Table Tennis star Melissa Tapper is close to becoming Australia’s first dual Olympian and Paralympian
By
Sarah Leach

Source:
Zela
19 Feb 2016 - 9:47 AM  UPDATED 23 Jul 2016 - 2:15 PM

The sights of the nation's third-ranked woman table tennis player are, like so many, focused this year’s Olympic Games in Rio. But that is only a part of Melissa Tapper's story, which may become unique… as she eyes off an Olympic, and Paralympic berth.

Table Tennis player Melissa Tapper is set to create sporting history and become Australia’s first dual Olympic and Paralympic athlete.

Only a handful of athletes across the globe have done it, including one of her rivals, Poland's Natalia Partyka, South African swimmer Natalie du Toit, American athlete Marla Runyan and Austrian equestrian competitor Pepo Puch, as well, of course, as the disgraced South African formerly known as the Blade Runner. Not an Australian, though. Not yet!

The 25-year-old is currently ranked 3rd in Australia in the able-bodied competition and narrowly missed a bronze medal at the 2012 Paralympics, coming fourth place to China's Lei Fan in the class ten women's singles.

To realize her dream of competing at an Olympic Games, Tapper faces her biggest challenge; a two-part Olympic qualification process, firstly this month at the Australian tournament in Tweed Heads, in northern New South Wales.

And then in March, following the Oceania Tournament in Bendigo, Victoria, the top three Australian women will book their tickets to Rio.

I would think of myself as an outside chance, and I would prefer it to be that way anyway,” she said.

“For me it’s quite exciting, it’s a good challenge, and I mean if I end up qualifying, my god, that’s absolutely awesome.”

Tapper faces tough competition from veterans Jian Fang Lay, Vivian Dederko, Miao Miao and Stephanie Sang - all four have been to the Olympics at least once.

Also in the mix is current Australian champion and Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Sally Zhang.

“I’m the underdog, and for me that’s better,” Tapper said. “I played my first Australian qualification at age 14 – I’ve failed already three times,” she added.

Tapper first took up a bat as an 8 year old in primary school, and by age 18 she was the No.1 junior female player in Australia.

“It (Table Tennis) Involves speed of a 100m sprinter, pose of a golfer and the mentality of a chess player,” she said.

And Tapper has been meeting the skill demands of her sport with a weakened right-arm.

“I was born with brachial plexus, so I was 11 pound 2 when I was born,” she said.

“So I ended up getting stuck, pulled out by my right arm, and that tore the nerves between my neck and my shoulder. I had a few operations, which definitely helped, gave me back a bit of movement and strength, but, yeah, my right arm wasn’t able to develop the same as my left. It definitely doesn’t have as much strength.”

When someone suggested she try Paralympics table tennis her international career took off, and with first major competition being the 2012 London Paralympics but competing at an Olympic Games is her dream.

Get pumped for the Paralympics with our list of 6 women to watch
Australia has plenty of Paralympic chances - get the lowdown on who you’ll be cheering for come September.
With a 50-50 gender split, our Paralympics team shows true equality
Zela talks to Chef de Mission Kate McLoughlin and Co-Captain Daniela Di Toro about the unexpected challenges facing women in Parasports and why Rio could be a watershed event for the Australian Paralympic team.

Tapper will be the only left-hander at selections as her right is smaller, weaker and has less range of movement.

But she's never seen herself as having a disability, and says being a leftie will give her an advantage against her opponents.

"For them, left handers aren't so common," Tapper said. "It really just comes down to who's willing to fight hardest on the day."

The Victorian has been under an intense training regime, up to six hours each day under Coach and husband, Simon Gerarda.

“The part I like the most is the fact that she has a chance and that what it comes down to,” he said.

“If an athlete has the belief that they’re going to achieve something and they go for it every single day of their life, well, you’ve got to like their chances."

If successful in her bid, Tapper would follow in the footsteps of one of her rivals, Poland's Natalia Partyka who competed at the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympics as well as four Paralympic Games.

Other athletes to have competed at both Games include South African swimmer Natalie du Toit, American athlete Marla Runyan and Austrian equestrian competitor Pepo Puch.

The most famous, however, is now disgraced South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius.


For all the latest #WomenInSport articles, videos and updates at SBS Zela like us on Facebook and Twitter