Interview: Tara Llanes on Reinventing Herself As a Wheelchair Basketball Paralympian

Mar 27, 2024
by Alicia Leggett  
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Art by Taj Mihelich.

Tara Llanes has been wildly accomplished at the high levels of multiple sports - BMX, MTB, and wheelchair basketball, not to mention wheelchair tennis - and she also has a whole lot more life experience to share. In 2007, in what she thought was her second-to-last race before retiring from her career as a mountain biker, a devastating crash changed things for her.

She spent the next several years going through intense processing, a move to Canada, some serious mental low points, a growing interest in tennis, and much more before she found herself on the basketball court to improve her speed as a wheelchair tennis player. Wheelchair basketball stuck. Tara clearly knows how to train hard, and that continues to take her far. She's now preparing for her second Paralympics, this one in Paris, and plans to then step away from high-level competition - retiring the right way this time.

Brian and I sat down with Tara in Vancouver, where she lives, to talk about that whole process. While we imagined this episode would end up the same length as most of our podcast episodes, we just kept finding more conversation. Tara is clearly smart, capable, an incredible athlete, and seriously strong as a person, and we were glad for every minute she spent with us.

Find also the interview transcript highlights below. I edited them and took out a lot from the original 38 pages, but anyone who reads them should still make a cup of coffee and prepare to settle in for a good read. Still, I recommend the unabridged audio for anyone who wants the full version.

This interview is the latest in my series Rebuilt, in which I interview people who have gone through life-changing injuries to learn about what happens next. Find the previous Rebuilt interviews here.

Please enjoy and let us know what you think in the comments.


Featuring a rotating cast of the editorial team and other guests, the Pinkbike podcast is a weekly update on all the latest stories from around the world of mountain biking, as well as some frank discussion about tech, racing, and everything in between.

Subscribe to the podcast via your preferred service (Apple, Spotify, RSS, Megaphone, etc.), or visit the Pinkbike Podcast tag page for the complete list of episodes.


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Tara Llanes: an absolute force.

Transcript highlights:

Alicia: We’re here today with Tara Llanes, who is someone who has made it to the top of actually multiple sports, so we're curious to hear how that happened, both in biking and then later in wheelchair basketball.

I'm here with Tara and Brian Park to learn more about the whole process, how she got into BMX racing, how that transitioned into mountain biking, and then losing all of that and reinventing herself as an athlete, but this time without the use of her legs. Tara, how did you originally fall in love with biking?

Tara: Oh God, I don't know. When I was little, I was 12 years old, 11, 12 years old, and I grew up in Southern California and BMX was huge at the time. My mom and I used to drive by this BMX track and it was just off the side of the freeway. It was Orange Y BMX, which should have been a historical landmark of BMX. I just convinced my mom to take me and I'd never done any sport like that. I was always into ball and stick kind of sport, hoop ball sport. I don't know what you call it, but more traditional. So anyway, we went.

I just watched that first night. A week later I went and had this clunky bike and probably weighed like 75 pounds and had all the gear, and I raced. That was it. I started racing from there and I was absolutely hooked.

Brian: How did it compare in terms of individual sport versus team sport?

Tara: You're not having to deal with other kids, I guess, other emotions, all the things. It was just me and I only had to worry about me and how hard I wanted to train or work on my skills, whether it was like jumping a set of doubles or manualing or something like that.

Alicia: Yeah, I think all of us sort of probably fell into mountain biking for sort of similar reasons or biking in general. How did BMX transition into mountain biking for you?

Tara: Well, I raced BMX for years and then…

Brian: You're downplaying that just a little, just a little bit. You were quite a high-level BMXer.

Tara: I mean, I did pretty good. I raced in BMX and was in the top 10 nationally for years. I raced cruiser and 20-inch and was on some pretty big teams, which was great. Then, I was about 17 and a senior in high school and mountain biking was really starting to blow up. It was getting big and almost straight out of the gate. It almost went from like this super hippie sport to where thousands and thousands of people were camping out in their VW vans. It was huge, but it was intimate. That's how I felt anyway. All these BMXers were being coaxed over to race mountain bikes, especially dual slalom at the time. I just happened to be kind of on the tail end of that, I guess, because before me, it was Mike King and Leigh Donovan and Eric Carter and Billy Griggs and, you know, all these racers and obviously John Tomac was a BMXer, right? I was racing for Haro at the time, and they wanted me to go to a race and then I said, "Well, get me a mountain bike and, and I'll go to a race."

Sea Otter Classic Monterey California 12th -15th April 2007. Photo by Sven Martin
Speedy and stylish at the 2007 Sea Otter Classic. Photo: Sven Martin

Brian: I think we forget, Alicia, just how big mountain bike racing was in the US and how big of a scene there was at the time.

Alicia: To be honest, this was around the time I was born. You could say technically that I forgot, but also I was an infant, so it wasn't super on my radar.

Tara: Oh my God, this is rough right now. I feel like I need to go get my hair colored again right now. This is hard. Mountain biking in the US was absolutely nuts. It was sort of the World Cup of racing. The NORBA off-road series was the premier series. All the Europeans would come over and race the US series. And at the time US racers were at the top of the game. I mean, US and French, I would say.

