PARALYMPIAN Will Bayley hit back tonight after Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revel Horwood branded him “too stiff” — with the dancer explaining: “I don’t have any ankles.”
The gold medal-winning table tennis star was born with a debilitating limb condition.
He said: “Craig said things to me like I should be improving, and I should have, but he also said I was too stiff.
“I mean I have no idea how I’m supposed to do that — I don’t have any ankles, so obviously I can’t do rise and fall.”
But he also accepts he was not singled out for criticism.
Will said: “Nobody with a disability like mine has ever done Strictly before, but I didn’t want special treatment and I appreciate that they treated me like everyone else.
“They said some really positive comments, but they weren’t scared to criticise me. I was thinking sometimes with the stiff comments, I have no idea how I can do that.
“But Craig is harsh with everyone, and I didn’t want them to feel sorry for me and think ‘Oh we’ll give him a ten’.”
Will was born with a severe condition called arthrogryposis in all four limbs, which leaves him in regular pain just walking.
Agonising operations as a child saw his bones broken and reset, but he still has no ankles.
It made it even more damaging when he landed awkwardly while rehearsing a jive with partner Janette Manrara on Friday.
But as well as forcing him to leave the BBC dance competition, world number one Will fears his injury may also rule him out of defending his title at the Paralympics in Tokyo next year.
He said: “I’m so gutted. I was just in total shock. It has been a traumatic four days for me.
“I knew I had felt my knee pop and I was in agony. I’m not going to lie, the second I landed and felt it I thought ‘Tokyo’ but thought I’d get some physio, rest it for a day, and be back dancing next week.
“I can take pain, I’ve been in pain all my life, but I screamed in agony and the next day I couldn’t do anything, so alarm bells started ringing.
“It has hurt ever since. I went for a scan, and now the decision has been taken out of my hands.”
Will faces an anxious wait and may need major surgery after the fall, which damaged the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Today he tearfully told Strictly bosses he will have to leave the contest after being warned by doctors his injury is worse than he originally thought.
He said: “I’ve got an ACL tear, so I have to wait six weeks and if it doesn’t improve I may then need surgery, which could be six months out. I can’t believe it.
“My parents and my dance partner Janette were there, all just expecting to find out if I could dance next week or not. I wasn’t prepared for this.
“If I have to miss Tokyo it would be devastating. I’m at the top of my career. I’ve played four major tournaments this season and I’ve won three gold medals. I’m the best player in the world at the moment. So this is just massively scary to have this injury at this moment. It’s only just starting to sink in.”
Early doubts about Will’s ability to compete in Strictly proved unfounded and he became a firm fan favourite.
And he was determined to push himself to his limits — leading to Friday’s accident as he leapt from a table during rehearsals for Saturday’s show.
Wearing a metal knee brace on his leg and wincing as he moved, Will said: “I think obviously with my condition everything’s more challenging.
“Just walking around is more challenging, so landing is going to be a bit more challenging. I just didn’t get it right, obviously.
“Accidents can happen to anyone, but I think it’s still safe for disabled contestants to appear on Strictly. I could’ve carried on, we were pushing the boundaries and I wanted to try and push myself.
“I’m really proud of what I achieved in my time there. I fought really hard every week.
“I have a severe disability. It’s like a severe form of arthritis in all four limbs, and people didn’t think I would be able to do it. But I proved them wrong and I hope youngsters with disabilities were watching from home and inspired.”
The injury came a week after Will scored his highest marks from the show’s judges.
He broke down in tears and sobbed tonight as spin-off show It Takes Two showed a montage of his “best bits” from the series.
The show’s executive producer Sarah James said: “We are so sad that Will is unable to continue on the show. He will be greatly missed and we wish him a speedy recovery.”
But Will said he has no regrets about signing up for the show. He believes it was the right time as he is preparing for a TV career when he retires from sport.
Will said: “It was a good time in my life. I’ve been so focused on my table tennis for the past 15 years. Ten years at the elite level I’ve been playing at, Beijing 2008 and now coming up to Tokyo 2020.
“I needed something else in my life away from table tennis, then come back refreshed. That’s what I was hoping for.
“I want some future work in TV, so I thought Strictly would be a great platform, and I thought it could help with my balance and performance in sport.
“Janette is devastated too, although I think she had prepared herself for the worst.
“But I can’t blame anybody. I kind of blame myself, I should have done it better. But it’s an accident, it can happen, and it was part of the routine.
“Jumping off the table at the start was the only bit of the dance I didn’t think I really needed to think about, and that’s when it has happened.”
As well as his disability, Will has had to overcome cancer after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma as a youngster.
He said: “I’ve been unlucky, to be fair. Of all the things, it was dancing that knocked me down. I feel like I have unfinished business with Strictly, I’d love to go back and do it again as I feel I’ve got more to give.
“When I had cancer I think it made me stronger and it made me more resilient and then little setbacks like this, it’s just one of those things.
“It will be good for me in the long run because I won’t take for granted some things maybe I took for granted before, like walking around the house, getting things.
“I’ll appreciate it when my leg starts working properly.
“And I really want to get back playing and I’ll never take for granted playing table tennis again because I want to play and, you know, when you can’t do it, you appreciate it more.”