ACU graduate and paralympian Melissa Tapper. Image: Newspix.
Melissa Tapper’s brother and sister never let her play table tennis because they didn’t think she was good enough. Times certainly have changed. Margie Dimech spoke to the paralympian on her return from the 2012 London Games.
Melissa Tapper is not one to go unnoticed. The ACU alumni holds the Australian number 1 ranking and number 8 ranking for table tennis in the para and able-bodied competitions respectively.
She has won gold medals at the Hungarian, Italian and British Opens, and at the Arafura Games in 2011 - scoring herself a place in the 2012 London Paralympics. Melissa said attending the games was her greatest sporting achievement to date. Playing some of her best table tennis she narrowly missed out on a bronze medal in both the singles and doubles competitions.
“London was unbelievable. It was the biggest event that I’ve participated in,” she sad. “The atmosphere was incredible as I walked into the arena to play my first match in front of an audience of 5,000. It was amazing how loud they were.”
While always interested in sport, Melissa was a late arrival to table tennis, not picking up a bat until her final year of primary school.
“As a kid I played netball and basketball for the town, but my chances of taking those sports to a higher level was restricted due to the limited use of my right arm. At 12 years old I tried table tennis at school and the teachers noticed that I had some natural ability, so I was invited to play in the junior table tennis competition once a week.”
Growing up in Hamilton, a country town in western Victoria, Melissa didn’t have many opportunities to play against girls her age. Not to be deterred, she played against the boys instead.
“It was pretty normal for me to play against men twice my age as a teenager,” she said. “In a small town there weren’t many females my age or older, so everyone I played against just about was either boys or grown men.
“I was playing in the under-14-girls competition when I was first ranked number one in Victoria. I couldn’t believe it and as I went home with my dad after that competition I knew that I could play sport professionally.”
At 14 Melissa moved to Melbourne, and before long she had won her first national competition.
“Once you make your first Australian team and you travel overseas there is no looking back.”
By 18 she was ranked the number one junior female table tennis player in Australia, and despite the nerve damage she has in her right arm, continued to compete in able-bodied competitions until she was 20.
“I have erb’s palsy, which is damage to my brachial plexus as a result of being a large baby. My mum gave birth to me naturally and I had to be pulled out, tearing the nerves in my right arm. Consequently that arm is smaller and a bit weaker.
“I wear a brace 24/7, and with that I’m able to do pretty much anything as well as anyone else. My serve is weaker, but it just means I have to work that bit harder to make it better.
“At 14 I was identified as having a disability and was invited to play in the Australian para-table tennis competitions. At that stage I was a bit hesitant but I gave it a go - winning the national para-table tennis competition in Melbourne. However I decided to stick with the able-bodied competition, mostly because I was happy with how I was placed, but also because I was still quite young and didn’t identify as having a disability.”
Eight years later, in 2010, she was again approached by recruiters, and this time embraced the idea of playing with the Australian Para-Table Tennis Squad.
“It was a difficult choice for me to change teams,” Melissa said. “I was offered the chance to try the regional championships in Jordan, which was such an unbelievable experience that I said count me in, and that’s how my Paralympics journey started.
“In my eyes I don’t have a disability, so I think I’m just lucky that I have been afforded the opportunity to try both competitions.”
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