Brian: When you were racing professionally, what was your advantage over your competitors?

Tara: I can tell you where I didn't win. It was the mental. I knew it, my competitors knew it. I was never overly aggressive when I was racing. Like if I was racing dual, I was never that person that was gonna come give you an elbow. I always wanted to be a fair, clean racer. But that didn't really do me any favors. I think my advantage probably was being able to hit some of the jumps. You know, like I was always going to hit the jumps and sure, I'd be nervous sometimes, but I feel like a lot of times people would kind of look to see, "Well, has Tara jumped it yet?" But that was always followed by me saying, "Well, has Katrina jumped it yet?"

Hideyuki Suzuki
A pair of national champions. Photo: Hideyuki Suzuki

Alicia: Did your BMX background gave you a bikehandling advantage?

Tara: Oh, for sure. I think BMX gave all the BMXers a bikehandling advantage. When you're racing a 20-inch bike it's super twitchy and then you get on a mountain bike, you're like, “Oh my God, this is like a limo.” You can kind of f*ck up and still be a little bit okay. Whereas a BMX bike, that's it, lights out.

Brian: BMX is pretty binary like that. It's like on or off. When I see BMX these days, my mind is blown what they can do on those little tiny bikes.

Alicia: So looking back at that whole career, what was it like to grow into your own and hit your mountain biking heyday kind of when mountain biking itself hit its heyday?

Tara: Honestly, it was just luck. It was dumb luck that I was the age that I was, that I was racing BMX, and that BMXers were getting into mountain biking. I look back on that and thank my lucky stars really. I was 20 when I signed with Specialized and riding for one of the biggest teams in the world at the time making good money and having somebody else fly me around the world. I was like “What dream world am I in right now? This is nuts.” I remember my mom wanted me to go because I had offers to play basketball in college at D1 schools in the States. I played high school basketball at a pretty high level and then I had offers and my mom thought I'd lost my ever-loving mind. I said, “No, I'm going to go race mountain bikes.” She's like, “You're going to do what? You're not going to go to school on a full ride? What?” I was like, “No, it's in my gut. This is what I want to do.” And then I signed that contract and you know, it's my mom. I don't think either of us could have thought it would have turned out the way that it did.

bigquotesHonestly, it was just luck. It was dumb luck that I was the age that I was, that I was racing BMX, and that BMXers were getting into mountain biking. I look back on that and thank my lucky stars really.

Brian: And now you play basketball too. But a few things happened in the middle between those things. So let's talk about it.

Alicia: What is it like to look back on your riding career that had such incredible highlights and then also balance that with the loss that followed?

Tara: Well, if you had asked me this right after I got hurt, probably five years after I got hurt, it would be a different answer because I was really pissed off and I was really angry. But I'm in a totally different place in my life now. When I first got hurt, my mom would tell me she'd be in the hospital with me and she'd say, “You know, everything happens for a reason, honey.” Now’s not the time, mom. I think all of us have cringed hard hearing that. I was just not in the right headspace to hear that.

And now I can look back and reflect on that and say, “Yeah, you're right. Everything does happen for a reason.” Would I change what happened? Probably not. I mean, it’s a pain in the ass. There's things about it, about being in a chair that are really hard and that suck, but this is the path that I'm on. I feel like I've still been able to do really, really good things. I'm really in a place in my life where I'm super happy.

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Tara got hurt and hard times followed. Still, she was eventually able to move forward. Photo: Anne Keller

Alicia: I like the perspective too of not thinking through like the alternate realities of what if just because that isn't how it all played out and so there's no use going down the track of how it would have been. Could you tell us the story of the day that you got hurt?

Tara: It was toward the end of the season. It was 2007, September 1st, and there was this series that we used to have and I think it went for three or four years, maybe five, I don't know. It was called the Jeep King of the Mountain series. It was like a mix of dual slalom, mountain cross and downhill all in one event. There was a red course and a blue course. You'd each start on your own gate. You'd come out, you'd be on your own course for like five gates and then you'd join the course. And then you were kind of banging bars. And it was downhill.

It wasn't just a mountain cross, it was kind of downhill-ish with big jumps. It's very made-for-TV. We had this race and it was invite-only. Everybody that was there was going to fly out on the Monday to Scotland, ‘cause it was World Champs at Fort William. And then that was going to be my last race, Fort William. I was gonna call it professionally. I’d still race for fun, but I was gonna call it professionally. So anyway, so I had qualified fastest and was feeling really good. There was a section in the middle of the course that was pretty decent sized jumps. There were three doubles in a row, and they're all a little bit different, like the steepness of the takeoff is a little bit different on each of them. You came into it going pretty fast. I think I went through my first heat and then I think my second heat was against Jill Kintner, who's a boss, right? Her mental is incredible. When she gets in the gate, she's like, “I know I'm gonna win.”

Anytime you raced Jill, you're like, "Oh, f*ck, here we go." So I needed a screw-up. But anyway. I guess I should preface this by saying, getting into the latter part of my career, probably the last two, three years, I had started to have a fear of getting hurt and not just getting hurt, but specifically like breaking my back. Every time I'd go to race, I'd say, you know, “I'm sure everybody kind of thinks about that kind of stuff.” So just kind of brush it off.

bigquotesGetting into the latter part of my career, probably the last two, three years, I had started to have a fear of getting hurt and not just getting hurt, but specifically like breaking my back.

