Almost as quickly as Anna Grimaldi leapt into New Zealanders’ consciousness at the Rio Paralympic Games three years ago, the talented long jumper suddenly disappeared.
Grimaldi was relatively unknown when she jumped her way to a gold medal in the women’s T47 long jump on day one of the 2016 Paralympics athletics competition. They were her very first Games.
But a shattering foot injury, suffered in her lead-up to the 2017 world Para athletics championships, kept her sidelined for two years.
Now the 22-year-old is on the verge of making her return to the world stage this weekend, and the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, and the chance to defend her title, are sharply in her focus.
Grimaldi also had to deal with the doubt that crept in after she returned from the Rio Paralympics. She began to question whether she truly deserved to win the gold medal.
“It was a weird feeling,” she admits. “I was over the moon, don’t get me wrong, but I was so inexperienced and up against all these incredible athletes that part of me felt like my performance was a fluke.”
To prove to herself that her performance wasn’t a one-off, Grimaldi returned to training more determined than ever to continue her time on top of the podium.
She began training more than she did before the Paralympics, pushing herself above and beyond her limits every session. But it resulted in a stress fracture in her foot just before the 2017 World Para Athletics Championships.
She still competed at the worlds in London, but performed well below her best, missing out on the podium.
“I had been struggling with an injury in the lead-up to the competition, but I didn’t know exactly what it was. It wasn’t till I was back in New Zealand that I found out it was a fracture,” Grimaldi says.
“I was gutted at the time. All I could think about was ‘Why me? Why now?’ It didn’t seem fair seeing how hard I had been working.”
She came home to New Zealand deflated and desperate to get back into training. Not once did she consider giving up as an option.
Grimaldi was told she would need to wait six months for the fracture to heal before she could begin rehabilitation to get herself back to top condition.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I hoped it would be worth it,” she says. “Looking back, this injury tested me to my fullest, but it also really helped me grow and become more aware of training smarter.”
Unfortunately, what was meant to be a six-month recovery and rehabilitation period turned into almost two years away from the international stage.
Every time Grimaldi thought she was ready to leap back into competition, her injury would begin to niggle and send her back a few steps.
“I think that was the most frustrating part. Just as I was beginning to feel ready to dive back in, something would go wrong,” she says.
Did the constant frustration of having to take one step forward and three steps back ever make her consider retirement? Grimaldi proudly states it was never an option.
“I knew during some of those really low points that giving up would be the easiest thing to do, but it was never what I wanted,” she says. “I want to go to another Paralympics, and I want the chance to defend my title.”
She could get a step closer in the next week. After a solid year of training, Grimaldi is part of the 15-strong New Zealand track and field team now in Dubai preparing for the world championships, which start this weekend
Grimaldi will compete in the long jump and the 100m, with the goal of passing her personal bests and qualifying for Tokyo.
Growing up in Dunedin, Grimaldi was always active, playing both netball and basketball while in high school. She was born without her right hand, making her eligible to compete in Para sport.
In 2013, she attended a Paralympics New Zealand talent ID camp where she discovered Para athletics.
“I wasn’t sure about athletics at first. Initially, I thought I would be terrible at it, but the more I got into it, I just kept getting better. Next thing I knew I was going to Rio,” Grimaldi says.
Only 19 when she competed in her first Paralympics, Grimaldi went into the competition determined to have fun and soak up the Games experience. But she shocked herself, and the nation, when she won New Zealand’s first gold medal in Rio.
“I was just in absolute disbelief, and it almost didn’t feel real. I don’t think I will ever be able to describe just how incredible that feeling of winning is,” she says.
She won the T47 classification with a leap of 5.62m, her final of six attempts, and a 21cm improvement on her personal best. She then went on to finish fourth in the 100m.
Looking at how her campaign for Tokyo 2020 has panned out, Grimaldi is proud of what she has achieved, overcome and learned in the last three years.
Something that has really helped her along the way is the developments in technology for athletes with amputations.
Earlier this year High Performance Sport New Zealand and Zenith Tecnica came up with a solution to help Grimaldi get a steady grip on the barbell in the gym.
The technology, a bit like 3D printing, is called electron beam melting, and works by fusing titanium powder together, layer by layer, to create a custom prosthetic which is strong enough to grip a barbell.
She’s also adamant she wouldn’t have made it this far without the support of her coach, Brent Ward, the wider team and her family.
“They’ve been with me every step of the way, especially my coach. He could have given up on me, but instead he designed a whole new training programme and helped build me up as a different athlete to the one I was before,” says Grimaldi.
Through all her struggles, Grimaldi felt it essential to have something going on outside her rehab to keep her busy and, sometimes, distracted. She knew it was easy to get wrapped up in what was going wrong.
So she began studying at Otago Polytechnic, and now has a diploma in quantity surveying, which she will look to use after the Tokyo Paralympics.
“[Retirement] is a long way off, but I think it’s important to have skills away from sports,” Grimaldi says. “It’s comforting to know that once I do retire, I have the skills to go and do something else.”
For now, though, she is entirely focused on her Paralympic dream. She feels like things are finally coming together.