HAMILTON export Melissa Tapper is London-bound after being selected in the Australian Paralympic table tennis team to compete at the Games later this year.
The 22-year-old’s inclusion caps a stunning rise to the top of international Paralympic table tennis.
Ranked 19th in the world at the start of 2011, Tapper, who has nerve damage in her right arm and shoulder, steadily moved up the rankings to finish the year at number one after a string of tournament victories around the world.
Now ranked fifth in class 10, Tapper will draw on years of training against able-bodied men to realise her dream of a Paralympic medal. “This is something you always dream of when you start playing any sport,” she said.
“To be able to achieve it is amazing and now I hope to bring home a medal.”
Growing up in Hamilton, Tapper began her table tennis career competing against able-bodied athletes, despite having brachial plexus nerve damage in her right arm.
With few female players in the south-west, she often played against able-bodied men and soon began to beat them.
Aiming for the Olympic Games, Tapper decided to take table tennis more seriously and knuckled down with training.
At 18, she was the number one junior female table tennis player in Australia, the under 18 Oceania champion and the under 21 Australian champion and was moving her way up the world rankings.
But Tapper’s world changed when it was suggested she try Paralympic table tennis.
While reluctant at first, having never viewed herself as having a disability, Melissa soon embraced the idea and began training for national selection on the Australian para-table tennis squad.
Underneath her humble, calm exterior, Tapper is ruthless on the table tennis table and in 2011 won a string of singles gold medals at the Hungarian, Italian and British opens and the Arafura Games. Her rise from world number 19 to number one was unprecedented.
Tapper, who idolises Roger Federer, is now determined to make her mark at the Paralympics.
“All I can do is put in my best performance,” she said.
“I know I’ve been working hard to give myself the best possible chance for a medal.”
Australian Paralympic Committee CEO and 2012 team chef de mission Jason Hellwig is confident in the ability of Tapper and her teammate Rebecca McDonnell.
“Melissa and Rebecca are both outstanding athletes and ambassadors for table tennis,” he said.
“They are both at the top of their games internationally and I know they will do Australia proud in London.”
Paralympic table tennis features 11 classes depending on the level of disability.
Classes one to five are for athletes who compete in wheelchairs, classes 6-10 are for athletes who compete standing, while class 11 is for athletes with an intellectual disability.
Tapper joins Warrnambool rowing export Kathryn Ross in the Australian Paralympic team. The London Paralympic Games start on August 29.