But it was still something that was in my mind. So anyway, I'm at the race and I'm starting to feel like I've had a premonition. I got in the gate, I was getting ready. With this event, because it was a made-for-TV event, they'd say “Red course ready, blue course ready, racers ready.” And then the gates would open and so you just had to be ready. I’m in the gate and I'm trying to get my pedals sorted and trying to get my goggles ready in my helmet, but nothing felt right. I couldn't get my pedal in the right spot and my goggles didn't feel like they were sitting in my helmet. Something felt really off. So then they say, “Blue course ready, red course ready.” And then the next thing I know, gates open and we're going and Jill's like whooping my ass. I mean, she's like almost a whole turn in front of me. I'm just all over the place. I can't focus. So then I come around to this turn and the way that it works is like old school dual slalom. You get two tries, right? So we go down, there's a set limit. If Jill beat me by 0.5, then we go up, we switch courses and then if I beat her by 0.51, then I move on. So I'm coming around this turn, and I'm having this dialogue in my head about whether I should jump those doubles that are coming up. In my head, I'm like, “I can't just give up because she might crash.” She still had like two turns to go. I wanted to be able to have that option.

But I also knew something in my gut didn't feel right. The next thing I know, so there was a roller coming into the first lip and you just like picked up over it to get more speed and I just bobbled it. I just f*cked it up. I think what happened was I just caught my front wheel when I lifted up on the tip and then it just launched me just head first into the lip of where I was supposed to take off.

My body had nowhere to go. I had all that speed and my body had nowhere to go. I'm clipped in. So then my feet come up over. The initial hit broke my neck and the scorpion broke my low back.

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From a high high to a low low, so quickly. Not long before, Tara was featured in a magazine to sell bikes, among her many other riding accolades.

So I roll back down the face of the jump and I'm just sort of laying there and it was hot. It was in Colorado, it was in Vail. It was hot out and I just remember I was baking in the sun. The ambulance was like 50 feet away, so they were there in seconds. They came over and you know, I was super stunned. I think for maybe a few seconds, I didn't think it was gonna be that bad. But I knew that when I was rolling back down the face of the jump, my legs were just sort of flopping, like they were connected to me, but they weren't. I could feel them, but I kinda couldn't, not in the same way. So then I came to a stop and then medics came over and then Bryn was there.

The paramedics were there and they're asking me questions and I was like, “Man, can someone get that log out from under my back?” And then I'm looking at them and they're looking at me, like, “The f*ck is she talking about?” There was nothing under my back. It just felt like my body was disconnected. So I was like, “Well, this isn't good.”

And then I remember looking up at Bryn freaking out. I'm like, “Man, you got to tell me I'm going to ride my bike again. I gotta ride my bike again. I gotta walk again.” Like all of these things I was just losing. I probably scared the shit out of him because he still had to go up and race. Then they put me in the ambulance and they asked me if I could feel my toes and I couldn't, so I kind of knew from there, “This is going to be quite the road.”

Anne Keller
The strength is real. Photo: Anne Keller

Alicia: Did you realize right then that you probably weren't gonna walk again, things would be different going forward?

Tara: I don't know. I don't know if I can answer that. I think I knew I was really f*cked up. I knew it was gonna be something. But also in the back of my head, I thought people didn't know how determined I am. So that's where my head was at too. But then the pain really hit.

Then I was just through the roof. They put me in the ambulance, took me to the local hospital, did some scans, and then I just kept, like, waking up. I would wake up and see the roof of an ambulance, and then I'd go back to sleep, and then I'd wake up in, like, an MRI, and then I'd wake up, and they were putting me in a helicopter to take me down to Denver, and then I woke up one more time, and I was being wheeled into surgery.

Brian: Did they do a surgery for your neck too or just your back?

Tara: No, just stuck a neck brace on and crossed some fingers, I guess. I mean, my neck, I broke it, but it wasn't as bad as my back. I was really lucky that my neck healed. Very, very lucky. They just took me into surgery and it was like a seven hour surgery and they put a couple rods in my back, which are still there.

Alicia: What were the main feelings you were feeling coming out of that trying to recover? Did you still want to try to go back to mountain biking or pursuing a sport at that point?

Tara: I mean, yeah, at the time I thought I was gonna walk out of that hospital. I thought, "I'm determined, I know how to train, I know how to work hard and I'm gonna bust my ass. So anything that they tell me to do, I'm gonna do it 10 times harder." And I thought that that was what it was gonna take, which was so incorrect.

Alicia: It must be hard, because sometimes people do get paralyzed and come back from it and sometimes it's permanent and you just probably don't have a way of knowing for sure.

Tara: You know, it's hard because on the one hand, I think it's good because you have this hope, right? And for me in the hospital, that's what got me through rehab, the hope that I was gonna walk out of there. If I didn't have that, I would have been an absolute disaster, right? More than I was. So on the one hand, I'm kind of like, yeah, that's great, have that. But at the same time, that's not generally a realistic thing that's gonna happen, for most people that have broken their back or their neck.

bigquotesIt's hard because on the one hand, I think it's good because you have this hope, right? And for me in the hospital, that's what got me through rehab, the hope that I was gonna walk out of there.

