Tara Llanes and Cindy Ouellet are two wheelchair basketball players who are part of at least 28 out LGBTQ athletes competing at the Tokyo Paralympics – more than double the head count at the last Paralympics in Rio. Now these two are hoping to bring home a medal for Team Canada, having already recorded a win over Great Britain, 73-54, as competition opened.
Tara Llanes is a multi-sport athlete headed to the Tokyo Paralympics
Llanes, 44, is a true multi-sport athlete and has a wide-ranging athletic career outside of wheelchair basketball. A professional mountain biker for 15 years, she was nominated to the BMX Hall of Fame in 2018 and currently runs her own business specializing in adaptive equipment for mountain bikers out of Whistler, B.C.
Before being approached in 2016 by former Team Canada players who encouraged her to try wheelchair basketball, Llanes was also a pro wheelchair tennis player and won national singles and doubles tournaments.
“I finally went out to a practice and I realized how much I really missed team sport — the camaraderie and the friendships, all of those things,” Llanes said of her transition to wheelchair basketball in an interview with Chris O’Leary. “The timing was pretty perfect.”
Llanes knew she was gay since she was 7 years old but first came out to her family when she was 17, and she felt lucky to have been embraced by them completely.
She was more hesitant to come out to the pro BMX community however, as she explained in a heartfelt Instagram post during Pride month, for fear of losing the sponsorships she’d worked so hard to obtain.
“I always remembered Melissa ‘Missy’ Giove being the biggest name in [mountain] biking and she was out,” Llanes wrote. “Why couldn’t I do it too? Because she was winning races! And when I say winning races I mean ALL the races, and I didn’t have that luxury of sponsors falling over themselves to give me that kind of money and grace. So it took me probably another 5 years to build up enough courage to come out.
“Coming out was liberation. It was all of that fear being shattered by unbelievable joy. Sometimes that liberation was the feeling of others accepting me and sometimes just me accepting me. The things that you build up in your head and the reaction you think others will have can be overwhelming and heavy. I am beyond grateful for the love I’ve been shown and more importantly the fact that it’s been no big deal. I am fortunate though because not all coming out stories are that easy.”
Cindy Ouellet brings veteran experience to Team Canada
Cindy Ouellet, 32, is a veteran of the wheelchair basketball scene, having first been introduced to the sport by her physiotherapist in 2005.
Within just two years, Ouellet had won a gold medal for her home province of Quebec at the Canada Games. Her Paralympic debut in 2008 in Beijing also ended in a successful medal podium finish, taking home bronze, and she’s been a stalwart of the Canadian team ever since.
Much like her teammate Llanes, she’s taken to other sports outside basketball. She played soccer at the provincial level before being struck with bone cancer in her hip at age 12, and is one of the few athletes in the world to have competed at both the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games, in wheelchair basketball and para nordic skiing.
Ouellet is openly gay. She has said that while she has faced homophobia throughout her life, it has only strengthened her resolution to advocate for change so that younger generations of LGBTQ athletes don’t experience some of the same negativity that she did.
“I’ve accepted who I am and I’m super comfortable in my own body, and with who I’ve chosen to be, so now I can share that,” Ouellett said. “The key is to not let the things that happen to you define who you are.
“If we can teach the kids in school at an early age that it’s ok to be gay – to be queer – homosexual – whatever you want to be – you can be – there should be no judgement,” Ouellet said in a 2020 profile.
Wheelchair basketball kicked off on Aug. 24, with the finals being played on Sept. 5.
Canada will start in the Group A pool along with Australia, Great Britain, Japan and Germany. Meanwhile Group B includes the USA, Algeria, Netherlands, China and Spain.