Melissa Tapper, 31, made sporting history when she played table tennis for Australia at the Rio Olympics and Paralympics.
She’s going to do it again in Tokyo, a feat that may remain unequalled.
They call her Milly. Her home town is Hamilton, Victoria. She was born on March 1, 1990 — but it didn’t go to plan.
“My beautiful mother delivered me naturally,” Tapper explained.
“I was 11 pound two, so I was quite a whopper of a baby … I got stuck.”
The doctor pulled her out by her right arm, tearing the nerves between her neck and shoulder, leaving her with a condition called brachial plexus palsy.
Four months later, she had an operation to improve her mobility where surgeons took nerves from her lower legs and attached them to the torn ones in her shoulder.
This allowed Milly to lift her arm and use her hand “enough to be able to get by”.
Despite her injury and its long-term consequences, the child was never treated differently: her older brother and sister made sure she shared the chores, went to school and played games.
One day, teachers introduced students to table tennis.
“It was lunchtime sport on a Friday and I was terrible at it, I mean I couldn’t even hit the ball,” Tapper said.
But she had fun trying, so she kept doing it.
There were still challenges to overcome.
Her parents put up a table at their holiday house but Milly’s siblings wouldn’t let her play with them because she wasn’t good enough.
This motivated her to improve so she could show them “who was boss”.
“As I’ve grown up, I’ve just understood that if I wanted to do something I had to go away and try a little bit harder or find, maybe, a solution to something.”
Hamilton locals saw Milly’s determination and rewarded it by giving her plenty of competition.
Members of the local club, mostly “older gentlemen”, would play against the talented Tapper girl in her family’s shed.
Soon, her mother and father started driving her three and half hours to Melbourne for coaching and matches against other children. Eventually she moved to the city, started making representative teams and went overseas for invaluable experience.
She represented Australia at the 2012 London Paralympics and won a bronze medal at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.
Then came Rio.
Australian head coach John Murphy reckons Tapper is the “heart of the national team”.
“[Her] dedication is huge,” he said.
“If you see what Milly is putting in on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. Whether it’s the on-table stuff, the physical program she has from the VIS or the extra stuff she does at home — it’s a well-oiled machine and that facilitates her to do what she’s doing again to qualify for two Games.”
Tapper hasn’t spent time counting her successes.
“I’m still competing so it’s hard to really look back and appreciate everything I’ve been able to do,” she said.
As satisfying as it was to create history, the Olympics-Paralympics achievement in 2016 was tiring: the competitions were weeks apart and she had to fly back to Australia before returning to Brazil for the Paralympics.
“It was definitely a hectic schedule but for Tokyo I’m staying there in-between, so I’m really looking forward to seeing what I can achieve this time around.”
In the Olympics, she’ll partner Heming Hu, a fun-loving 27-year-old from Dandenong, Victoria. They’ve been playing mixed doubles for almost a decade.
“She’s always fun to play with,” Hu said.
“She’s always looking forward to the next point and that’s something I really enjoy.”
Tapper and Hu are great friends off the court.
When he’s not a world-class table tennis player, Hu cracks up his teammates by impersonating tennis players like Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Nick Kyrgios.
They’ve all needed a sense of humour to get through the past 12 months, after Tokyo 2020 was postponed.
Although, the imposed isolation of lockdowns was beneficial for table tennis players.
“I’m really grateful that when in Victoria we went into several lockdowns, I had a table set up in my back room of the house on carpet, not much room to move,” Tapper said.
“So every day I was having to wake up, stick to my routine, go down into the back room, train.
“I was still having daily connection with my team so we were able to build on the good base that we already had.
COVID will present another test of resilience in Japan.
But Tapper is looking forward to the Games with the same positive attitude she’s had since her troubled delivery at Hamilton hospital.
“I think the games without a doubt are going to be different, however I think the Australian Olympic Committee and Paralympics Australia have done a terrific job at preparing us for the differences that are going to occur,” she said.