Brian: I feel like with every injury there's a range of outcomes that are available to you based on how hard you work, the type of rehab you get, the type of care you get, etc. And a lot of attention gets paid to the stories where the top of that range is a full recovery or close to it.

There's a super dark Onion article headline where it's like, “Doctors Told Me I Would Never Walk Again and I Commend Them On Their Spot-On Diagnosis.” You know, you don't hear that message a lot and it must be—I guess I'm putting words in your mouth here, but I could imagine it being frustrating when the general public sees it as purely a mind over matter or purely a determination thing when sometimes it's just a f*cking mechanical thing.

Tara: Sometimes it's just a f*cking miracle, man. The doctor said to me, right after I had my surgery within the first week, the doctor came in and his bedside manner was shit, but you know, and he just said, “You're never going to walk again.”

So yeah, it is interesting when you see those stories because I think people latch onto those and it's great for those people that it happens to. It's amazing. But for the majority of people, that's not what happens.

Anne Keller
Tara worked hard through rehab and did all the right things, but it would become clear over time that the wheelchair is here to stay. Photo: Anne Keller

Brian: Even though they work super hard and do all the right things.

Alicia: It's so interesting to me when recovery from anything like that gets treated as a matter of hard work and determination when in reality, that's just not how it goes at all or barely at all. And it just seems like such a huge misconception when people are like, “You just got to work hard and suddenly you're walking again.”

Brian: After your accident, how long did it take before you started thinking about sport?

Tara: So actually while I was in the hospital, right away I was wanting to get back on a mountain bike. I kept thinking about how I was going to be able to do that in the interim of me getting my legs back and getting on a two wheel bike.

Friends, they got me into hand cycling. I think they just did it because they didn't want me to be depressed and just sitting at home once I got home. I get why they were pushing me in that direction, but I hated it. I don't like hand cycling at all.

Hand cycling, the crank in front of you. You're practically laying down, and there's just nothing about it that's enjoyable. You're kind of a passenger on the thing. You're just turning a crank. It’s all upper body. It's hard. The best of the best are really, really good at it. They're really strong. I just knew it wasn't for me, but I did it anyway. I started training. I went down to the US Olympic Training Center in San Diego and went to a training camp and ended up going to Nationals that next year and won the national championship, which was great. And then I quit pretty much right after that.

Brian: This time she retired proper.

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Hand cycling on the road wasn't her thing, but she's explored the mountain bike side of adaptive riding and found some real enjoyment, particularly in now distributing very capable adaptive mountain bikes to help others in similar situations.

Tara: Then I didn't do anything. I didn't compete or play any sort of sport for probably another five years. In those years, I had just moved to BC. I got married. I fell into an extremely deep depression. I had lived in California my whole life and then I moved up here and the only person I knew was my wife. I basically removed myself from my entire support crew down in the States. It left me feeling really lost, really empty. I didn't know what my direction was. My identity, I had no idea what that was.

I’d been given bottles of prescription meds. That took a pretty deep turn for about five years for me. It was a place I never thought I'd be. I was always that athlete, that was what came first with sport. I never did drugs. I never drank. I was like that daughter that you wanted. And then, you throw a really tragic accident into someone's life and remove them from their whole support crew, which was my decision. It was hard. It was really hard and it was hard on [Elodie, her ex-wife].

But about five years later, she got me a wheelchair tennis lesson, which is wild, because I never played tennis, which by the way is the hardest f*cking sport ever. Like mountain biking's hard, but try tennis. I started playing tennis and then made the national team and focused on that. That's what catapulted me into basketball, that's how it all came full circle.

Alicia: Wow, how did that happen?

Tara: I wanted to get faster on the tennis court. One of the guys that I used to train with, he used to play on the senior men's national team for basketball and won like three gold medals. He was like, “Well, hey, if you want to get faster on the tennis court, you should play some basketball. You'll see how to push better.” So then I started going to some basketball practices and thought, “Hey, this is, this is kind of cool. I kind of miss team sport. I haven't played team sport since high school." I started to really enjoy it. Then I saw a chance for me to really put my head down and focus on that and try to make a Paralympic team.

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Not an easy transition from one to the other, but a transition Tara has definitely pulled off. Photo 2: Alana Paterson

Alicia: How did getting into that change the emotional tone of your life?

Tara: Wheelchair basketball has been amazing for me in my life. I wanted to always be at the highest level. I was always a person that if I couldn't be at the highest level of a sport, this is probably going to sound extremely insensitive, but I was like, “Why the f*ck do it?” It’s just my DNA.

When I got into basketball, my only goal was, “I wanna go to the Paralympics. I wanna play at the height of this sport.” And I think it was just amazing for me because I felt really in my element and being with my teammates and again, feeling like, “Okay, I get to travel around the world, play basketball. Hey, this is pretty great.” It's been a fun wild ride. And just knowing that I have one more Paralympics to go here, hopefully.

Alicia: Do you feel like having trained so hard in biking before and then in tennis transferred over to knowing how to train and knowing how to succeed at a sport later with basketball?

