Late to discover Para sport, Siobhan Terry has found her feet – both in the pool and as a young leader helping other kids with disabilities experience the power of sport.
Siobhan Terry was determined to one day win her high school cross country.
The Rotorua teenager didn’t see being born with a clubfoot as a limitation, and it wasn’t until she was 16 she first heard the Paralympic Games – or even Para sport – existed.
“Up until then I was just running with the rest of the school. I’d race against them and say, ‘Oh well, one day I’ll beat you’,” she says.
“And I remember telling people ‘I’m going to be an Olympian’, because that was my dream.”
A teacher at Rotorua Lakes High then asked if she’d like to run in a Para cross country race. “And I was like ‘What is that?’” Terry recalls. She gave it a go – and won the national senior girls 2km Para title.
“Then when I found out there were Paralympics, it was just incredible. It opened so many more doors for me. And I learned I wasn’t the only one out there.”
Now 20, Terry isn’t just a talented Para athlete who excels in swimming, and won the archery title at the weekend’s Halberg Games in Auckland.
She’s also a passionate advocate for kids with disabilities, and she spent most of the weekend dressed in a blue tutu helping other young athletes try out different sports to realise their potential. She’s a firm believer that small steps eventually move mountains.
Of course, she still harbours her own dream to compete at the Paralympics. “But if I don’t, it’s not the end of the world. It’s more about the journey, and the experiences I have along the way,” she says.
And if she doesn’t get there as a competitor, it’s not hard to picture Terry holding a lead role in a future New Zealand team. Chef de mission, perhaps. “One hundred percent, I’ll get myself there somehow,” she says with one of her huge grins.
Terry is already asserting herself as a leader. Last year, she was a finalist in the young leader category of the national Women of Influence Awards. She coaches three young Para swimmers at her Te Arawa club in Rotorua.
She’s a member of the Halberg Youth Council, representing the voices of young athletes like her, where it’s her goal to “grow more leaders”.
And she was the usher who escorted New Zealand’s athletes of the decade – rowers Hamish Bond and Eric Murray – to the stage at last month’s Halberg Awards.
And yet four years ago, this was a girl who’d hide at the back of the room rather than be seen in front of an audience. Her immersion in Para sport has changed that.
“Now I’m like ‘Yeah I’ll do it’. I still get nervous, but you’ve just got to put yourself out there,” Terry says.
This was her fourth time competing at the Halberg Games – the annual three-day sports event for young people with a physical disability or visual impairment. Wearing a blue hair ribbon and tutu to proudly represent her Bay of Plenty team, Terry stood at the end of the King’s College pool on the opening day of competition – but wearing a stopwatch, rather than goggles and cap.
She’d decided not to swim at these games. It was, after all, only a couple of weeks since she competed at the AON NZ swimming championships, notching up personal best times in all of her S10 classification events, and winning a bronze medal in the women’s 200m freestyle.
Instead, she was a timekeeper and a supporter – hugging and reassuring nervous young swimmers and helping to lower others into the pool. She was also there as coach, with one of her swimmers, 13-year-old Liam Reinders, competing.
Terry, who wears a splint on her left leg when she’s out of the pool, took the opportunity to try new sports on the other days of competition – touch rugby, wheelchair basketball, archery. She’s had to give up running – the constant impact took its toll on her foot and knee – but she’s determined to do a marathon one day.
At the end of the weekend, she was crowned the top archer and was second in both shot put and discus in her division.
But the highlight of the Games for Terry was the time spent helping the other 194 athletes (a record for the Halberg Games). “I just want to be there for the kids,” she says.
“Words can’t describe how important it is to me. How inspiring they are. They give you the drive to keep going and be that role model.
“And they have no idea yet that this is such a good foundation for everything that’s ahead of them in their lives.”
Terry shared a dorm house with Black Ferns and Kiwi Ferns star, Honey Hireme-Smiler, the Halberg senior advisor in the Waikato.
“Siobhan brings so much energy to everything she does,” Hireme-Smiler says. “She’s such a happy person, always smiling, and mature for her age as well. She’s so good at putting her hand up at Youth Council and leading the group – ‘C’mon guys let’s go and do this’.”
Born in Rotorua, Terry moved with her family to Australia when she was two. “I was the only kid in my whole primary school with a disability,” she says.
A decade later, she moved back to Rotorua and was playing a raft of sports, but it was cross country she was most drawn to. She’s indebted to the teacher who introduced her to Para athletics. “Then Parafed Bay of Plenty found me and I got involved in the Halbergs,” she says.
When injuries forced her to switch to the pool, Terry immediately made her mark – in 2017, becoming the first Para swimmer from Rotorua to compete at the NZ Open swimming championships, racing alongside Paralympic legend Sophie Pascoe.
Terry wants to go as far as she can in the pool. “As long as I love the sport, I won’t be giving up any time soon,” she says.
But at the same time, she has big ambitions on land. She’s in her final year studying for a bachelor of sport and recreation at Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology, and wants to work in Para sport.
“That means everything to me. Not having this opportunity growing up but having it now and being able to be in a role where I can help others, I love it,” she says.
Through the Halberg Youth Council, Terry wants to give more kids the confidence to take up leadership roles.
“In disability sports there isn’t really a clear pathway to become leaders. So it would be great if we can let them know when they grow up this is what you can do, this is where you can go, and we can help guide them into it,” she says.
Shelley McMeeken, the Halberg Foundation’s chief executive, says seats on the Youth Council are in demand, but Terry had demonstrated her own ‘super powers’ to earn hers.
“Siobhan had such a wide, varied background and had already shown some really keen leadership. She fabulous on social media – a natural, authentic storyteller,” McMeeken says.
“And it’s really important that young people with disabilities can actually connect with people like themselves.
“We say we can influence young people, but we love to take it to the next level and actually transform lives.”