You haven’t yet heard of Tara Llanes, consider yourself warned. This superstar Paralympic athlete is about to burn rubber at the Summer Olympics as part of Canada’s national wheelchair basketball team.
Born in 1976, Llanes (whose last name is pronounced Yaw-ness) started her sporting career as a Bicycle Motocross (BMX) racer. She then graduated to competing globally for 15 years as a professional mountain biker before a mountain bike crashed caused a spinal cord injury that changed her life in 2007.
As she made her way back to sport, Llanes tried playing wheelchair tennis before being introduced to wheelchair basketball in 2016. By 2018, she was already representing Canada at the 2018 World Wheelchair Basketball Championships in Hamburg, Germany.
More recently, Llanes also agreed to be an Ambassador for Triumph Mobility, as a user of our Panthera wheelchairs. We will be cheering her on to the Olympics and in the meantime wanted to introduce her in her own words. Here is our first Q&A with this fantastic athlete:
Have you always been athletic? Tell me about your trajectory through sports and how you first decided to start competing?
My first introduction to sports was when my Mom put me in soccer when I was five years old. I remember walking onto the field and a little boy kicked the ball at my face and I quit. Thank goodness that wasn’t the end of sports for me. Both my Mom and Dad were athletes, so I think I was off to a good start.
I grew up playing basketball, track & field, softball, gymnastics, BMX, and mountain biking. I just wanted to compete. It didn’t make sense to me to just play. It made all the sense in the world to work to be the best.
I grew up in California playing high basketball for Brea-Olinda High School. Playing for that school and for that coach taught me a lot about discipline and who I wanted to be. We ended up winning a National Championship and were rated as the number one team in the nation by USA Today. By that time, I had already been racing BMX at a national level and as soon as I graduated high school the natural progression from BMX was mountain biking.
I signed my first contract to race mountain bikes and within a couple years I signed a contract with Specialized bikes. I ended up racing for almost 15 years until I broke my back while racing in 2007.
After your injury, what made you decide to take up high-level competitive sports again? What made you choose the sports you did?
It took me a long time to come to grips with my accident and what I was going to do with my life. After about seven years of not playing a sport or competing I was given a wheelchair tennis lesson for my birthday. Everything changed after that. I started to get my competitive edge back and put everything I had into training. I think the fact that it was tennis and not a sport I played as an able-bodied athlete was important. That way I didn’t compare it to anything prior.
After playing within Canada and Internationally I was introduced to wheelchair basketball and realized quickly that I missed the team sport aspect. In 2017, I switched sports. I was feeling it was a bit of gamble to have time to learn the game and make a Paralympic team, but I also knew how to play basketball which gave me a leg up.
What did you choose the wheelchair you did? What were you looking for in a chair and how did the one you chose meet your needs?
I was looking for a new chair and a friend of mine had just bought a Panthera. He’s one of those guys that does tons of research, so he gave me the lowdown on how amazingly light it was and how easy they were to deal with. From there, I did some of my own research and was able to try one out.
The weight of it was incredible. Without the wheels it’s 4.6lbs! I wanted a chair that would save my shoulders especially with the number of transfers I make in and out of the car every day. I wanted to also be able to count on the durability. I’ve now had my Panthera X for seven years and it’s been a dream.
How do high-level athletes like you use their wheelchairs in a different way than the average user?
Maybe as athletes we have a tendency to bounce down stairs more and maybe push the limits of the chair a bit. But as long as you’re transferring into vehicles, flying for personal or business trips, and doing a lot of pushing, we’re all in the same boat.
How do you take care of your chair?
The maintenance on this chair is so minimal which I love. I clean it with warm water and soap and clean the castors, but that’s about it.
What motivates you to play sports at a high level?
It used to be all about winning. Everything revolved around that. Not that winning doesn’t matter because I don’t put in all the hours of training to be nonchalant about a gold medal, but I think with age I’ve realized that it’s more about the journey, the process of it all, and having connections with people.
What does your average day and workout routine look like?
I train five days a week for about four hours a day. During COVID times my on-court practice times are now from 10:30–12:30pm and then I do a lift from 1:30–3:30pm.
What are your future goals in your sport and how do you work ahead to them?
Great question. I think some of that rests on whether the Paralympics will go ahead in Summer of 2021. If I do make it to Tokyo 2021, I may retire after that and look to possibly coaching. If they don’t go ahead well then, it’s only another three years instead of four to Paris 2024. It also depends on my body and if I’m still loving it. As of today, I do love it and am extremely motivated, but that could change. Everything is one day at a time.
What advice and encouragement would you have for others in terms of getting into wheelchair sports?
I would say to get in touch with your local wheelchair sports association and see what sports they have to offer — and then I would try them all out. You may think that you’ll love one sport, but that it’s so different in a chair than from able-bodied sports. I would also find your local community of people because they are an amazing resource!