A table tennis program for people with disabilities has shaped the lives of two of Vanuatu’s top athletes in very different ways.
Olympian and London 2012 flag bearer Anolyn Lulu has found new meaning in the sport through her involvement, while Randy Ben discovered para table tennis as a participant in the program and is now representing his country.
Anolyn Lulu can’t hold back the tears when asked about the upcoming Pacific Mini Games in Port Vila in December. Having represented her country in table tennis for nearly two decades in far-flung corners of the globe where most people have never heard of Vanuatu, the opportunity to play on home soil this year is one she never thought would come.
"I will feel so proud to perform in front of my people," she says.
"I have represented Vanuatu since the 1999 Pacific Games, and I always have these tears of joy when I see my flag flying and I’m on the podium. But, this year, I get to do it at home in front of my parents, my family, and especially my two kids. I’m not sure if this will be my first and last performance at home, but these are tears of joy for me."
While Anolyn is a household name in Vanuatu and the wider Pacific for her sporting achievements, in recent years her focus has broadened.
Since 2014 she has been working with Smash Down Barriers, a community table tennis program for people with disabilities supported by Table Tennis Australia and Oceania Table Tennis Federation through the Australian Government’s Pacific Sports Partnerships.
The program runs regular sessions at the Wan Smol Bag community centre in Port Vila, and has succeeded in introducing more people with disabilities to the sport, while encouraging greater inclusivity in the community.
"Working on this program has changed my perspective on table tennis. Before, I saw table tennis as just something I played, but now I see the bigger picture of sport beyond the field of play," Anolyn says.
"I have learnt a lot working with people of different abilities because I never realised how much potential they have. Seeing them play and do the same things that we able-bodied people can do is amazing. I hope more people with disabilities in Vanuatu come out and participate in table tennis, because I believe everyone has the potential within them."
For one Smash Down Barriers participant under Anolyn’s watch, potential has become a new career path.
Randy Ben took part in one of the program’s first table tennis sessions in 2014, and caught her attention.
"At that time Randy wasn’t playing the sport but you could see that he had the skills, so I started building a relationship with him as we continued our table tennis program at Wan Smol Bag," Anolyn explains.
"The following year was the Pacific Games and table tennis, along with athletics, was included as a para sport. Vanuatu had never been involved in para table tennis before, so we were lucky that Smash Down Barriers had started the program the year before, because that helped us identify Randy as one of our potential players."
Randy became Vanuatu’s first para table tennis athlete.
"I liked table tennis because I enjoyed playing it with the kids at Wan Smol Bag, but now I spend most of my time training seriously with the national team," Randy says.
Since making his debut at the 2015 Pacific Games in Papua New Guinea, Randy has represented Vanuatu at two Oceania para table tennis events in Fiji but, like Anolyn, believes playing at home will be his biggest highlight.
And beyond the guaranteed crowd support, it is hoped that Vanuatu’s first hosting of a major regional para table tennis event will have a bigger impact.
"I think that with Randy participating in the Mini Games here, it will be an opportunity to showcase our sport and show that people with disabilities can participate in sports. They shouldn’t stay at home behind locked doors or in the back yard, they have the right to come out and play. I think it will be a big opportunity for us in Vanuatu to show everyone that people with disabilities have the right to play sport," Anolyn says.
This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnerships funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
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