Table tennis: Aussie Olympian cum Paralympian Melissa Tapper sees herself as just a regular paddler

Australia's Melissa Tapper celebrates her victory in the women's TT6-10 singles gold medal final table tennis match at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games at the Oxenford Studios venue in Gold Coast on April 14, 2018.
Australia's Melissa Tapper celebrates her victory in the women's TT6-10 singles gold medal final table tennis match at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games at the Oxenford Studios venue in Gold Coast on April 14, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

Tears welled up in Melissa Tapper's eyes, and her voice broke, as she struggled to contain her emotions last Saturday (April 14).

The 28-year-old para-paddler had just won Australia's first table tennis gold medal at the Commonwealth Games since the sport was introduced in 2002, in front of an adoring home crowd at the Oxenford Studios no less.

"I am just relieved, it was just such an amazing match really," said the Class 10 player Tapper, after she beat Nigeria's Faith Obazuaye 7-11, 11-2, 11-6, 11-3 in the women's TT6-TT10 singles final.

TT6 and TT10 refer to para-table tennis classifications for players who stand while they play, with the latter category for players with the least disability.

While it was arguably the biggest achievement in her career to date, the Hamilton, Victoria native is not a stranger to making breakthroughs despite suffering from a brachial plexus injury at birth which resulted in Erb's Palsy, a paralysis of the arm caused by injury to the upper group of the arm's main nerves.

After an operation at four months old, she now has 30 per cent use of her right arm.

Never seeing herself as disabled, Tapper had an active childhood, where she tried different sports.

"Growing up, I was never treated differently, there were no special snowflakes in our house," she said in a 2016 Marie Claire interview. "I was expected to play sports like my siblings. In primary school, I played netball, basketball and did little athletics. I loved them all."

She picked up table tennis at age eight, made the state team at age 12, and the national junior team two years later.

And she was good, winning a slew of titles at age-group level, including seven medals - among them three golds - at the national championships in 2004. At 18, she was Australia's No. 1 female junior, the Under-18 Oceania champion and the U-21 national champion.

It fuelled her dream of making the Olympics, but competition became stiffer as she moved out of the juniors into the open category.

It was during this transition when the Australian Paralympic Committee approached her to give para-table tennis a go.

While she was reluctant at first, she fell in love with it soon after.

"I completely fell in love with what the community stands for," she said.

Her talent propelled her from No. 19 to the top spot in the Class 10 world rankings in 2011, and the 2012 London Paralympics, where she finished fourth.

She then became the first para-athlete to compete for an able-bodied Australian team at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, where she clinched a bronze in the women's team event.

Two years later, she made Australian history for being the first athlete in the sports-mad nation to qualify for both the Paralympics and Olympics - she lost in the preliminary rounds at the Olympics, as well as at the Paralympics.

With her feat, she joins the ranks of athletes such as Polish paddler Natalia Partyka, South African runner Oscar Pistorius and his countrywoman Natalie du Toit (swimming) who have competed in both Games.

"Every time I am introduced they always repeat the same Olympic-Paralympic thing, but that fact probably sink in until I am a grandma rocking on a chair one day with my grandkids," Tapper told The Straits Times yesterday, chuckling.

"Nothing has changed since then, I am still working hard."

Tapper has been competing in both able-bodied and para events in Australia - she took part in five events at the Commonwealth Games, including the TT6-10 - as "there are not enough numbers (of participants) at the moment to be able to choose one or the other".

"If there ever comes a day where there are enough (para-paddlers) and you can focus on one, that would be amazing," she told ST.

"I hope my medal can inspire others, but that's not my aim when I compete. Today I competed for myself and my family. I don't ever think about how my actions could be inspiring for someone else, but it has been incredible this week - I've had a lot of people coming specifically to see my matches."

The excitement and adrenaline of winning in front of a home crowd may just spur her to another Olympic-Paralympic double in Tokyo in 2020, and perhaps to win a medal.

Tapper said: "(Tokyo) is still a while off; I am just stoked to get through these last 10 days. This (the Gold Coast Games) is almost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; this environment, the thrill and adrenaline I get here spurs me on to try and keep achieving a bit more."