Table tennis in Tonga
Selemaia Lo’amanu is a development officer for the Tonga Table Tennis Federation (TTTF) working on the Team Up-supported Smash Down Barriers program, which is delivered in partnership by TTTF and ITTF-Oceania in schools and communities across the Kingdom of Tonga.
The program uses table tennis as a tool to improve the lives of people with a disability by increasing participation opportunities and improving attitudes both by and towards people with a disability.
As a national para-athlete in table tennis, Selemaia reflected on his journey since picking up the bat for the first time in 2018.
“About five years ago, a good friend invited me to play table tennis for fun. At first, I hesitated and did not join, but he kept insisting that I try the sport. After a while I gave in and joined him.
“Life was very dull before table tennis. It did not have much to offer, and I did not have much to do. I mostly stayed home or went to the bush to farm to help provide for my family.
“There was nothing truly joyful in my life and I thought because I had a disability no one would ever take me seriously.
"I lived a life of regret and often thought what life could have been like if my arm was not amputated.
“I love playing table tennis because it is great exercise and a dream come true. After I started playing, I got better, and I imagined being good enough to represent my country.
“When I eventually did represent Tonga as a para-athlete, I was over the moon.”
Selemaia, who started out as a volunteer with TTTF, shared how he enjoys meeting people of all backgrounds through the program.
“I love getting to know lots of people through table tennis, people I would not have got to know if I was not involved in the sport. I have met a lot of people with a disability through table tennis, which makes me feel not alone and that there are other people who share my thoughts and perspectives,” he explains.
When asked what his favourite part of table tennis is, Selemaia reveals how important it was for him to learn, through table tennis, that people with a disability can achieve success and make a positive contribution.
“Table tennis has shown me that people with a disability are capable of achieving what others can do.
“People in my village respect me for who I am now because I have represented Tonga in table tennis.”
Selemaia believes that competitions and events where people with a disability are encouraged to participate and showcase their skills are critical in helping level the playing field and change perceptions in Tonga.
“I am a member of the Naunau ‘o e ‘Alamaite Tonga Association (NATA) para-table tennis team that competed at the inaugural business house competition in 2020. I saw this event as a great tool for breaking down barriers that divide people with a disability from others.
“I feel more confident as a person, having competed against people from different teams, knowing that they respect me for my ability to play table tennis, rather than my physical restrictions.
“I feel so fortunate to be part of the Smash Down Barriers program. I am helping to teach school children how to play table tennis and I’m really enjoying doing that.
"I hope that one day my own children will be good enough to represent Tonga in table tennis.”