News & Updates

6 June 2019 • General

Teenage dreams

Set to make her international debut at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai in November, Danielle Aitchison has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the sport. Steve Landells charts the teenager’s fascinating life journey all the way to the top of the world.  

That Danielle Aitchison is with us at all, let alone a world number ranked athlete, is a miracle.

Born with severe jaundice, cerebral palsy and complete hearing loss, Danielle’s condition quickly deteriorated. Rushed to Waikato Hospital she died only to be brought back to life.

Given a second chance, Danielle, 17, has certainly made the most of the opportunity.

Currently ranked world number one for the T36 200m and number two for the 100m distance, the Hamilton-based athlete will enter the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai in November among the best in the world.

It has been some story.

Sporting background

Raised on a dairy farm in Patetonga – between Morrinsville and Ngatea – Danielle’s mum, Tracy, was always determined her daughter would be presented with the best life opportunities.

“My mum treated me like any of her children,” explains Danielle, the second eldest of five children. “I did ballet, played netball and did hockey. We come from a physical family where sport is important and also tried athletics, where I sprinted alongside the able-bodied kids at the Te Aroha club. I played hockey for the school team and I enjoyed it but I found playing a team sport tough because of my lack of hearing.”

After quitting hockey aged 15 and her mum keen for her daughter to remain involved in sport she encouraged Danielle to attend several disability camps in Auckland to re-engage her interest.

Sprint queen

Danielle found she enjoyed sprinting and the passion was crystallised further after competing at the 2017 Halberg Disability Games.

“I remember turning up competing in my socks against athletes in spikes,” recalls Danielle. “But it went amazingly well. I was spotted by some coaches, who said I had a talent. I really love athletics because you are rewarded for the amount of work you put in. The sport is better suited to me.”

Less than two months later, Danielle competed at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Hastings, where she won three medals; gold in the 200m and long jump and silver in the 100m.

Joining the Hamilton City Hawks in early 2018 she connected with her current coach, Alan McDonald, and the move has proved inspirational for the teenager, who has thrived under his regime.

“Alan has a disability himself and understands that every athlete is different and that they have different needs and wants,” she explains of her coach who guided sprinter Jacob Phillips to the Rio 2016 Paralympics. “He treats us all as individuals and also respects the fact that I have things outside of athletics that are also important.”

Physical challenges

Born with a form of cerebral palsy called antaxia, Danielle has low muscle tone and when fatigued this can lead to the arms and legs struggling to fully function, which can lead to a loss of balance. Regular bouts of muscle soreness mean Danielle is often restricted to just two track training sessions per week which means she and her coach have adopted an agile attitude to practise.

“Many other athletes train every day to improve and I can’t do that, so we’ve taken a different approach,” explains Danielle, who also carries out one strength and conditioning session a week. “Alan intends to target quality over quantity and he often says once you lose that quality there is not much point in training anymore. We just do what is needed.”

Very recently Danielle was also formerly diagnosed as suffering from a second form of cerebral palsy called anthetoid, which can make her prone to wobbling. This has helped explain why she often shakes on the blocks.

Fitted with cochlear implants in both ears over the past two years has helped transform her hearing but still faces challenges during competitions and she still requests the use of an assistant.

“I’ve had to re-train myself to hear again since getting the cochlear implants,” she explains. “I struggle to hear the loud speaker at events and it is also sometimes hard for me to hear on your marks, get set, so that is why I ask for an assistant. If I don’t do what I’m supposed to, the assistant will tap me. Also my reaction time isn’t that good – because it takes me a long time to hear the gun and for that sound to fire electronically in my brain.”

Golden girl

Despite the various challenges, Danielle, a former Hauraki Plains College student, has continued to win gold medals for fun and set PB’s with great regularity.

At the 2018 New Zealand Track & Field Championships, on her home track in Hamilton, she claimed a memorable treble gold of 100m (15.20), 200m (31.31) and long jump (3.23m).

Nine months later at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Dunedin it was triple gold once more and three more PB’s – 100m (14.83), 200m (31.22) and long jump (3.57m).

Then in Christchurch in March at the Jennian Homes New Zealand Track & Field Championships she once more claimed three golds all with lifetimes best performances; 100m (14.44), 200m (29.49) and long jump (3.90m).

In fact, at the Australian Championships in Sydney it came as a shock to her when she failed to either win or set a PB when placing second in the 200m and fourth in the 400m.

“It was disappointing, although I obviously always knew that meet would come because I know can’t always get PB’s and win medals,” she explains.

Global ambitions

With no long jump in her classification at the Paralympic Games she has focused her energies on the 100m and 200m – where she has won selection for the New Zealand team at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai.

Yet there is little doubt which event Danielle, a Waikato University Bachelor of Social Science student, prefers.

“It is the 200m,” she says. “It is neither a short or a long distance and unlike the 100m you have time to adjust your plan. The 400m is too long for me.”

Currently ranked number one in the world in her speciality event, she approaches Dubai with rising expectations but Danielle herself has adopted a mature and realistic attitude to her current global standing.

“I wa blown away when I was told I was world number one but I can’t really worry too much about that,” she explains. “Because I know someone can just arrive and be like, bam, smack, so I can’t let that go to my head. I am number one, but I need to keep pushing myself to a higher standard.

“Alan and my mum both believe I will get a spot in the finals. For me, I want to place top six.”

To perform at her best in Dubai she will have to cope with the intense heat. It is not something which the fair-skinned sprinter has handled particular well in the past but by carrying out some training sessions in extra layers of clothing she hopes at least to be better accustomed for the boiling conditions she is likely to face in the UAE.

In the longer-term the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games remains her ultimate ambition. But however her career develops, the Waikato speedster has little doubt about why she loves her sport so passionately.

“I love running and running fast,” she says. “When you are running fast, the world just seems to pass you by and nothing else matters.”