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Talking with Tara Llanes

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Tara enjoyed a successful professional mountain bike career as a five-time U.S. National Champion, an X-Games gold medalist, and multiple World Championship medalist before a bad crash. She went on to a successful professional career in adaptive cycling, tennis and basketball. She recently opened up to Accessibility for All.

AfA: Tell us a little about yourself and what brought you to where you are today. 

TL: I grew up in Orange County, California and had a pretty great childhood. I was raised by a single mom who kept me busy by putting me in all the sports. I ran track, rode horses, played softball, basketball and raced BMX and mountain bikes. Once I got to high school, I narrowed it down to basketball and our team went on to win multiple league and state championships. Then in my junior year of high school we won a National Championship. I didn’t play my senior year and instead put my focus into racing mountain bikes. I moved to Colorado and wanted to make it as a pro.

After a successful professional mountain bike career as a five-time U.S. National Champion, an X-Games gold medalist, and multiple World Championship medalist, I had a bad crash. On Sept. 1st, 2007, the crash in Vail, Colorado led to a broken neck and back. I went through a few years of physio and, while still recovering, I ran into a former girlfriend. We started seeing each other again and eventually got married. I moved to Canada where she was really the only person I knew. It was a very difficult transition for me especially still being so new to spinal cord injury. I had just started to meet friends in the SCI community in Southern California when I decided to move to Canada. In retrospect I should have taken more time to work through some things, but hindsight is 20/20. In the end things didn’t work out with my ex-wife, but we remain very close. I have since met my current girlfriend and we’ve been together for the past two and a half years. I look forward to many more with her.

It took many years for me to have a sense of identity again after my crash and to feel confident with who I was as a person. During those first five or so years of living in Vancouver, I didn’t play or compete in any sport. It was the longest I’d ever gone in my entire life of not competing. It wasn’t until I started to play wheelchair tennis that I started to feel like me again. I played tennis full time for about five years and ended up winning a singles and doubles Canadian Championship. From there I had started playing a bit of basketball. I didn’t realize how much I missed playing on a team. I trained hard and tried out for the National team in 2018 and made the team. Ever since then I’ve played for the National team and was part of the 2019 ParaPan Am and the 2022 Commonwealth gold medal teams and went to my first Paralympics in Tokyo.

When I was in the hospital after my crash, my mom used to always tell me that things happen for a reason. I never believed her until years and years later. It wasn’t until I started playing tennis and then basketball that I really got it. This is exactly where I’m supposed to be. This injury has taught me patience and more patience. It’s opened opportunities for me that I never thought I’d have, and I want to take it all in. I’m not scared anymore of the what ifs in life. It’s taught me to embrace them and know that it’s all for a reason.

AfA: Congratulations on being part of the Paralympic Games in Tokyo in August. When did you first decide to become a Paralympic athlete?

TL: I probably wanted to be a Paralympian from the first time I picked up a tennis racket. I’d heard of the Paralympics before that but never thought much about it. I did compete for the U.S. in handcycling after I was hurt but even then, I never considered the Paralympics. It wasn’t until I moved to Canada and started playing tennis. I don’t know why I necessarily thought that, because I wasn’t great at tennis, but I kept working at it and was making progress. It wasn’t until I started playing basketball though that I thought it was a very viable thing.

AfA: What is life as a Paralympic athlete like? Can you walk us through a typical day of training leading up to the Paralympic Games? Are there any significant moments or achievements that stand out in your mind?

TL: We train hard for about ten months out of the year, depending on where we live and how many majors we have that year. Things for me have changed a bit, being that I’m a more experienced athlete. Currently I’m training for Paris 2024, which is the next Paralympics and I need to be aware of my longevity. Instead of being on court five to six days a week like I was prior to Tokyo I am now on court three to four days a week with three lifts per week. On the days I’m not on court I try to do more body work and watch game film. I’m still learning but it doesn’t take a toll on my body.

We as a team have done some amazing things but I’d say the ones that stand out in my mind are the ones where we are playing as one. Even in those moments where we’re losing, I always walk away feeling great inside and proud when we’re playing as a team.

AfA: Besides wheelchair basketball, what other adaptive sports do you enjoy?