Tara: Yeah, absolutely. One thing I'll say is I have work ethic and I believe in that and I'll go out and do all the things that I need to do plus a little bit more. I feel like I've always been that way. I wasn't worried about being out-trained. I felt like with my experience, life experience and in different sports, that it was going to help serve me when it came to playing basketball. It was just the tactical of wheelchair basketball that was different than stand-up. I had to learn that.

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Today, Tara's relationship with bikes includes some incredible career relics plus the chance to get outside with friends.

Brian: I want to ask you about the industry after your accident. You've kind of had an arm’s length relationship with the bike industry since. How did it react at the time of your accident? And what's your relationship to it now? Your sponsors, the media, the public.

Tara: It was actually incredible. There were different articles that were coming out. The support that I felt was immense. I was so grateful for that because you're just in this place where you're just drowning and some of it is really hard because you don't want people to pity you. I would feel really pissed off about that. But at the same time, people are coming from a good place, it's just this weird sphere of shit that you're in and you're trying to work through all of your feelings around it. I didn't even know how I felt from one day to the next. But knowing that I had that support, well, hands down, one of the hardest times for me was when I left the hospital.

First off, I didn't walk out like I thought I was gonna do. Secondly, I got home and all of a sudden I'm living in this house by myself. It's not like the hospital where everything is totally accessible. I mean, the house I was in was accessible, but life wasn't and now I'm having to navigate that. They do the best that they can do to try to teach you those things when you're in a rehab hospital, but then you get outside and you're like, “Oh my God.”

bigquotesThe house I was in was accessible, but life wasn't... You had all these people around you that were sort of championing you. And then, over time, people go on with their own lives, but you're still going through this massive life change.

I was excited to come home. But at the same time, it was sort of like coming home into nothingness. You had all these people around you that were sort of championing you. And then, over time, people go on with their own lives, but you're still going through this massive life change. The depression, it dove into some crazy depths at that point in time.

I felt the support. I really did. But deep down there was an emptiness going on in deep in my soul, you know, and there was no amount of anything that could really replace that until I just figured out how to work through it.

Brian: Now present day, you've got your eyes set on another Paralympics. And you compete for Canada. Why?

Tara: I live here. I'm a citizen. When I started playing tennis, my goal was to go to the Paralympics with tennis. To be honest, before that, I had never thought about getting my citizenship, not one time. And then Elodie, my ex, was like, “You should really think about getting your citizenship.” And I'm like, “Well, why? What difference does it make?” And then I started playing sport and I wanted to compete and I lived here and I love it here.

There are some things about me, right? I still go by miles. I still go by Fahrenheit. Freedom units. I loved growing up in Orange County, especially at that time. Now it's a bit of a dumpster fire down south, no offense, but come on, let's be real.

Alicia: BMX was pretty huge there for a while, wasn't it?

Tara: BMX was going off in the States. You had tracks everywhere.

Alicia: It really seems like right place, right time.

Tara: Honestly, I feel like my life has been right place, right time. Yes, I broke my neck and I broke my back.

Alicia: Some moments of wrong place, wrong time. But they balance each other out.

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She reached the height of her career in one of mountain biking's most interesting growth periods.

Tara: Some of these kids in mountain biking now, I think they think they're in the best moment of the sport, but they're not. And they will disagree with me and that's fine.

Brian: I think it's inarguable that there was such a crazy period of change in the sport. The pace has slowed for sure. The bikes change more slowly.

Tara: Remember when the magazines would come out? And you're just peeling through every page. You're reading every article, every issue cover-to-cover. It’s a moment in time. Now everything's online, but I mean, there's a part of that that's so special to have had. It's something that's tactile. Back when I was racing, it was different for women. You had just as many women on pro teams as men. Sometimes you'd have three women and two men. In my opinion, it was a more mature sport.

You had people running the sport that were a little older. You had people racing that were a little older. They were the hippie era. A lot of the women that I raced were in their mid to late twenties, which is like ancient probably these days.

Tara: Some of these young guys, right? They're like, “Yeah, we've been doing this for years” and all this shit. Well, women haven't had the same opportunities that you've had either. They did back in the day. We had a lot of women on these pro teams and they were getting paid well. As soon as there’s less money in the sport, the first thing to go are the women. It's a male-dominated sport. Until you start putting your money and your belief in what women can do, it just sets everything back. I'm sure you can feel a little bit of passion in my voice right now.

Brian: I think it's really important for people to realize. I think there's a common refrain that things are always getting better. We have more work to do, but we've done so much as a sport. And it's like, no, let's remember that there was a time when things were better and then they got worse. I do think they are generally getting better now. People are trying to do better things. I think year-over-year, things are getting better, but that's due to hard work and people talking about it and people pushing.

Tara: You can have all these women's events and that's great. I think a lot of women enjoy going out and doing a festival type atmosphere and it's inclusive and it's fun and they just want to have fun. But my view is put more women on race teams, help them get better. When I used to go have camps with Specialized, I was doing runs with like Oscar and David and Kurt and trying my f*cking hardest to keep up with those guys. All these young guys, like, don't be dicks, like go ride with those women. Help them! It grows the sport. Sorry, I didn't mean to call everyone a dick.

Brian: I think very fair. Don't be dicks is a pretty universal message. I'm good with that.

