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North Vancouver Paralympian pushing to help others get active

Wheelchair basketball player Tara Llanes honoured for her work advocating for adaptive sports

North Vancouver’s Tara Llanes will be shooting for gold at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo at the end of August as a member of Canada’s women’s Paralympic basketball team.

It’s a massive accomplishment for a decorated athlete and activist who has thrown herself fully into her two life passions, wheelchair basketball and adaptive mountain biking.

“I kind of feel like it’s a crazy dream that’s come true,” Llanes told the North Shore News before heading to Tokyo for her first Paralympic Games. “I just didn’t know it was going to happen.”

It’s also a remarkable achievement for a woman who, not so long ago, could not get out of bed, both literally and figuratively.

Llanes grew up in California as a high-level cyclist, competing as an amateur and professional in BMX and mountain bike racing. Her athletic dreams – and her life as she knew it – took a devastating turn in September 2007 when she crashed in a mountain bike race, landing on her head and back, and suffering severe trauma that left her paralyzed from the waist down.

The accident destroyed her world for years.

“You see this stuff in movies – I don’t know – I was in such a dark place, a place where it didn’t matter if I woke up the next morning,” she said. “It got to a point that I never thought it would get to. I was always a pretty focused, driven, and very energetic human, never really had depression issues at all. … When I broke my back, I didn't know what my purpose was, I didn't know what my identity was.”

Her life was in athletics and competition, and she was good at it. Then, in an instant, it was all gone.

“I remember being in the hospital and my mom would say ‘things happen for a reason,’ and I remember thinking at that moment ‘Mom, whatever – I don’t want to hear that right now. I’m not in the best mental state to take that in and know what to do with it.’”

She lived in that dark place for years, unable to be the athlete she had been all her life.   

“How do you face that? What do you do next? It probably took me a good five, six years to find sport again, and those were probably the longest years of my life because I wasn't competing, and I have competed my entire life.”

It was competition that got her back in her groove. First there was wheelchair tennis, which got her moving again, and then adaptive mountain biking, which brought the thrill back into her life.

She’d moved to North Vancouver in 2010, and can pinpoint the exact ride a few years later on a local mountain biking trail that made her feel like she was all the way back.

“I was riding Bobsled [Mount Fromme's 'new-school' flow trail], on the Shore. At the time, the trail wasn’t adapted or anything, but it was just awesome. You could ride the fire road up, do a few laps of it and it didn’t take that long to ride out. …  That was my first trail that was a difficult one that pushed my limits on an adaptive bike.”

With that, she was fully back into the biking scene. She loved her adaptive bike so much – hand-pedalled in a prone position, with two wheels in the front and one in the back – that she tracked down the manufacturer in Poland and came to an agreement to start selling them here in North America. Her business, Tara Llanes Industries, is still going strong, and she’s become a powerful voice advocating for more outdoor opportunities and accessibility for differently abled athletes.

Wheelchair tennis and adaptive mountain biking got her back in the game, and then wheelchair basketball – which she started playing less than five years ago – gave her something to shoot for as a member of a team.

“It wasn't really until I started playing basketball again that I realized how much I missed that atmosphere, and just feeling like someone has your back,” she said.

She started playing in a local B.C. league, and within about a year she was rolling with the national team. Canada has a strong tradition in wheelchair basketball – the women won Paralympic gold in 1992, 1996 and 2000 – but the team hasn’t hit the podium since claiming bronze in Athens in 2004. They’ll be aiming to change that this year, said Llanes. The Canadian women are coming off a gold-medal win in their last big event, the 2019 Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru.  

“A gold medal is the ultimate goal. You don’t get up and grind every single day to not have that outcome,” she said. “When we’re working together, we’re a force. I have full confidence and know that we can win gold. It’s just playing our game, doing what we know how to do.”

Her passion for sport was recognized recently when she was named one of 52 worldwide recipients – with only four hailing from Canada – of the Athletes for Good Fund as part of Proctor & Gamble’s Tokyo 2020 Campaign.

The Athletes for Good Fund – a partnership between P&G, the IOC and the International Paralympic Committee – recently awarded more than $500,000 in grants to charitable causes supported by Paralympic and Olympic athletes.

The grant Llanes received will allow Whistler Adaptive to purchase another adaptive mountain bike to help more people living with disabilities access trails and enjoy time in nature.

“I was so honoured to get it,” she said of the $10,000 grant.

Whistler Adaptive currently has three adaptive mountain bikes that it rents out, and they are always in high demand, said Llanes. The grant will allow the program to purchase a fourth bike. “It’s amazing for me and for Whistler Adaptive, and I know that they are very thankful.”

In the weeks, months and years after her crash, Llanes wasn’t ready to hear the words “things happen for a reason.”

Now, on the verge of her first appearance at the Paralympic Games, with an ever-growing legacy as an advocate for adaptive athletics and accessibility, she’s more than ready to hear those words. In fact, she relishes them.

“It took me that long to find that space to say, ‘You know – things do happen for a reason,’” she said. “It’s your mental fortitude to find out ‘Who am I now? What person do I want to become?’”

And Llanes loves the person she has become.

“I'm in such a good place,” she said. “I wouldn't change anything. This is where I'm supposed to be.”