TL: I really do have fun playing tennis and it’s come up a lot lately, which makes me want to get back on court. I also enjoy riding my adaptive mountain bike. I’ve been sit-skiing but haven’t done it for a few seasons because I didn’t want to get hurt before Tokyo.

AfA: Tell us about why and how your company, Tara Llanes Industries came to be. 

TL: I started my company in 2014, when adaptive mountain biking was still in its infancy stages. I’d moved to Vancouver in late 2009 and had been here for a few years when a couple friends wanted to get me back on the mountain. They contacted a company in Poland called Sport-On that made some of the most technically advanced adaptive mountain bikes on the market. I’d had my bike for about a year and any time I was on the trails people would ask me about it and say that they had a friend or knew someone that would love to ride one. I got in touch with the owner and let him know there was a real need for adaptive mountain bikes like this in Canada and that I’d love to start selling them here. It turned out that I’d met the Canadian rep when I was still living in California because he was living in the state as well. I was able to get the blessing of the rep to take over all of Canada. At that point I had to figure out how to run a business!

I had no idea how to run a sales business. I learned a lot from my ex who had been the B.C. sales rep for Shimano for quite some time. It was A LOT of trial and error. From the beginning, though, I always believed that so much of it was about working with adaptive organizations. There are many reasons for that but soon after I started working with Whistler Adaptive and it’s been a great partnership. It’s now 2023 and adaptive mountain biking has grown a ton and I don’t see it stopping any time soon.

AfA: How does it feel knowing you are an inspiration and mentor to other wheelchair users?

TL:  I prefer to use the word mentor rather than inspiration. To me inspiration is an overused word in our community. I have gone through massive swings of identity, worth, confidence and ability since getting hurt. I don’t claim to be a mentor either. I’m just doing the best I can and what feels right. Over these past 16 years in a chair, I’ve watched others lead a life of happiness while I struggled daily and a lot of times, hourly. It’s taken so many years of fighting to get back who I was and to truly lead a life of laughter and love and that’s all you want for people. I’m thankful for each day that I get to learn, create memories, travel, love deeply and laugh ridiculously hard.

AfA: What is your proudest accomplishment to date?

TL:  You might be looking for a sport-related answer to this question, but for me it might just be moving to Canada with no real support system other than my ex. I had all my friends from before my injury, my mom, my family, and had just started to cultivate a great support crew of friends in the disabled community and then I moved. I think having those friends in the disabled community was almost the most important because they were the first group of people back at home that I could talk to about anything and everything and I knew they KNEW exactly what I was going through. I needed that the most right in that moment. In the end and after a lot of difficult years I was able to find myself all over again here in the Great White North.

AfA: What can we expect to see from you in the next year? 

TL:  In 2023, we have two majors—which isn’t normal. We usually only have one major. A major is either a World Championships, ParaPan Am Games or Paralympics. Because Tokyo 2020 was pushed to 2021 we now have two majors in one year. The World Championships in Dubai in June determine how many spots a zone will get in the Paralympics. A zone is the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia/Oceania. So, you want your zone to place well at Worlds.

The second major we have are the ParaPan Ams in November in Chile. This is big; the top two teams that place at this event go to the Paralympics. If you place third, you don’t go. It’s a big year for us with a lot of travel so I’ll either be on a plane, training or at home sleeping. Lol.

AfA: What advice would you give to your younger self?

TL:  To enjoy every moment. Enjoy the little things you get to do with your teammates. Enjoy the wins, the losses and the ridiculous moments in between—because you don’t get those back. I have a much better understanding of that now, but it’s taken me a long time to appreciate them. It’s hard when you have a goal in front of you and that is all you see. Sometimes that hinders you from seeing the present. I’m thankful now that I focus on the present.

AfA: What message would you like to share with the world about the importance of inclusivity and the power of sports to unite people?

TL:  I believe wheelchair basketball to be the most inclusive para sport out of any para sport. The reason for that is because we allow minimally disabled people to play. What that means is that people that have knee, hip or ankle injuries that deem them unable to play stand-up basketball to be classifiable. If they are classified in our sport they can play at the national level. These are players that would have most likely never found wheelchair basketball. They are players that can walk but can’t play able-bodied sport. We as everyday wheelchair users and amputees get to show them what our everyday looks like. It’s a second hand look at the struggles of everyday life and travel. What better way to spread that word!

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