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The challenging road to the 2020 Paralympics
Danielle Aitchison claimed silver at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships and has been selected for her first Paralympic Games for Tokyo 2020 (Photo: Getty Images)
New Zealand officially unveiled a six-strong team for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games at Auckland’s AUT Millennium yesterday. We spoke to each athlete to understand a little more of their athletics journey and the challenges they have overcome on their path to Tokyo.
World shot put F37 champion Lisa Adams has been, arguably, New Zealand’s most exciting talent to have emerged across the current Paralympic Games cycle.
Not only a reigning world champion, the 30-year-old thrower also hurled a world record (shot put F37) distance of 15.50m in Hastings last September. While her rise has been nothing short of meteoric, her journey has required huge sacrifices.
“I am not based in Auckland, I’m based in Rotorua and I have an eight-year-old son back there (in Rotorua),” explains Lisa. “I train away from my coach (and sister Dame Valerie Adams) for periods of time, but we make it work. It is a challenge juggling childcare. I share my son with his dad, one week on, one week off. During my on week in Rotorua I train there. In my off week, I train full-time here in Auckland with my coach. It is a lot of travel, but we make it work. We have goals that we want to achieve and this is what it takes to do that.”
Given the global pandemic, Lisa expects the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games to be like no other. However, she refuses to be distracted. She intends to focus on what she can control and is massively excited to be given the opportunity to compete against the best in the world.
Yet whatever happens in Tokyo, she looks back fondly on her athletics experiences and she believes the sport has enriched her life in many ways.
“It has taught me to be resilient, to step up and take more accountability for things,” she explains. “The difference between an individual sport and a team sport is an individual sport is all on you. In a team sport there are a bunch of other people who can take your spot. Athletics has taught me a lot of life skills and made me work harder than ever before.”
A positive attitude to the Covid-hampered build up to the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games has enabled experienced javelin thrower Holly Robinson to emerge even stronger for her third Paralympic quest.
The Dunedin-based thrower, who was flagbearer for New Zealand at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games, admits the “uncertainty” brought about by the global pandemic proved challenging. Despite this, Holly refused to wallow in any negativity and she insists the postponed Games has acted as a “blessing.”
“It made my coach (Raylene Bates) and I take a step back and think what is going to make us a better athlete in Tokyo,” adds Holly, who won javelin F46 silver at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games.
“For me, the postponed Paralympic Games gave me extra time to prepare. We’ve really maximised our opportunities.
At the end of 2019 (a year where Holly won javelin F46 silver at the World Para Athletics Championships) I was feeling tired and burnt out. Lockdown gave me a chance to recuperate my energy. It gave me a mental rest and now I am in one of the best positions I could be (going into the Paralympic Games).”
An international performer for ten years, the athlete born in Hokitika on the West Coast hopes to draw upon her vast experience to produce the best on the day.
“I’m a very different athlete to when I first started,” adds Holly, 26. “I know my sport a lot better and I’ve gained a lot of life lessons along the way. It has not all been smooth sailing, but it has been a cool journey and one I hope to continue on for a while longer.”
Paralympic long jump F47 champion Anna Grimaldi has undergone some major challenges over the past five years but believes she has emerged a stronger more mentally robust athlete.
The Dunedin-based long jump ace caused a sensation at the Rio Paralympic Games when the then 19-year-old struck gold in her specialist event courtesy of a sixth-round PB.
However, Anna believes coping with several injury-plagued years since her Rio success will work in her favour in Tokyo.
“I think this tour (to Tokyo) is completely different to the last one (in Rio), she says. “My journey to the last Paralympics was smooth sailing. I did PB after PB (in the countdown to the Games) and did a massive PB in the (Paralympic) final. I was naïve but then reality hit and I suffered a foot fracture, but what was supposed to take six months to return to competition took two-and-a-half years.
“I was over it, but lucky to have such a good team in Dunedin with me. They scraped me off the ground – it is awesome to have that support. It has led me up a road to the point I am now a stronger, more resilient athlete. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that support team.”
Her form during the 2020-21 summer season has reflected her words. Anna has enhanced her PB by 29cm to an impressive world leading 5.91m, and she is relishing the prospect of competing in Tokyo.
