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From shame to fame: How a tragic accident led to table tennis gold
Updated 17 March 2016, 10:22 AEDT
As Fiji cleans up after the devastating Tropical Cyclone Winston, one Fijian man badly injured during a previous violent storm is providing hope and inspiration in his quest for table tennis gold.
Today, gold medals hang around his neck and dreams of sporting glory drive his ambition. But when Iakoba Taberanibou climbed a mango tree in his village seven years ago, his only thoughts were of making sure his loved ones would survive a brewing storm.
Kope has emerged as one of the best players in the Pacific. (Supplied: Table Tennis Australia)
Known to all as Kope, the 31-year-old didn't know his life was about to change forever as he headed ever higher into that tree to clear branches that threatened to fall on his uncle’s home.
The storm arrived faster than anyone expected. Kope was caught high in the tree, perched precariously on the edge of a cliff as the winds and rains arrived in a flash. He clung on desperately but the young father’s grip eventually gave way.
Kope fell 15 metres – the equivalent of falling from the fourth floor of a building, and more than enough to kill most people. Upon hitting the ground, however, he immediately got to his feet, walked to the base of the tree, and lit a cigarette. Only then did he collapse. Kope’s spine was fractured. In an instant he went from being his family’s hero and protector to someone who needed their help, and ongoing medical support. The social stigma of life in a wheelchair proved an additional, unrelenting humiliation for him.
“People with disability are perceived as a burden to their families and are often afraid of exposing themselves, of being neglected, unwanted or laughed at,” Kope observes.
Kope and his wife made the heartbreaking decision to leave their home of Daliconi Vanuabalavu and move to the Fijian capital, Suva.
There, he found table tennis. Or, more accurately – table tennis found him. Oceania Para Table Tennis Development Officer Christian Holtz remembers the first time he met the powerfully-built Kope.
“Kope was so enthusiastic and had a huge smile throughout the entire session,” he says of that meeting a year ago.
“I knew he had a future in table tennis, but I never anticipated he would achieve so much so fast.”
Kope wasn’t so sure he had a future in the game. He had to be coaxed to join Smash Down Barriers, a table tennis program funded by Australian Aid and delivered by Table Tennis Australia and Oceania Table Tennis, which is designed to provide sporting opportunities for people in the Pacific living with disability.
Once he did, Kope almost immediately emerged as one of the best players in the Pacific. Within months he would smash his opposition in Port Moresby and sit atop the dais with a Pacific Games Gold Medal around his neck.
The new year would present an even greater challenge. Athletes from Kiribati, New Zealand, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu arrived on Kope’s home soil in pursuit of the 2016 Fiji Para Open.
In the final, Kope faced the highest-ranked player from New Zealand, James Goulding, and fought his way to a gruelling 14-12 victory in the final set.
“Playing was the best decision I ever made. Table tennis has allowed me to integrate with able-bodied people and people with disabilities. The sport has made me feel accepted and treated as an equal.”
Six years on, Tropical Cyclone Winston has changed more lives and brought great sadness and despair across Fiji, but Kope’s story is one of hope, perseverance and acceptance.
“I’ve learnt to live not with my disability, but with my ability,” he says.
This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnership funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.