I mean, comparing 2024 versus 2014 say on the World Cup, I think we're probably in a better place in terms of women's racing. But 2014 versus 2004 is awful. What a huge regression. I just think a lot of people who are looking at the sport right now are going like, “Yeah, we're all going in the right direction.” It's probably worth remembering that that's not default. That's hard work.

Alicia: It seems like in the early days, there was more opportunity because everything was sort of grassroots. Everyone was building it up from zero.

Brian: And all the brands were flush.

Alicia: Now there's been just so much establishment in the men's side of things that it seems harder than ever for women to actually break into the high level of the sport.

Brian: I mean, do you think, Tara, that the women's side is in danger of the same thing as the downturn probably caused by 2008? 2008, there was an economic downturn. That's when I think you were saying a lot of the women's, that's the first to go out of the marketing budget, right?

Tara: Yeah, I feel like that's the first to go. I don't know if that's what's going to happen. From what I hear, it's tough in the industry right now, not just for women, for guys too. Got really good guys having trouble finding a ride, probably getting paid with their worth.

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Real success on the court.

Alicia: Going back to you looking forward to your next Paralympics. What is training like for you nowadays?

I'm training three to four days a week. Before Tokyo admittedly, I was five days a week, but I'm a little older now, so the body feels it. It’s pretty tough. So basically what happens is like, this is sort of our off-season from like September to May, but you're still training. For me, I'm the only national team player in BC. I play a team sport, but I'm on court by myself most of the time. Like 95% of the time.

Alicia: So are you doing like solo drills a lot of the time?

Tara: Yeah, and it sucks. The motivation is so hard on a lot of days.

Alicia: That would test the mental game a lot, it seems like.

Tara: It does. I try to mix it up. I push myself as hard as I can push myself, like with chair skills and sprints and those types of things and keep a timer going so I can gauge where I'm at. But it's never the same as being on court with someone else, and being on court five-on-five. A lot of times, like last week, I was at a camp in Toronto with our whole national team. Every time we get to a camp, it's like for the first two days, I'm relearning how to play five-on-five and how to pick and how to, you know, seal the bigs into the key and things like that, because I haven't done it for months. Or at least at that level. And it's fast. So training is hard at home. It's really hard and it's not very motivating. What motivates me is when I'm going to see the national team players again and when we're all going to be on court together again. And then obviously eyes on the prize, which is Paris.

Brian: What's the goal at Paris?

Tara: Well, first, the goal is to qualify for Paris. We'll start there. We had the Para-PanAms in Chile in November and we had to win to punch our ticket to Paris. Only first place qualified and we lost to the US by six points. f*ck me. They're a pretty good team. I got to hand it to them. They're a pain in the ass, but they're a really good team.

Brian: So I mean, that's disappointing, but does that mean losing by a fairly narrow margin to probably one of the favorites? Does that give you a pretty good indication?

Tara: It really does simply because we've also been through three head coaches in 10 months. We're one of the best teams in the world. We're good at it, but we've just lost a little bit of direction with not having a head coach. Because we didn't qualify there, we have to go to a last chance qualifier and that's in April in Osaka. We have to finish top four.

Which we should. It really should be us, Spain, Germany, and either Australia or Japan. Those should be the top four teams that qualify. But we can't show up with our heads up our asses. We have to play good basketball. Those are some good teams. So first qualify. And then we'll have a solid chunk of time with our new head coach. Then we'll have that time to really focus on the things that we need to do better as a team, how to communicate better with each other.

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Tara Llanes Tokyo 2020 - Wheelchair Basketball Basketball en fauteuil roulant. Canada takes on Germany in a women s preliminary game Le Canada affronte le Japon dans un match pr liminaire masculin. 28 08 2021.

Alicia: And then after the Paralympics, what's next for you? That's when you're going to retire potentially.

Tara: Yeah, my body's just - I'm old. I think we've established in this interview that I'm old as dirt. I'm taking my coaching courses right now. I'm just on my level one, just ‘cause I'm really focused on playing, but I'm working on that. My goal right now is to be either a senior women's national team or senior men's national team coach down the line. The next Paralympics after Paris is LA 2028.

Who knows, maybe I'll be on the sidelines coaching at that point. That's one of the things I want to focus on. The other is public speaking. I've been doing more and more of that and just did one with the PGA of BC. It was probably one of my biggest speaking events. I was really stoked with how it turned out, so I want to do more of that.

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Coaching and public speaking are two things Tara would like to do more in the future, and she's already moving in both those directions.

Alicia: It sounds like there's a lot to look forward to no matter how it shapes up.

Tara: Hopefully, Come talk to me in a couple of years and we'll see how it's all panned out.

Alicia: What is your best advice for anyone else who's trying to work through a life changing injury?

Tara: I don't know, don't take prescription drugs. Start there. You might want to, but don't do it. Say no to drugs, kids. I don't know, it's a process. It's such a process and everybody has a different way to deal with it or go through it or have a support system around them. You know, I know people that were good within two years of getting hurt, like good-good. They were on a solid path. They had their life figured out and they were solid. And then I know people who have been hurt for 20 years that still struggle, that still are angry and sad and depressed. I'm not saying that that's right or wrong. It's just their path.

