Table tennis star Melissa Tapper made history at Rio 2016 by becoming the first - and only - Australian athlete to compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Now with Tokyo 2020 less than a year away, she's gunning for gold at next year’s Paralympic Games.
In 2016, Melissa Tapper tore up the history books when she qualified for both the Australian Olympic and Paralympic table tennis teams. Her second place finish in the Olympic qualifying event saw her join the likes of Zahra Nemati (Iran) and Marla Runyan (USA) as part of a select international group who have competed in both versions of the Games.
But in Australian sport, Tapper’s achievement is unique. No other athlete has achieved the Olympic/Paralympic double.
It gives her an almost unique viewpoint of the world’s greatest sporting event and it’s clear that the Paralympics hold a special place in her heart.
“I think the greatest thing about Paralympic sport is it's completely raw. So what you see is the full athlete just purely going out there wanting to be the best that they can be,” she explained in an exclusive interview with Tokyo 2020.
“You're in a stadium full of athletes that have a disability but you don't see anybody's disability rather just their ability.”
I never had anyone that spoon-fed me. I was never treated any differently.
If I wanted something, I had to go grab it myself.
In some ways, the more surprising of Tapper’s two Rio 2016 achievements may have been her participation at that year’s Paralympic Games.
Growing up in the small Australian town of Hamilton, Tapper - who has Erbs palsy due to the nerves between her shoulder and neck being torn during childbirth - never competed in Para competitions. In fact, she was 19-years-old before she competed in her first.
Before that, Tapper had found herself “playing against all the grown men from the town” after outperforming all her local junior rivals.
At first, Tapper thought only about competing in the Olympics. However, after being approached by Tim Matthews from Paralympics Australia, Tapper was convinced to compete in Para competitions. It led to a place on the team for London 2012, where she just missed out on a spot on the podium after losing 3-2 in the bronze medal playoff having initially led by two sets.
Even so, that near-miss experience didn't dull her determination to compete at the highest level. If anything it made her even more driven.
"It sort of just made me more hungry for it," she explained. "I knew I was capable of doing it, but to actually do it is another thing."
A double onslaught on Rio
In 2016, Tapper travelled to Rio, ready to compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It was a historic moment. Yet rather than dwelling on her achievement, Tapper prefers to focus on the future.
“In 2016, that everything aligned and all the hard work came together and paid off was absolutely amazing,” Tapper recalled.
“But still it was just another little goal I wanted to achieve and to tick off, and I’m still competing so I think it’s going to be a lot further down the track that I’ll really get to sit back and enjoy what I’ve been able to achieve.”
Tapper’s Olympic experience came to an end when she lost 4-2 to Brazil’s Caroline Kumahara, in front of a partisan home crowd, while her Paralympic journey ended after failing to advance from the preliminaries in the singles tournament and finishing fourth in the doubles.
Once again, she had come tantalisingly close to a medal. But even though the podium eluded her, the Paralympic experience is one that she enjoyed to the fullest - particularly the human side of the event.
“I do find, though, that the Paralympics side of things there’s a bit more willingness to have a little smile here or there, or mix in and still go about their business,” she said when looking back on her Olympic and Paralympic experiences.
From strength to strength
Since Rio 2016, Tapper has continued to shine in both able-bodied and Para competitions, with the highlight being the gold medal she won at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, held on the Gold Coast in her home nation, Australia. She describes the event which she won in front of her friends and family as “by far my greatest tournament.”
But one thing that has been consistent across all of her competitions is a refusal to look at any opponent differently, regardless of whether they are able-bodied or competing with an impairment.
“Whether it’s Para or able-bodied, I go in there with the same approach,” explained Tapper. “No player is Para or able-bodied in my head."
Since winning Commonwealth Games gold, the accolades have continued to pour in for Tapper. In 2019, she was named the Victorian Female Athlete of the Year, something that the athlete describes as “the cherry on top” after years of hard work and training.
However, one honour that she has not yet experienced is reserved for the Paralympic Games in Tokyo next year, where she will lead the Australian table tennis team as co-captain. It’s a role she clearly thrilled about undertaking:
“I’m really excited! I absolutely love our Australian Para table tennis squad... Over the last 18 months we’ve really started developing a strong culture within the group. I think in Tokyo we really have a great chance to do some fantastic things and get some great results.”
Gunning for gold
For now, Tapper's focus is 100 per cent on Tokyo 2020 and it's no surprise what the Australian is hoping for at next year's Games.
"To get on the podium with the gold around my neck is definitely the aim," Tapper admits. "And I think I'll be dreaming about that every night up until Tokyo."
And if she does win gold, it will be a moment she has already played out in her mind as she visualised what it would be like to triumph on the greatest sporting stage of them all.
"It's funny, just last week I played against one of the guys in our squad and it was a really epic rally, and I finished it with a big win," Tapper recalled.
"And I smiled to myself at the end of it because I was like, hang on, this is how I see myself winning a gold medal... and I'm just really excited about where my game's going and the opportunity that Tokyo presents."
The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games table tennis tournament begins on Wednesday 25 August 2021 with the finals taking place on Thursday 2 September and Friday 3 September 2021.