“I can’t wait to show the world what we I’ve been working on,” adds Anna, who is coached by Brent Ward. “We are lucky that as a country we’ve had a relatively normal year – and I’m really grateful to be living here in New Zealand. I just hope it all comes together in Tokyo.”
From the outside looking in, Danielle Aitchison’s journey to her first Paralympic Games would appear to have been plain sailing.
First introduced to para sport at the 2017 Halberg Disability Games, her rapid rise saw the Hamilton-based sprinter snare 200m T36 silver at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai just two years later.
A series of PB’s during the 2020-21 summer campaign offers great encouragement that the 19-year-old sprinter is rounding into the best form of her life leading into the Tokyo Paralympic Games, but the journey has faced its challenges.
Danielle, who was born with cerebral palsy and hearing loss, recalls one of the biggest obstacles she has faced has been on ongoing battle with shin splints.
“I remember the shin splints largely stopped me from training in the countdown to Dubai (and the World Para Athletics Championships),” explains Danielle, who is coached by Alan McDonald. “Even when I got to Dubai my legs would feel sore after massage but worse after running.”
Yet she pushed the far from perfect preparation to the back of her mind and, showing a maturity beyond her years, maintained her composure to win world 200m T36 silver.
“There is no doubt my athletics journey has taught me resilience,” says Danielle, who is the youngest member of the New Zealand athletics team selected for the rescheduled 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. “I’m looking forward to experiencing everything I can in Tokyo.”
Double bronze medallist at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games, Will Stedman believes his passion for athletics has helped him overcome a range of challenges on his road to Tokyo.
The 21-year-old Christchurch-based sprinter admits the global pandemic and a number of injuries over the past 12 to 18 months have provided big obstacle in his path.
However, nothing has been insurmountable, and the versatile sprinter/jumper insists he is well set for a prominent showing in the Japanese capital.
“To have adjusted training because of Covid was a challenge while I’ve had a few injuries, which has been a pain,” explains Will, who snared T36 400m and 800m bronze medals at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. “But in some ways, we used the time well to improve in some other areas.
“I was also quite lucky in lockdown because I am a runner. This meant I could just run out of the house (for training). I had some gym equipment in my garage, and we were also lucky in New Zealand that the lockdown did not last for long. The postponement of the Paralympic Games was definitely disappointing, but it did not end my motivation because I enjoy training. Training is often all the motivation I need.”
Will, who is coached by George Edwards, admits it is hard to offer any concrete advice to New Zealand Paralympic debutants Danielle Aitchison and Lisa Adams about life at a Games because the global pandemic changes the landscape of the event.
However, he feels privileged and excited about representing his country again on the biggest stage.
“I’m looking forward to competing, I always enjoy having a focal point to train for,” adds Will who is ranked second in the world for the 400m T36. “Having a goal to work to is very important. It has been a cool experience.”
Caitlin Dore admits she has overcome the ‘roadblock’ of Covid and the postponed Paralympic Games and is looking forward to making her second Paralympic appearance in a new discipline.
Five years ago at the Rio Paralympics, Caitlin finished seventh in the Javelin F37 but since then has been forced to switch to the shot put after the removal of javelin from her classification at the Paralympic Games.
The change in discipline has understandably brought its challenges, but so did 2020 and the global pandemic.
“Not knowing what was happening with the Games and what I was training towards was the biggest roadblock to get over mentally,” explains Caitlin.
“It definitely put me into a head spin, and I made other changes last year. I moved from Dunedin back to my hometown of Christchurch and also changed coaches from Raylene (Bates) to Hayden Hall. Overall, the move has been good for me. It has been an exciting new chapter.”
Now aged 24, Caitlin approaches her second Paralympic Games in a good mental space. And the South Islander would not change her athletics journey for the world.
“It has taught me so many things about myself,” she explains. “I am definitely way more resilient than I thought I was. I used to be the most shy person ever at school but because of athletics I’ve learned to talk in public, I’m way more confident in myself.
“Competing in a new event feels in some ways like I’m a new athlete. I’m really excited to show the world what I can do.”
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