18 Dec 2019

A nominee for the "Female Para Star" at the recent ITTF Awards evening, class 5 Para athlete, Chile's Tamara Leonelli has her eyes set on the ultimate prize.

Earlier this year in August, the 22 year old emerged successful at the Lima 2019 Para Panamerican Games and thus booked her place in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

by Kabir Nagpal

Born in Temuco, in the south of Chile in 1997, Leonelli has “spina bifida”, a spinal condition which affects the mobility of lower limbs.

She entered a children’s rehabilitation centre near her home, where she started to practise different sports to build strength in her body; these included swimming, athletics and basketball. Over time, she found herself drawn to another sport not in her regular activities; that’s when the story began.

A love for table tennis

In 2013, she came across table tennis, it felt like she had reached her calling. She started to attend national competitions, her mind was made up on sticking with a sport which is now her passion.

Coached by Cristian Carrasco in Santiago, her perception was that table tennis could become a profession. Soon enough, in official competitions, she began to reach the echelons of the sport.

“I tried other sports but table tennis hooked me from the very beginning. My coach Cristian played a key role in my initial days when I was a beginner, he taught me to love this sport” Tamara Leonelli

This led to her moving to Santiago later in the year, where she lived for two more years to train professionally at a centre where she now shares a bunk-bed room with other athletes.

“Tamara shows incredible resilience. She had to start using a wheelchair at the age of 13 and she did not give up. Not everybody is willing to leave their hometown and move to a big capital like Santiago to pursue their dream but she did.” Christian Carrasco

No joy ride

In 2015, having secured the bronze medal at Para Panamerican Games in Toronto, she moved into the hotel at the High Performance Centre in Santiago. This was shortly followed by her receiving sponsorship from a local bus company which then allowed her to visit her family once a weekend every month.

However, it was not a joy ride for the Chilean parathlete. The 10 hour bus ride from Santiago to her home town every month came after spending an increasing number of hours at the training centre. It reached to nearly 30 hours per week in 2018, involving both physical and technical training.

Hours of work to Tokyo

This year however, she reduced her training hours after retaking her university studies in psychology – she wants to specialise in education for people with special needs.

The year 2019 has been a momentous year for Tamara Leonelli, her country celebrated her win at the Para Panamerican Games, the first gold on offer. In Lima, to achieve gold, she accounted for Brazil’s Raiza da Silva (11-9, 11-7, 11-6), before overcoming Argentina’s Nayda Kuell (11-4, 11-13, 11-6, 3-11, 11-3) and Colombia’s Nelly Sanchez (11-7, 11-3, 12-10).

The Chilean Team in Ostrava (standing left to right) Marco Kokaly, Francisco Carrasco, Cristian Carrasco, Matias Pino, Felipe Olivares (sitting left to right) Luis Flores, Tamara Leonelli, Cristian Gonzalez (Photo: Lucie Simperova)
Exceeded Toronto

Thus Tamara Leonelli exceeded her efforts of four years earlier when the multi-sport event had been held in Toronto and matched her efforts of two years prior at the 2017 Para Pan American Championships staged in the Costa Rican capital city of San José.

On the latter occasion, once again in a group organised competition, Tamara Leonelli had finished ahead of Nadia Kuell and Nelly Sanchez; in Lima the top three places were exactly the same.

“Winning a medal here and qualifying for Tokyo 2020 is a dream come true, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so excited. I’m overjoyed.” Tamara Leonelli

She was one of four gold medallists from Chile, which finished second in the medals table with 13 in total.

It is her story in that timeline which brought her the nomination for “Female Para Athlete” at the 2019 ITTF Awards – a sign of her already inspiring the youngest stars of table tennis, at such a tender age herself.

Paralympics Para Table Tennis Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games Tamara Leonelli

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