When I got to my point of being okay, I remember sitting in the living room and Elodie said something, it was really funny, because she says a lot of funny shit. And I remember just laughing, laughing so hard that my guts hurt, my side ached and my one ab that still works was sore.

It was right in that moment, I was like, “f*ck, I'm going to be okay.” I don't know if other people have those epiphany moments, but sometimes it takes that. I decided at some point to not be angry anymore. I mean, there's a lot of things – you have a choice in life to either look at the positive or look at the negative. For a lot of years, I looked at the negative after I got hurt. At one point I decided, “f*ck, why? Why am I gonna do that to myself? Why don't I just start looking at the positive?” I think part of that too was learning some things from Elodie, because she would impart these little nuggets of wisdom, you know, and she'd be like, “Well, put it out to the universe.” Like, what the f*ck does that even mean? “Put it out to the universe. Say it out loud.” If there's something that you want to do in life, say it out loud. And I started doing that, even though I thought it was so ridiculous at the time. Maybe it didn't happen in six months, maybe it happened like two or three years later, it would happen. It would come to fruition. And I was like, “This is wild, man.”

bigquotesI decided at some point to not be angry anymore. I mean, there's a lot of things – you have a choice in life to either look at the positive or look at the negative.

I didn't know that this was a thing. And so I just made the decision. What I would rather do is look at the positive in things. It's way easier said than done. Sometimes it comes in your own time. But I guess that would be my best advice on that. Surrounding yourself with some really good people always helps too.

Alicia: That’s such great wisdom. And of course, easier said than done, but something that we can all take steps toward. I think that is a really good place to leave things. Is there anything else that you'd like to add?

Tara: Oh, I'm sure I'll think of things like in an hour, but as of right now—

Alicia: So will I, to be honest.

Tara: I think that's a good place to, to end.

Brian: I'm gonna go watch some Paralympic basketball, honestly. I wanna see how the strategies all work.

Tara: It's a lot more physical than people think. It’s technically maybe not supposed to be as physical. But people, they go down hard and then they just pop back up and keep sprinting to get back on defense. Not all people, like I can't do that. I don't have the core function to do that. It's like, you ever see that movie, Murderball? It's about wheelchair rugby. Someone gave me the book while I was in the hospital. I was in the hospital with Stephen Murray. He got hurt and I wasn't hurt yet.

And I donated money to him. When I came home from the hospital, he had already been hurt and then he got transferred to Craig Hospital in Colorado.

Alicia: No way, I was in Craig! Tiny world.

Tara: I was really lucky because when I got hurt, I got hurt in Vail. There were so many places that I could have been hurt. Like I think about racing in Brazil and you know, some f*cking places where you don't want to be. And no knock on like the Brazilian medical system, but I'd rather be in North America probably. Craig is like the place, right? So that's where I did my rehab and Stephen was transferred there. He was in another unit, but he and I would hang out all the time. I knew of Stephen and I may have even met him before, but I knew his brother better, Martin. We spent a lot of days together in rehab. It was kind of wild that we were both there because when I came home from rehab, I had a little postcard that was thanking me for the donation. Meanwhile, I was like all f*cked up myself, right? In a chair like, “Man, this is wild. So yeah, it was kind of wild being there with him. We had a really good crew of people there actually. It just so happened that everybody was around the same age and we were young athletes. So when we go into physio, we're always like trying to one-up each other.

And then like having Stephen there and I remember, f*ck me man. I remember when he pulled me into his room one day because he got the footage of his crash. He's like “Tara, Tara!”

I was like, “What's going on, man?” And he's like, “I gotta show you something.” I was like, “What do you wanna show me?” He's like, “Oh, my crash.” I was like, “Man, I don't think I'm prepared to see that. I've heard about it and I don't know.” And he's like, “No, no, no, no, no. It's fine, it's fine.” He needed to show me his crash. I don't know if he was truly okay with watching it or he was trying to convince himself. I don't know, I never asked him. And then he showed me and f*ck. And then he'd rewind it and watch it again, rewind it and watch it again.
Brian: Did you ever watch your own footage?

Tara: Yeah, they gave me the footage, and I lost it. I'm so pissed now. They gave me the footage and I watched it. It was a mistake. It was a mistake because I was still so fresh and I watched it while I was in the hospital, and I just hyperventilated. I was a total disaster. Now I can watch it and I'd be fine. But it's taken me a long time to get there, and I've lost it. So it doesn't matter. I've tried to find it. I've tried to get in touch with Ted Martin and nobody knows where the footage is. So anyway, that's gone.

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Her biking achievements will definitely live on, and she's even in the BMX Hall of Fame.

Brian: Did you watch yours Alicia?

Alicia: No, I actually recently got a hard drive with it on it. I have not yet watched it. I mean, I'm kind of curious and I will watch the footage eventually. The hard drive is formatted for a Mac and I don't have a Mac so I actually can't impulsively watch it whenever I want to. I've sort of waited with enough unknown until now, I can stick with the unknown. But I'm curious, we'll see.

Tara: I don't know where the hell, it happened in the move when I moved from California to here and I had my stuff in a container just across the border in Washington. And I don't know, some stuff got lost. We have stuff in the attic and to be fair, it could be there. I've never been up there. I always tell Elodie, I'm like, “Is it up there?” She's like, “I don't know.” I don't know what's up there.

