This week we celebrate exactly 20 years since the Sydney Paralympics. The well-known story is the incredible success of this momentous international event, the unknown story is that the Paralympic Games almost did not happen.
After watching Cathy Freeman win gold at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, Milly Tapper had dreams of becoming an Olympian.
While Tapper was a talented child, representing her hometown in basketball and netball, she always thought athletics would be the sport that would make her Olympic dream come true.
Then she was introduced to table tennis.
On Fridays at lunchtime Tapper and her classmates were able to go offsite to play sport. After trying all the other sports, Tapper decided she would try table tennis.
“I was absolutely terrible at it in the beginning,” says Tapper. “But I had so much fun and I decided to go back again and I kept at it. The more you do something the better you get, and that’s where my journey started.
“The perception of table tennis is that it’s a backyard sport. But that’s the awesome thing about my sport. It is for everyone, all ages, all genders, and everyone can have fun doing it.”
Tapper has had an incredible journey since picking up the paddle as a child.
What’s important to mention at this point, though, is that Tapper was born with brachial plexus palsy, which is weakness or paralysis in parts of the arm.
But as a child Tapper had no idea that the Paralympics existed, so her rise through the sport continued against able-bodied athletes. The first time Tapper represented a national team was at an able-bodied competition in 2004 followed by participation in the table tennis national championships later that year. She also represented Australia at the World Junior Cadets under-15s, the 2008 under-18 Oceania championship and the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and she also won the Michael Szabados Award for the Australian junior player of the year.
“Growing up I never thought of myself as having a disability and I was never treated any differently,” says Tapper. “I wanted to go to the Olympics because that was all I knew. I tried multiple times at Olympic qualification events starting when I was 16 and each time I got a little bit closer.
But it wasn’t until Tapper was approached by the Australian Paralympic Committee to compete in an event that she realised she could represent her country in the Paralympic Games and qualified for the 2012 London Paralympic Games.
Then, with her appearance at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, she became the first Australian Paralympic table tennis player to qualify for an able-bodied national team, and in 2016 she made history again when she became the first Australian to compete at a Paralympic and Olympic Games in the same year.
In 2018 she became the first Australian to win a Commonwealth Games gold medal in table tennis, and she got to do it in front of her home crowd.
But the dream is not over yet and Tapper has still been training hard, preparing for Tokyo. Despite the pandemic, her training has not slowed down. She still spends up to five hours five days a week playing table tennis.
With Tapper trying to break a 36-year gold medal hiatus for the Australian Paralympic table tennis team, every hour on the table counts.
“We have still been able to practise alongside our training partners. That’s one of the benefits of table tennis – being at opposite ends of the table, we keep our distance.
“Even though it has been such a tough year, one day I hope to be able to tell my grandchildren that I lived through a pandemic.”
I think Tapper is selling herself a bit short there. Not only has she survived a pandemic, but she has recently been selected to represent Australia at the ITTF World Cup in China this November.
This is Tapper’s first World Cup appearance and, additionally, the first event on the international table tennis calendar since the pandemic hit. As well as being good preparation ahead of Tokyo, the table tennis community is looking forward to coming together and celebrating the return of the sport.
“It’s a big deal for the table tennis community. It has been a big wait for all of us. It’s exciting to be a part of the first event since COVID hit.”
For Tapper, one of the most pleasing things about the increased prominence of the Paralympic Games is that it now gives children the chance to dream bigger than she did as a child.
“Paralympians are a different breed of athlete,” says Tapper. “There is something about them. There is a pure rawness of just their love for sport and being the best they can be.
“Being able to see that and their incredible talent is something special. Rio was amazing and I have no doubt that, come Tokyo, that will be something pretty special again.”