MELISSA Tapper will make history when she steps into Glasgow’s Scotstoun Sports Campus today.
As the first Paralympian to represent Australia at the able-bodied Commonwealth Games, the Hamilton table tennis export knows her efforts will make headlines.
The attention is hardly of her wanting. All Tapper has done is realise a dream, born when she took up the sport aged eight and discovered she was pretty good at it.
But the fact she’s had Erb’s palsy — paralysis of the right arm caused by nerve damage — since birth makes her story the more remarkable.
Tapper, 24, is surprisingly at ease with the fuss made about her, even though she can’t comprehend why. To her, table tennis is “just life”.
She is happy to play up her status as a role model but insists all athletes — both with and without a disability — should use her achievements as motivation.
“I don’t see myself as any sort of standout but a good example for people who think they can’t do something,” she said.
“In essence, you really can if you put your mind to it and you want to work hard enough to achieve it.
“Sometimes you weigh up the options and what it takes is too much. But if you wanted to go down that track and give it a crack, go for it.
“Obviously people with a disability, a lot of the time they feel like they’re not at the level able-bodied athletes are. But everyone has their own disability.
“Everyone has something they think they’re not good at and they’ve got to overcome. Disability or not, it’s up to the individual.”
Tapper will compete in the teams and mixed doubles events at Glasgow, having earned selection in February. Her doubles partner is Victorian Heming Hu.
Tapper enters the Games on the back of a solid national championships campaign, reaching the semi-finals of the singles and winning two medals in the doubles.
“We had to take a step back to fix a few things but it was one step back and I’ve taken three steps forward. It was all really good signs (at nationals),” she said.
The Australians jetted to China for a training camp soon after, before heading on to Scotland. The opening ceremony was last night and competition starts today.
The similarities between the Paralympics and the Commonwealth Games have been impossible to ignore, but they are also “two very different events”.
Tapper said London 2012 was “a learning curve”. She surprised herself by placing fourth when she had barely considered herself a medal chance.
But the three-sets-to-two loss to China’s Lei Fan in the bronze medal match, having won the first two, left her with the gut-wrenching feeling of ‘what if?’.
“I wasn’t expected to win. I ended up getting 2-0 up and I knew there was the opportunity, there was a chance,” Tapper said.
“It hurts a bit to not have been able to reach the medal. If the score was the other way around, she beat me 3-0 or 3-1, it’d be easier to take.”
The defeat did have a silver lining. Tapper credits the heartbreak with having a role in her qualifying for Glasgow 2014.
“I have to thank the Chinese girl because of that result. It toughened me up a lot more,”she said.
Now, with competition about to get under way, she already considers herself a success.
“The Commonwealth Games were something I’d always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to achieve.
“I was coming too close to thinking maybe I wouldn’t achieve it. I had to put aside so many different things.
“To come out the other end and qualify, that was an absolute dream come true.
"It’s an amazing thing to know people really enjoy following the sport and following what you do."
“Even if I walked away from Scotland medal-less, I’m incredibly stoked with the fact I was able to work so hard and achieve selection.”
That sense of pride, however, is not increased by her disability. Tapper considers herself no different to any others on the team.
Like many athletes who make history, the magnitude of what she has done — the Paralympics-Commonwealth Games double — won’t sink in for months.
“I haven’t really been able to take it in from that sense. I don’t think I will be able to see it that way for some time,” she said.
“For me it’s another dream that I’ve wanted to do and the fact I was able to achieve it, I’m absolutely stoked. I get to go over there and do something I love.
“Down the track I’ll get to reflect on it and be a lot more amazed with it. Now it’s just something I’ve worked really hard for and got.”
Tapper, the youngest of three children of Charles and Dianne Tapper, grew up in Hamilton and attended Monivae College until year 9.
She completed her schooling at Caulfield Grammar and has lived in South Melbourne since, combining her training schedule with a few jobs.
Her table tennis career started with domestic competition in Hamilton. Multiple national junior titles followed while she has competed in more than 15 countries.
The support of the Hamilton community has been ever-present throughout the journey. Tapper said she gets stopped in the street whenever she heads home.
“Even mum and dad, when I was talking to them the other day, they said they’d had several people see them down the street who wished me well,” she said.
“They get cards sent to home wishing me well. It’s really unbelievable. I was saying to them you don’t think there are people who are keeping an eye on you.
“It’s an amazing thing to know people really enjoy following the sport and following what you do.”
And having broke new ground with her Commonwealth Games selection, Tapper is already considering a new ambition — the Olympics-Paralympics double.
“It’s really quite funny. When I first started playing I never knew table tennis was played in the Commonwealth Games or the Olympics,” she said.
“I didn’t know you could go overseas and compete. It’s a huge dream and something I’m so proud of, getting to put on the green and gold tracksuit.”
Australia plays Guyana and host nation Scotland in its two pool B matches in the women’s teams’ section today. The mixed doubles action starts on July 30.
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