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Table tennis trailblazer delivers disability dare

A woman in a wheelchair plays table tennis
Paralympian Mere Roden has issued a challenge to other people in the Pacific living with disabilities.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

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Fijian Paralympian Mere Roden has had her life transformed by recent success and redefined how disability is perceived in her country. The table tennis pioneer has uncovered a world of possibilities in the process and has now issued a challenge to other people with a disability.

Mere Roden is a bona fide celebrity.

Constantly greeted by name, she can't go more than a few metres before someone wants to engage her in conversation or "have a hit". She's teased by passers-by that she is a favourite of the paparazzi and her mobile phone buzzes constantly.

Fame is inevitable when you are the Fiji Sportswoman of the Year, the flag bearer at the Rio Paralympics and a Pacific Games gold medallist.

A woman in a wheelchair plays table tennis
Mere believes there is untapped potential among people with disabilities across the Pacific.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

But it is truly astonishing that this Fijian woman in a wheelchair, who only discovered her talent three years ago, has risen to such dizzying heights. She acknowledges it has required a momentous shift in thinking across Fijian society in order to celebrate disability so enthusiastically.

"That's one lifetime achievement, I would say," she says.

"Why should we be looking down at ourselves? Why should disability be a barrier?

The Paralympic experience has clearly affected Mere. Her eyes dance when she recalls Rio.

"I was thinking 'Oh my gosh, this is real'."

A woman (left) and man (right), both in wheelchairs, engage in conversation in a sports centre.
Mere chats with Australian team member Caleb Crowden at the Oceania Championships in Suva.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

But with reflection has come a new revelation.

The diversity and magnitude of the Paralympics has convinced Mere that more Fijians with a disability are capable of making the leap.

"Seeing every other person with disabilities, other impairments, those that we here in Fiji might not even believe could participate.

"I only wish that there were many other colleagues of mine there. So maybe, they might make a change in the way they look at things over here."

It was a Thursday night less than three years ago that Mere honoured a promise to a friend and turned up to the Australian Aid-supported Smash Down Barriers Table Tennis program. She was tempted to renege on the commitment, but the decision to go sent her life on an unimaginable new trajectory. She is challenging others to be similarly brave.

"It is not because of my device that I cannot be a part of what is happening out there. I have proved that," she says.

"So any other person with a disability, maybe even worse than my condition could still be something, provided they come in and be a part of what's happening."

A woman sitting in a wheelchair by a white brick wall smiles at the camera.
Mere has ambitions of representing Fiji at the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

That "something" may not necessarily be table tennis, or even sport. As President of the Spinal Injury Association of Fiji, Mere is exposed to opportunities now available to people with disability and wants to be the example of what embracing your own disability can do.

"I'd be happy to see that what I am doing is going to inspire others and motivate them in some ways to become better, to be a part of a sport or whatever is happening in the community.

"As long as they take part, open up their mind and be part of what's happening because we people with disabilities here in Fiji, we strongly want to be included in everything that's happening.

"When the opportunity arises, tap it. Be a part of it."

A woman in a wheelchair writes on a piece of paper attached to a clipboard.
Mere has become a celebrity.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

With her 50th birthday approaching later this year, Mere is focussed on being selected for the Pacific Mini Games in Vanuatu and ultimately the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. But 11 years after damaged nerves in her spine forced her into a wheelchair, she has fresh hope she will one day stand at a table tennis table.

"Sensation is coming back.

"There's been some good changes and I'm happy.

"I keep thinking that maybe one day I will stand.

"As long as I am able to be a part of what's happening, travelling, living and breathing, that's fine with me."

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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