Chile’s Tamara Leonelli said her experience at the 2019 Parapan American Games was the best feeling ever. But she might have to take back that statement after the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.
The 22-year-old Para table tennis athlete qualified for her first Paralympic Games after winning her category in August’s Parapan Ams in Lima, Peru, which were the final regional championships of the year that offered qualifying spots for Tokyo 2020.
“Qualifying for the Paralympic Games had been my biggest goal since I started playing,” she said. “It was the best sensation I have ever felt in my life, it is certainly going to be something that will remain forever in my mind and in my heart.”
Growing up in the south of Chile, Leonelli tried various sports including swimming, athletics and wheelchair basketball. Discovering Para table tennis in 2013 led her to compete at the international level within one year, win gold medals in junior competition within two, and claim her first Parapan American title within four.
She held on to that title at the 2019 Parapan American Games in Lima in August, and had the honour of also being the first gold medallist of the entire Games.
“I certainly enjoyed playing a lot,” she recalled. “It was a very beautiful moment.
“It is certainly an incredible experience, giving Chile the first medal [of Lima 2019] was exciting too! Representing my flag abroad is a special emotion.”
Leonelli's decision to pursue a sporting career in table tennis was helped by her passion for the sport.
Without passion, Leonelli probably would not be able to manage studying for a university degree at the same time, while living a 10-hour bus ride from your hometown and family.
“Because I fell in love with the sport I do, I am very happy doing table tennis! I love to train, set goals and work to achieve them. And I have a great technical team, which make things easier and better.
“I became a professional athlete because it is what I am passionate about, it is an honour for me to be able to perform table tennis at this level. I hope to improve every day.”
When she began to compete internationally, she moved to Santiago to be closer to training facilities. For the first two years, she lived with other athletes at the training centre.
A bronze medal at the Para Pan American Games 2015 offered an opportunity to live at the High-Performance Centre in Santiago, and sponsorship from a Chilean bus company allows her to visit her family for a weekend once a month.
She balances her university studies in psychology with a schedule that involves a minimum of five hours daily technical and physical training, with extra sessions with a personal trainer.
For other young, aspiring athletes, she has this advice: “Seek your passion, search intensely for what you want and work hard to achieve it.”