Dazed and bleeding in Beijing, Paralympic gold medallist Paula Tesoriero was cared for by her chef de mission – now it’s her turn to look after the New Zealand team at the Tokyo Paralympics in a year’s time.
Paula Tesoriero just can’t help herself.
If the Disability Rights Commissioner and Paralympic gold medallist is out riding her road bike around Wellington on the weekends, and someone on an electric bike flies by – then it’s all on.
“I try really hard not to race them. I’ve tried saying to myself ‘They’ve got a motor, just let them go’. But then I just chase them because it’s ingrained in me,” the 44-year-old says.
“If I manage to catch one, I feel like I’ve won a gold medal all over again. But I also wear the body out for the rest of the week.”
Her competitive streak, it seems, hasn’t dulled. Neither has her passion for riding like the wind.
It began when she was five and Tesoriero got her first bike – a Healing 16 with a basket on the front, training wheels on the back – cycling around the Kāpiti Coast. For a girl born with amniotic band syndrome – where strands of womb tissue wrap around a baby’s limbs – it finally gave her a sense of freedom, and a sense of fitting in.
“It was such a great levelling of the playing field for me. I don’t walk fast, I can’t really run, so cycling was a way for me to keep up with everyone. I loved it,” says Tesoriero, whose left leg was amputated below the knee at 13.
“I had this fanciful idea in my head as a kid that I would compete on a bike on the world stage.”
And she did, setting world records and winning three Para cycling medals at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing.
That experience shaped Tesoriero’s “disability identity” – made her embrace her disability rather than hide it – and led her to greater things. Like her role as New Zealand’s Disability Rights Commissioner, which she’s just been re-appointed to for another five years.
It’s also made her an ideal chef de mission of the New Zealand team for the postponed Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, now exactly one year away.
“It’s a huge privilege and an honour to be chef de mission,” she says. “I’m really looking forward to being there with the team, creating an environment where they can be the best they need to be, and for it all to finally get underway.”
Listening to Tesoriero, the crucial part of her job is creating an environment where the athletes feel comfortable and relaxed, but are ready to compete and win.
It comes from her own Paralympic experience 12 years ago. Her chef de mission then was Duane Kale, a Hawke’s Bay Paralympian who won a staggering six medals – four of them gold – in the Atlanta pool in 1996. He’s now vice president of the International Paralympic Committee.
Tesoriero has a special memory of Kale’s concern and kindness when she won her gold medal at the Laoshan Velodrome.
After she crossed the finish line of the 500m time trial, in a world record time, Tesoriero suddenly flew over the handlebars of her bike and hit the track, hard. She was carried away on a stretcher, concussed with her jaw bleeding. She burst into tears when her result – the gold medal – flashed up on the big screen.
“I was quite badly injured,” Tesoriero recalls. “When I got back to the village, Duane escorted me on his lap in his wheelchair from the entrance to the village to the medical centre.” She had to do a drug test and have an x-ray on her jaw, and she remembers it being traumatic.
“His concern for me as an athlete and a person was huge. That personal touch is really important to an athlete,” she says.
Tesoriero was determined to climb back on her bike and ride her last two races, but had to follow the team doctor’s advice. “But in my mind, I was: ‘There’s just no way I’m not racing. I’ve come all this way; I’ve put all these years in’,” she recalls.
Given the green light to race again, she won two bronze medals – in the individual pursuit and the road time trial.
“Every now and then I watch that [gold medal] ride again and think, ‘Wow, that’s me’. I know every centimetre of that track in terms of how I felt on the ride, and I can relive it all over again,” she says.
“But I reflect more on the totality of the experience – what that period of my life meant to me and how it shaped me as a person – rather than the actual races themselves.”
If it hadn’t been for her Paralympic journey, Tesoriero knows she wouldn’t be the Disability Rights Commissioner. It’s a role she’s held since 2017, soon after it was created by an amendment to the Human Rights Act, and her focus lies in making New Zealand a better and more inclusive place for people with disabilities.
Before that, Tesoriero was a lawyer who moved into the public sector, as a general manager at Statistics NZ and then the Ministry of Justice. She sat on a number of boards including the NZ Artificial Limb Service, the Halberg Disability Sport Foundation and Paralympics NZ.
“The Paralympics definitely shaped my disability identity. I grew up and got into my legal career in a way of not embracing disability. In many ways I hid it,” she says.
Some of her colleagues, and even friends, didn’t know Tesoriero had a prosthetic leg, and that her right leg had a wasted calf and a fixed ankle. Then she got into Para cycling.
“I always had this Paralympic dream in my head, and when it came to realising that dream, I had to embrace disability. In doing so, really challenged some assumptions about myself, and became far more authentic and genuine.”
Over the next year, Tesoriero will juggle her commissioner and chef de mission roles – a balancing act she says isn’t so difficult when they complement each other.
“They’re both about showcasing the talent of disabled people, growing awareness of issues impacting disabled people and advocating for inclusion. And sport is such a wonderful way of showcasing inclusion. There’s an opportunity to leverage off both in a sense,” she says.
“How practically do I manage it? I have a wonderful husband and children who are supportive of what I do. And I carve out the time for the chef de mission role.” She also makes time to ride, mostly on her mountain bike these days.
Tesoriero visited Tokyo in February, just before the world locked down, to look at the competition venues and the athletes’ village. She was impressed.
“I remember turning up to the village in 2008, and it was very clear the building was New Zealand House. There were flags, and lots of drawings from schools all over New Zealand hanging up everywhere, wishing us luck,” she says.
“I’m really looking forward to creating an environment in Tokyo where the athletes feel welcome and comfortable in their surroundings, where they feel they can relax and get ready. Where they have the best environment to succeed.”
New Zealand’s Paralympic athletes have “coped superbly well” in lockdown, Tesoriero says. Some have made the psychological adjustment to a year’s postponement quicker than others. And there will be some who will now be able to qualify for the Games.
Paralympics NZ have set a goal of bringing home 22 medals. So far New Zealand has secured 17 slots for Tokyo across six Para sports – the athletes are still to be selected.
“We also want to maintain our performance in Rio, where we had the highest number of medals per capita. This is high performance sport and we want our athletes to do the best they can and deliver on those results.
“If I can keep my end of the bargain, and provide the right environment, we will have our heads held high.”