Aino Tapola Fights for Equality in Para Sports
Photo: Aino Tapola/Niki Soukkio
“A champion is defined not by their wins but by how they can recover when they fall.” - Serena Williams.
The Inspirational Women Series is a series of articles by the ITTF Foundation that supports and celebrates women’s participation in sport, as well as the courage they exhibit in challenging traditional gender roles and stereotypes.
Aino Tapola is always into competitive sports. She was a diver and baseball athlete before the life-changing event in 2012. Her strong mentality and courage shaped her into the athlete she is today. She managed to encourage herself to find her new passion in other competitive sports. She was part of the Finnish wheelchair rugby national team for four years and practised fencing before settling into table tennis. Today, Aino Tapola is part of the Finish Paralympic Committee Athletes Commission. She is the first Finnish female para table tennis player to compete at the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo in the women’s singles class 1-2. Currently residing in Helsinki, Tapola shares her journey to be the world’s best player in her class.
Table tennis quickly started to feel like my sport, because I had a long background in ball-playing, before I was injured, I played Finnish baseball. At that time, para table tennis community were not very active, so we founded a table tennis club in the local rehabilitation centre for people with spinal cord injuries. We knew almost nothing about table tennis, so we read the rules online and watched videos of PTT competitions on YouTube. In 2017, I met my current coach, Martti Autio, who has coached the Finnish national PTT team for the first time already in the 1980s. I told Mara that I want to become the best player in the world in my class.
The rehabilitation process forced her to stop training for more than six months. Her spirit revived as she began training one and half years after the injury, which brought meaning to her life again.
After the injury, my life felt empty for a long time, because the daily training was gone. When I started playing sports again, it brought new meaning to my life. Table tennis gave me the opportunity to play sports professionally and compete at the top of the world. I can now do what I enjoy for a living.
“Severe disabilities do not stop people from being high-level athletes.”
On her way to becoming the best athlete in her class, Tapola also experienced discrimination. The discrimination partly stems from needing a personal assistant for daily activities. Even many athletes with severe disabilities need a 24-hour personal assistant to support them. Fortunately, her country, Finland, rules that the city where people with disability (PWD) live must cover the expenses incurred by the assistant. In some countries, sports associations pay these expenses. But Tapola is concerned that this will influence their decision to support athletes with severe disability, class 1 and 2 players, in international events because the costs will be twice as high.
Inequality in para sports arises precisely from the fact that all expenses are doubled because of a personal assistant for those are with severe disabilities. If the athlete himself has to pay for the assistant's plane tickets, hotel and meals, and salary for each competition and camp trip, how many can afford it?
The road to equality seems distant, and many efforts still need to be made.
The federation and clubs should be able to enable training for potential players with disabilities and a path to a competitive career where non-disabilities players can. When non-disabilities players and para-players belong to the same sports association, para-players are often left behind. When para sports are not valued in the same way as able-bodied, you don't want to sacrifice resources for it. For example, there is not a single para table tennis coach in Finland who gets paid for coaching.
Tapola encourages para-athletes to stay strong and fight for their equality because it will benefit the future generation. She believes that a mere desire is never enough. Everything is possible with hard work, continuous training, and discipline. Tapola’s next goal is to attain a gold medal in the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.
Believe in yourself. Everything starts from yourself. From a strong sense of self-worth. About self-confidence. And by will.
Read the story of Galia Dvorak, the superwoman wearing many hats.
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