Sionann Murphy has ‘pushed and fought’ to open the door for other young Para athletes. Now her focus is on competing at next year’s Commonwealth Games – in two sports.
While Paralympians like Sophie Pascoe and Cameron Leslie have become household names in New Zealand, the name Sionann Murphy is not yet well-known. But if her current record is anything to go on, she may soon join their ranks.
And, if she has her way, as a star in more than one sport.
Sionann (pronounced Shannon) Murphy is already prominent in swimming and athletics circles. Not content with shining in just one sport, Murphy is a champion breaststroke swimmer and a champion athlete – in the 100m sprint, shot put and discus events. At only 16, she’s racked up an impressive list of titles and records.
At the 2021 Halberg Games, she won the Sir Murray Halberg Cup for most outstanding athlete. She’d already won awards for best female swimmer and best female athlete. When she heard her name called for the Games’ leading award, she was amazed.
“I couldn’t believe my luck,” the Northcote College Year 12 pupil says. “It’s one of my biggest achievements.”
And she’s had several big achievements this year alone. At the New Zealand track and field championships in Hastings, Murphy – who has cerebral palsy – won the women’s Para senior discus event, breaking the U20 F37 record.
“I did a massive PB [personal best] and I was over the moon,” she says. “I’d been hunting down the record ever since I got the under-20 shot put record last year.”
Then at the Aon national age group swimming championships (NAGS), she had her “best comp ever”, breaking the New Zealand ‘16 and under’ Para records in the women’s SB6 100m breaststroke and the S6 50m freestyle, as well as the New Zealand open record for SB6 100m breaststroke, She also won the Hansells Trophy for breaking a New Zealand age group record by the greatest margin.
“There were many swimmers who broke New Zealand age group records at NAGS – both Para and ‘able bods’- so for a Para athlete to win was an incredible feeling,” she says.
Murphy is determined to continue juggling athletics and swimming for as long as she can.
“I would love to be the first Kiwi woman to go to the Paralympics in two sports. That’s literally been my dream from when I was seven,” she says.
However it’s a dream that not all her coaches share. Murphy was mortified when a former coach said she should quit swimming to concentrate on athletics.
“I stopped swimming for a while and my friend noticed that I didn’t seem myself. I didn’t know what was wrong with me,” she says. “But when I went for a swim after three months, I suddenly realised that it was swimming that had been missing.
“I have such a passion for swimming; a hard swimming session can turn me as happy as hell. Plus, swimming makes a big difference to my athletics.”
Murphy, who has mild paralysis to her right side, says she’s convinced that swimming greatly helps with her disability.
“I treat swimming as therapy basically – hard core therapy – and it has definitely helped my cerebral palsy,” she says.
Murphy continued to worry that she might be forced to choose one sport over the other, until happily discovering she could compete at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in both swimming and athletics.
It will be the first time Murphy’s specialty swimming event – SB6 women’s 100m breaststroke – has been included in the Commonwealth Games. And it’s the first time since 2010 that the women’s 100 metres T37 event has been on the athletics schedule.
“It’s not common to have your event included in the Commonweatlh Games, so to have an event in both of my sports is a huge privilege,” she says.
As well as aiming for those Games in July next year – in one or both of her sports -Murphy also hopes to represent New Zealand at the world athletics championships in Oregon earlier that month. Beyond that, she’s aiming for the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris. It’s an event she first set her sights on when she saw two-time Paralympic swimming champion Mary Fisher on television.
“After seeing Mary I remember saying, ‘I want to be a Paralympian in both my sports’,” she says. “It’s hard to do both, but I don’t think people realise how much determination I have. I will fight for as long as I can to do both.”
It’s not her many trophies and records that Murphy is most proud of. Rather, it’s the role she’s playing in helping the future of Para sport.
“The next generation of Para athletes will arrive to a sport that is more ready for them,” she says, having seen things begin to change, in part because of her involvement and influence.
“My goal from a young age has been to open up doors to Para athletes, because I knew from experience those doors were shut.”
For many years, Murphy was the only Para athlete at the athletics events she contested and thought nothing of competing against able-bodied athletes.
She went to New Zealand’s biggest athletic event for children – the Colgate Games – every year from the ages of nine to 14, sometimes beating able-bodied athletes. It wasn’t until her final year that a Para category was added to the Games and Murphy got to experience the elation of winning a medal.
“I thought, hallelujah – they’ve finally added a Para category. I’d been waiting for it for so long. Everyone knew me as that Para kid that never gives up, that Para kid that always shows up. Things are finally starting to change in athletics now.”
At times, Murphy says she’s had to fight to be included in athletics teams. “I had opportunities ripped away from me at the last minute. I was named in a team and then told I wasn’t going anymore. I’ve been through a lot,” she says.
“But my determination kicked in and I thought, right I’m going to prove everyone wrong, prove that I belong in the sport. You can’t tell me no. I’m going to be here. I’m going to compete. I don’t care if I don’t get any medals. I just want to be competing with my mates and for the love of sport.
“All that pushing and fighting has actually got me to where I am and opened up the door for new Para athletes. Now more Para athletes are showing up everywhere, and there’s a lot of talent.”
Murphy loves the social side of sport and appreciates the many friends she has made along the way.
“I’ve found my real friends. Real friends who understand how much I’ve been dreaming, what my dreams are, and how big I want to go,” she says. “I’ve achieved what I have because I’ve found the understanding, I’ve found the love, and I have the passion and the drive.”
In the swimming world, Murphy says Para swimmers are treated really well.
“Swimming is more equal, more inclusive,” she says. “They are so encouraging of Paras. At swimming events, you really get the feeling that you’ve accomplished something. I get interviewed at the end of races. They know who I am. They even say my name correctly.”
At the rate Sionann Murphy is going, there will be plenty more people who know who she is in the years ahead – as she continues to break down barriers and break new records in not just one, but two sports.