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HE might have played every sport under the sun, but for Jamie Liu, there was always something special about table tennis.

Swimming, hockey and football were all tried and tested by the young boy from Berkshire, but it was table tennis which got the nod.

“The game itself is unique,” insists Liu. “I played football, but everyone played it, whereas not everyone played table tennis – I enjoyed it so much more, there was something different about it compared to other sports.”

And at the young age of 12, Liu knows what he needs in order to become one of the world’s top table tennis players.

“The Chinese players who are dominating the sport right now – I look up to them – they’re the best players and I want to play like them.

“Obviously the Olympics is the highest stage in sport you can get – but I can’t think of that as my goal, I want to go step by step, little by little.”

And thanks to a nationwide funding initiative, Liu’s chances of progressing to the pinnacle in the sport have taken a massive boost.

Managed by charity SportsAid, Sport England’s Backing The Best programme aims to support talented young athletes who would face difficulties progressing through their sport’s talent development system without critical financial help.

Seventy athletes were supported during the programme’s first term in 2016, producing world, European and national age-group level champions.

Liu, who is from Reading but boards at Ackworth School in Pontefract, was one of those named among the recent intake of athletes and will receive an annual award of up to £5,000 to help with essential costs such as travel, accommodation and kit.

The table tennis player will also benefit from extra support from coaches and physios as he aims to progress in the sport and Liu admits that it is a massive confidence boost.

Liu said: “When I found out I had been sponsored by Backing The Best I was really surprised and I was really happy to have the sponsor and have people helping me will give me extra motivation to go further in the sport.

“European tournaments are expensive to get to and having people backing you up and behind you really helps.”

Backing The Best will use £5.5 million of National Lottery funding over four years to extend SportsAid’s reach into new areas of the country and offer more support to those who face the biggest financial challenges.

All the athletes are nominated to SportsAid by their sport’s governing bodies, with the charity then ensuring funding goes to those who are most in need.

Liu has already benefited from being part of the programme, having attended a recent workshop with fellow athletes where he also got to meet with two-time Olympic swimming champion Rebecca Adlington.

And the retired swimmer, a former SportsAid supported athlete herself, believes the support can be invaluable for Liu’s own sporting journey.

“It’s about these athletes absorbing everything around them right now at their age, almost being a bit like a sponge,” she said.

“As an individual, you have to find out what works for you and this is the age to do that for these athletes.

“It’s about taking on loads of people’s advice, taking them on board and then figuring out what works for them and what doesn’t.

“My journey started when I joined a club when I was eight years old. For me, when I got to about 13, 14, my parents were struggling to manage everything from competitions to racing suits to everything that comes with it.

“SportsAid was a massive help with that, whether that was playing for petrol or new training equipment that I needed. It really made a huge difference to myself.”

Backing The Best is helping young talented athletes facing the greatest financial pressure to pursue their sporting ambitions. The programme, managed by SportsAid for Sport England, is supported by National Lottery funding. Please visit www.sportengland.org/our-work/talent/backing-the-best/ for more information.