What do mountain biking and basketball have in common? Most notably, Tara Llanes. She was one of the winningest women in dual slalom, four-cross and downhill racing during mountain biking’s formative years, in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Then, when a spinal-cord injury paralyzed her from the waist down in 2007, she went on to become one of the biggest champions of adaptive riding, helping propel the development of adaptive trails and bicycles through her company Tara Llanes Industries. She also moved from her native California to Canada, and started playing wheelchair basketball.
This past September she returned from the Paralympics in Tokyo, Japan, where the dizzying experience of representing her adopted country, in a team sport during a global pandemic, became just one more milestone in a competitive career full of twists. And while mountain biking may seem miles removed from basketball, for Llanes, it was all part of a continuum of sport that’s kept her grounded and focused since her injury.
In the first years, there was no such thing as competitive adaptive mountain biking (though there is now), and Llanes had found hand-cycle racing uncomfortable and unpleasant. Instead, she poured her energy into innovating trails and bikes, and took that mission with her to British Columbia, when she moved to be with her then-partner, Canadian pro rider Elladee Brown. From there, Llanes worked as a consultant on many of the adaptive mountain bike amenities that have popped up in the province since. During that time, she was otherwise hesitant to get into wheelchair sports, but she eventually did.
“In the beginning, I guess I just didn’t want to immerse myself in that world because then it actually meant I was in a chair. But when I did that, and I started playing tennis, it was one of the most amazing things that I could have ever done. Because all of those people that I met playing that sport were so helpful in my recovery—just trying to just get back into daily life, and knowing that they had gone through all of the same things that I was now going through.”
Some of those tennis players had been on Team Canada for wheelchair basketball, too. They suggested cross-training in both sports could make Llanes faster on the tennis court. She gave it a try, and the team element of basketball ended up winning her over. She soon became good enough to garner some high-profile attention.
“I would have coaches that I played either for or against at a tournament say, ‘Hey, have you thought about trying out for the national team?’ I was lucky enough that one of the former national wheelchair basketball assistant coaches was here in in B.C., and he took me on. We trained for about three months before selection camp, and I made the team in 2018. So it was a bit of a whirlwind. I was just like, ‘Oh my god, I’m on the national team. This is amazing!’”
Since then, wheelchair basketball has taken up most of her time, as one would expect with Paralympic-level performance. She still gets out on the trails, and still runs her business selling adaptive bikes, but her taste of the Paralympics has only amplified her tenor on the basketball court. Especially since the Covid protocols were so tense in Tokyo, she felt like she didn’t actually get to go to the real event. The athlete village and arenas were empty, there was no mixing between teams, and all of Team Canada was bubbled. It all felt hygienically sealed to her.
“There were just so many things about it that I was like, ‘God, this is not the full experience of what I had envisioned.’ So that was super hard,” she recalls.
To boot, though it was still a great placement, Team Canada finished fifth, which Llanes felt was an underrepresentation of its true ability. “If you look at the talent we have on our team, we absolutely should have been [in the gold medal game],” she says. “But we got beat by the States.”
It’s notable that in B.C., lockdown protocols hadn’t allowed for indoor gatherings, so Llanes had to practice on her own while the rest of her team mostly trained together in Toronto, Ontario. That said, she feels the team was still cohesive and sharp by the time the Games came around, it just didn’t come together on the court. For that reason, she wants another go at it, and now has her sights set on Paris 2024. Given that she’ll be 48 at that point, it’s all the more impressive.
“I definitely bring the average age on our team up by a considerable amount,” she says laughing. “I think that there are opportunities for older athletes to be able to compete at the Paralympics. You know, a lot of it ends up being about your skill level and how many years you’ve played. I mean, it takes a lot of years to really know how to play the game well, and how to release, and things like that.”
If experience is indeed the essence of success, there are plenty more years of boundary-breaking left for this athlete, and we’ll be watching closely.