Emily Tapp will compete in the paratriathlon at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. (Supplied: Triathlon Australia)
Emily Tapp was barely 20 when a campdrafting accident left her with a fractured vertebrae and paraplegia.
The rehabilitation, she said, was long and difficult but she was lucky to have the support network that she did.
That support and years of treatment and training now have the Northern Territory-born athlete on track to represent her country at next month’s Commonwealth Games.
Tapp hails from a well-known cattle family from the Katherine region who are talented and supportive in equal measure.
When her brother competed in the finale of a popular cooking show in 2013, the money he won went towards his little sister’s rehabilitation.
Tapp attended spinal rehabilitation, including months of specialist therapy in the US, then many more getting familiar with a wheelchair, shifting her body to other seats; re-learning to do the sorts of things most able-bodied people take for granted.
With no prior experience she gave para-athletics a shot after being inspired by a friend.
“It came from a friend that is quadriplegic and was training for a half ironman; I was just absolutely blown out of the water,” the 26-year-old said.
“I’d never done a triathlon but I knew that the distances were quite lengthy and the dedication [required] was pretty significant.
“I thought, ‘I should be able to do something like that’, so there we go.”
Olympic hopes dashed
She began to dedicate her time to train in the sport, which involves a 750-metre swim, 20 kilometres on a recumbent hand cycle and then five kilometres in a wheelchair.
“It was incredible,” Tapp said of her first paratriathlon experience.
Just four years after having to re-learn what she referred to as “day-to-day life skills”, she won her first title at the 2015 Oceania Paratriathlon Championships in Penrith.
She relocated to Canberra to continue refining her skills and began to accrue an impressive track record of wins in International Triathlon Union competitions.
Eventually, she qualified to compete in the 400m wheelchair event at the 2016 Rio Paralympics — the full paratriathlon wasn’t in the program — but then her plans were thrown off course again.
The chilly Canberra winter was partly to blame.
“Having been a fellow Territorian, you can all agree that our winters are quite balmy in comparison to others,” Tapp told ABC Radio Darwin‘s Liz Trevaskis.
“I tapped my right shin on an oil heater and subsequently got third-degree burns and had to have a skin graft.”
She was medically cleared for competition in Australia, but staff at the training camp in Florida delivered the bad news: the wound wasn’t healing correctly.
“It really was [a huge blow].”
But in April last year she automatically qualified for the Commonwealth Games when she was the first Australian woman to complete the paratriathlon at the 2017 Gold Coast ITU World Paratriathlon Series.
Her strong track record suggests she is in medal contention, potentially giving rise to a historic moment during the sport’s Commonwealth Games debut.
Less than a month out from the competition, Tapp has been training hard in each of the event’s three disciplines.
“It’s all very hard but rewarding at the same time,” she said.
“It’s mainly just going through the three disciplines and making sure you’re fit through those and feel comfortable.”
Tapp said she would approach the Games with clear goals in mind.
“I think it’s to have a great race and execute all the processes — being one better than my last race and my race before that, so just being very smart and completing a clean race.”