from a young age, competing internationally, and eventually playing at the Paralympics (at London 2012), everything was smoother at school and in everyday life.”  

Kim competed successfully in the England junior squads against able-bodied athletes until the age of 15, before his disability began to impact results. He was introduced to Para sport by a fellow Para athlete, and entered the world’s top ten rankings in Class 10 – the classification category for those with a minimal impairment: “I remember my first international Para tournament. It was the first time I’d seen disabled people competing and doing amazing things. It filled me with pride and suddenly I felt at home – I was just another person there, and I loved it.” 

Kim was – and remains – a role model inside and outside of sport. At school, he was asked to speak to and mentor younger pupils with disabilities. As a Paralympian and an ambassador for the PIP-UK Poland Syndrome Charity, he acknowledges his responsibility to amplify voices, raise awareness and inspire. Within the NHS, he is keen to address a lack of representation from disabled people, who make up just 1% of the workforce (whereas disabled people make up 20% of the general population), and he has joined staff disability networks across a number of hospitals.

Kim Daybell and Jeff Grabill stand beside the poster to induct Kim into the Leeds Sport Hall of Fame

The University inducted Kim into the Leeds Sport Hall of fame in 2023

Witnessing the impact of medicine on fellow Para athletes inspired Kim to study the subject at Leeds: “A lot of those people wouldn’t be there today if it wasn’t for doctors. I had surgery as a kid and spent a lot of time in hospital, and I thought medicine would be the best way to give back. 

“I was the best version of myself at Leeds. Leeds Sport gave me everything I needed in terms of facilities, the medical school were so enthusiastic about my sport and they gave me weeks out to compete – but then helped me catch up. And then there was my alumni donor Steve Ledger (Medicine 1979), whose financial support made it possible for me to achieve in elite sport and academically.” Kim also made an impression on Steve, who continued to support him throughout his career on the court. 

Alongside academic studies, in the build-up to major competitions such as the Rio Paralympic Games, Kim would train for up to six hours each day. He practiced against the strongest players he could find at Leeds, and also travelled to England’s training centre in Sheffield. Table tennis requires short bursts of energy from a constant squat position, and as Kim describes, it is “a really tough sport” which takes years of consistent preparation to reach elite level. 

That break in consistency due to COVID-19 impacted Kim’s playing levels. Although a wildcard entry to the delayed Tokyo Games was still possible, his application was rejected. “It was the hardest time in my sporting career. I’d been very high profile with my work on the frontline through the pandemic so I thought I might be awarded a spot for exceptional circumstances, but it wasn’t to be. I’ve come to terms with it now, and I can’t complain about the career I had.” 

Unable to commit to the training required to return to the top of the sport, Kim decided to focus full time on his medical career, and he retired from table tennis in 2022. In recognition of his extraordinary achievements, the University inducted Kim into the Leeds Sport Hall of fame in 2023, a year in which – despite only playing recreationally since retirement – he was crowned National Champion in his category.  

It brings to mind the adage ‘class is permanent’, and we wonder whether there might be any desire to return to the top level? “I would only make a return if I could make a good go of it,” Kim said.  

“You have to be realistic. But I would never write it off.” 

Further information

For further details, email Ed Newbould, Digital Communications Officer, University of Leeds at