Alicia: I like how you're able to balance the perspectives of feeling really lucky about some angles of it and then also that it's just a f*cked up situation to be in in the first place and those competing things can totally coexist it seems like for you.

So anyway, after we wrapped it up the first time, we carried on for a while longer, but we covered a lot of good ground. Thank you so much for talking and thanks everyone for listening.

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Jeep King of the Mountain At Camp Jeep - Elkhart Lake WI August 12 2006 Photo Tim Hancock 500 Grant Ave. Louisville CO 80027 303.665.7335 e-mail timhancockphoto juno.com

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We look forward to following along as Tara shows the world what she can do again at the Paralympics this summer.


Author Info:
alicialeggett avatar

Member since Jun 19, 2015
745 articles

32 Comments
  • 49 0
 Inspirational.
  • 8 1
 Yeah, some of these Paralympic athletes have an incredible story and can be an inspiration for anyone.
  • 1 0
 @vinay: I used to train with the national Paralympic table tennis and swimming team of my home country, the mindset is above and beyond; right there I understood how capable we are and when you are winning about something, there is somebody with less and doing things you won't even dare to do.
  • 28 0
 This is the kind of thing I would love to see more of on Pinkbike. Thank you for the amazing article.
  • 11 0
 Thank you so much for this, great article! I just missed Tara at the Pan American Games this year but this type of article/podcast is so refreshing. Hopefully we can cross paths in Paris this year.
  • 13 0
 If young women (or anyone for that matter) need a role model in life, this is her.
  • 6 0
 Great Interview. Tara is a total badass and good human. I was fortunate enough to race the Tara Llanes Classic at Northstar a few years in a row(broke my wrist at the second one) and it was a great way to meet and understand her story at the time. I'm glad she is doing well and inspiring others.
  • 6 0
 Amazing interview and article. So difficult to read - I still haven't finished the whole piece - and I cannot imagine the mental strength Tara has. Having grown up riding in the 90s and through the heyday of the oughts, I remember Tara's career well, but never knew the postscript of her injury. Thanks, Alicia, for creating this series. What an undertaking both in effort and in the emotional rollercoaster you're signing up for. I look forward to and am girding myself for more.
  • 5 0
 Anyone riding is one pedal strike or dead sailor away from a wheelchair. This piece of journalism should show us all that there are paths forward regardless of our abilities. The idea that a pioneer of the sport, who incurred injury, would get less action in the comments section speaks volumes about how we all think it could never happen to us. Tara, you are a hero for me, my wife, and my 3 kids. Thanks for the vulnerability and the sustained commitment to competition. Sets a model for us all.
  • 3 0
 I don't know any MTB folks beyond a few Youtubers and Tara. I started reading BMX Action, and her name was pretty much listed with a half-page photo each month of her racing. I'm glad to see her thriving in another sport, and I wonder if there's any hope for a future of MTB that better supports people with disabilities.
  • 3 0
 I'm not at all surprised that Tara has continued to be a successful athlete and person. As someone who was around the scene when she raced MTB, she was always an inspiration for her results and the way she conducted herself. Thanks for putting this feature together.
  • 4 0
 Amazing. I have family involved in para Sports and the level of competition and hard work is on another level. I'm glad you found another sport to be passionate about.
  • 4 0
 Tara has been an inspiration to me throughout my life! So glad she is crushing another sport what a fighter! What a great human this lady is!
  • 2 0
 I remember meeting Tara at Interbike and having her autograph a picture that I still cherish to this day. I was in awe - had such a crush. Then the accident. I kept tabs on her until the news of her recovery sort of faded out. It's SO good to hear her voice and know that she came out the other side in such a hugely epic way. I'll be following her basketball career from here. Tara, you are such a bad ass inspiration. Best of luck on the way to Paris!
  • 4 0
 Tara is an absolute legend. One of the most talented, toughest, hardest working people I've ever met. True inspiration.
  • 3 0
 That was an incredible read. Kudos also for having Alicia do the interview. Been a T.L. fan since the beginning. What a champion then and now.
  • 5 0
 Such a badass.
  • 2 0
 Very cool story, if you haven't seen it look up wheelchair freestyle on youtube. Absolutely crazy what people are doing these days.
  • 3 0
 Great interview! That whole discussion about how determination won't guarantee a full recovery was really insightful.
  • 1 0
 Shuttled with her, road multiple chairs with her, raced world cups on the same weekends and continents with her. All I can say is fast as fuck and style for miles. Champ. Athlete. Legend.
  • 2 0
 Great interview. Props to Tara, good to hear she is in such a good place, especially after those mega downs. That’s true strength.
  • 4 0
 Tara is a champion.
  • 1 0
 I still remember seeing her race at Schweitzer in Idaho. Legand. I was only there to watch her and Cedric Gracia... mostly her.
  • 2 0
 Thanks for an article that really matters! I just wish more people would read it.
  • 2 0
 I still have a poster of you when you were riding for Yeti. You will always be my hero.
  • 2 0
 Wow, simply wow. A great read Big Grin
  • 2 0
 Sweet
  • 2 0
 Respect!
  • 2 0
 What a great interview.
  • 2 0
 Inspirational Tara
  • 2 0
 admiration







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