In January this year, Australian table tennis ace Michelle Bromley qualified for an Olympic Games at the fourth time of asking. She spoke to Tokyo 2020 about achieving her Olympic dream after over a decade of trying, her late dad's influence on her career and staying in top shape - with the help of a robot.
Try, try and try again
When Tokyo 2020 takes place next year, Michelle Bromley will line up for Australia, ready to compete against the world’s best in the table tennis competition. But the road to Tokyo has been far from easy for the 32-year-old, who first attempted to qualify for Beijing 2008 before also missing out on London 2012 and Rio 2016.
“It was definitely a dream come true and a little bit surreal I think as well. Just the fact that I had tried so many times and fallen short on so many different occasions, to actually come out and win the event was an absolutely amazing feeling.”
In the final of January’s Olympic Qualification Event in Melbourne, Bromley pulled off a major upset, beating Australian No. 1 and five-time Olympian Jian Fang Lay to secure her qualifying berth. It was a life-changing result against a player who has dominated the Australian game for close to two decades.
“I've only beaten her on one previous occasion four years ago," Bromley explained. "So to bring out my best table tennis when it really counted was absolutely crucial, and it was a great day for me.”
Courtesy of Michelle Bromley.
A dream a lifetime in the making
In her own words, Bromley was “born into” the competitive world of table tennis. Both of her grandparents played to national level and her dad was the most talented of a group of table tennis-mad siblings.
When Bromley started to show promise, her dad became her “number one fan” and main trainer, nurturing her through her early days and into her early twenties.
“He was really the key influence,” said Bromley. “And the person who had seeded the fact that I could be an Olympian.”
Sadly, Bromley’s father passed away from cancer in 2012, but his legacy continued to be a driving force in her career as she chased her Olympic ambitions.
“I think that's probably what also makes it extra special that I was able to finally achieve my Olympic dream,” Bromley reflected.
“Just knowing that the two of us had worked so many years together trying to achieve this dream together, and for me to be able to continue it on in his legacy was absolutely amazing.”
I'm still working full-time Monday to Friday and a nine-to-five job
and then doing most of my training in the evening.
Balancing working life and the life of an Olympian
As with many athletes, Bromley does not have the luxury of training full time. Her Olympic dream combines sweat, hard work and sore muscles, with a day job in marketing.
“It definitely means very long days for me,” she explained. “I'm still working full-time Monday to Friday and a nine-to-five job, and then doing most of my training in the evening.”
On-table training involves around 18-20 hours a week of footwork drills, ball placement practice, third-ball attack drills and specific skill training. On top of that, Bromley spends 3-4 hours on strength and conditioning, with an extra hour a week dedicated to the mental side of the game.
It's an exhausting schedule, but the support of her family means she has been able to balance the demands of work and domestic life, while still being able to achieve her Olympic dream.
“So, for me, luckily I do have a very supportive husband that does all the cooking around the place, because I would not have time for that,” she says laughing. “They [Bromley's family] are definitely very supportive of my sport which is really great as well. It makes things a lot easier when I need to go away and represent Australia at different events.”
Training with (and beating) a robot
Over the past months, with COVID-19 seeing many people stuck at home, athletes have been forced to improvise new and novel ways to stay in shape. For Michelle Bromley that has meant training against her very own table tennis robot.
“During covid-19 lockdowns, the benefit of having a robot in my shed at home was that it still allowed me to get that feeling of hitting the ball each day, and working on specifics of my game. Although after 3.5 months of the same four walls of my garage at home, and not seeing another person at the other end of the table, the monotony of it definitely started setting in.”
And as for the advantages of training against a mechanical opponent over a human one, Bromley had this to say:
“What the robot is great for is that repetition – if you’re trying to master a particular shot, speed work – you can set the robot up to fire balls at a much faster rate than how a regular match would play-out, making you feel more comfortable and like you have more time when it comes to match-play,” Bromley explained.
“And also stamina – because you don’t have the luxury of using the time to go pick up the ball to catch a breath – they just keep on firing!”
Courtesy of Table Tennis Australia
Never give up
Bromley’s journey to the Olympics has been a long and tough one, but the ‘never give up’ attitude showcased by an athlete who personifies persistence and determination can be traced back once again to the influence of her dad.
“Just seeing his determination, his never say die attitude has really come into me as well… it’s really just made me stronger each time and made me work that little bit harder each time to get the best out of myself.”
But even with an inner determination that has kept her going throughout the years, it hasn’t always been easy to keep picking herself up when faced with knock-backs.
“I’ve done my fair share of Googling of inspirational quotes around self-belief and success to keep me going. But, these setbacks have only pushed me to train harder and extract the most out of myself," she explained. “While it hasn’t been the shortest of journeys to get to where I am today, I am grateful for the path I have taken, because it has made me the player I am today.”
And for the younger players looking to follow in her footsteps, Bromley has a simple message based on her own considerable experience of the lows and highs of the sport.
“I would say that there is no shortcut to any place worth going, so it might take you 20 years it might take you 30 years but keep plugging away and you'll get there.”
Living a lifelong dream
For now, Michelle Bromley can allow herself to live the dream that has been so long in the making. And by the sounds of things, she intends to enjoy Tokyo 2020 to the fullest.
“Oh look, sign me up for a gold medal any day!” she says, when asked whether that's her goal for next year’s Olympics. “I mean podium’s definitely the goal for any athlete that's playing at the Olympics.
“In sport, I guess that's the beauty of it. You never know what's going to happen.”
The women's singles table tennis competition begins on Saturday 24 July, 2021 with the singles medal matches taking place on Thursday 29 July.