After a year of living in fear in Covid-ravaged Europe, Kiwi Paralympian Miriam Sheppard is back home and picking up new challenges – throwing metal and diving into oceans, Ashley Stanley discovers.

Miriam Sheppard is not quite done with sport yet. In her mid-30s, the Paralympian still has plenty of fire in her belly.

That’s why she’s picked up a discus and a javelin, and has set her sights on swimming across Cook Strait in the not too distant future.

She’s already represented New Zealand in swimming and triathlon. And then moved into a different area of sport, working for the International Paralympic Committee in Bonn, Germany.

But Paralympian #147, who swam at the 2004 Athens Games, wants to give other disciplines a good crack to see where they land her. 

In the last five years, Sheppard (née Jenkins) has become interested in throwing the discus. “This is kind of a recent thing, that I wished I had known about earlier in my life,” she says. 

“I didn’t have an opportunity to really try throwing when I was younger and I think I could’ve probably been a good discus thrower, so I’d like to try and see if I can.” 

The 35-year-old is also going to try her hand at throwing the javelin, and get back into swimming – but this time in the ocean, to swim seven of the world’s toughest open water challenges.

Sheppard says picking up new sports in your 30s isn’t the easiest, but there are quite a few Para athletes who have started later in life, or transitioned from another sport and have been successful.

Miriam Sheppard competing in the heats of the S9 women’s 400m freestyle at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games. Photo: Hannah Johnston

During her time working with the IPC, Sheppard was involved in setting the qualifying standards for the European Para athletics championships in Poland. They’re taking place right now, the largest Para sport event being held before the Tokyo Paralympics start at the end of August.

“I used to look at [the qualifying standards] and be like ‘Yeah I could probably do that’,” she laughs. “But that might also be wishful thinking.”

Her track record suggests otherwise. Sheppard won gold at the 2009 ITU Paratriathlon, becoming the world champion in the TRI3 classification, and still holds the New Zealand Para women’s record for the 800m T37, on the athletics track. 

Her parents are originally from the United Kingdom, but Sheppard and her older sister, Louise, were born and raised in Kirikiriroa, Hamilton. 

She suffered a stroke when she was born which left her with mild cerebral palsy. The left side of her body was affected and she has issues with motor skills and balance.

It didn’t stop her playing a number of sports growing up including netball, soccer, water polo and hockey. But her true interest lay in swimming, triathlon and track and field. 

“I started swimming when I was six months old and I could swim before I could walk,” laughs Sheppard. “Individual sports were definitely my forté, especially swimming.”

Sheppard didn’t think her love for swimming would take her to places like the Paralympics and the IPC. 

“I really just loved being in the water and all types of water. I loved swimming in lakes, rivers, the sea and the pool,” she says. “I love being under the water. If I ever have a break from swimming, and then come back to it, when I go under I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, this is what it’s about’.”

She represented New Zealand in swimming from 2001 to 2006. But towards the end of her swimming career, she moved into competing for New Zealand in triathlon and in track and field events.

Miriam Sheppard competing in the 2012 world Para triathlon champs in Auckland. Photo: Getty Images. 

Triathlon was another sport Sheppard and her sister participated in when they were younger. When it was introduced into the 2000 Olympics, the Jenkins siblings’ interest in the sport grew. 

“I remember watching the Olympic triathlon with Louise, and Simon Whitfield from Canada won and we were both like ‘Wow, this is so cool’. So we started competing,” Sheppard recalls.

“When I went to world champs in 2009 and I won, I remember thinking then, ‘Oh could this mean that I’m all right at triathlon?’” She also competed at the 2012 ITU world triathlon grand final in Auckland and finished third in the TRI3 field. 

Track and field was something Sheppard picked up on her own when she was eight. “I would just go out and run because I wasn’t really good at it so I thought I should get better. Then I started going to athletics when I was 14,” she says.

But back then her commitment to swimming meant she didn’t have the same opportunity to compete in track and field.

She even met the qualifying standards for the 100m sprint in her Paralympic classification field as well as qualifying in swimming for Athens. “But it looked like I would do better in swimming so that’s what I got selected for,” says Sheppard. 

The 2004 Athens Paralympics was not a good time, admits Jenkins. “I didn’t like being there,” she says.

“I was pretty miserable so that was honestly a lowlight, which kind of sucks because the most important event in my career essentially was not enjoyable.” She finished sixth in her S9 women’s 400m freestyle heat and didn’t make the final. 

She puts it down to having a lot of things on her mind. Plus she was also only 18 at the time. 

“That’s kind of a dumb age. I felt like I had a really good lead up to that event, and I had very high expectations,” says Sheppard. “Then I performed, by my standards, very poorly and I didn’t make the final of the only event that I was competing in so it was very disappointing for me.”

Miriam Sheppard completing media duties after racing. Photo: Hannah Johnston

At the cerebral palsy world championships the following year, Sheppard ran in the 400m and 800m races as well as swimming. It would be the only time she was able to do both disciplines at the same time on the international stage. 

She came away with gold medals in three swimming events and the 800m track race, and two silvers in swimming and one in the 400m track event. 

It’s the 2009 triathlon world championships on the Gold Coast, though, that stick out when Sheppard reflects on her career. It was the first international event her family was able to attend, “and I had an extremely good swim that day,” she says. That year she was named Waikato Sportswoman of the Year and Tri New Zealand’s Performer of the Year in 2010.

It’s her experience and skill that saw Sheppard land the IPC competitions manager role nearly two years ago. Within three weeks of receiving the news, Sheppard had left her job at the Department of Conservation at Aoraki Mt Cook and had moved to the German city of Bonn.

It was, she says, a really cool experience. “Something that I really like doing is looking at results and most of my job was checking and uploading results from Para athletic meets around the world. So that was a real highlight for me in the role,” she says.

She also worked at the 2019 world championships in Dubai, and managed to see a lot of her friends who were part of the New Zealand team.

Covid-19 meant her role at IPC changed: “I was planning to be the main coordinator for the Grand Prix series that world Para athletics host each year and then every single event got cancelled. So that was really difficult.” Sheppard moved to running the online education programme for Para athletics technical officials.  

“But then it just got really difficult to live in Germany,” Sheppard says. “Being afraid, but also having cerebral palsy makes you more susceptible to getting Covid and having longer lasting side effects from it. 

“So I just lived in fear basically for all of last year and then flew back to Aotearoa in October.” 

NZ Paralympians Miriam Sheppard and Duane Kale, vice president of the International Paralympic Committee, receive their Paralympian official numbers in Germany. Photo: Paralympics NZ

Sheppard was in Germany for only 15 months and says it’s a part of the world she’d like to return to eventually.

“I do really love athletics and I think it’s a life changing thing for so many people. It gives them so many opportunities, and it’s nice to be involved in that,” she says. 

“But I’m also really passionate about conservation and the environment which is why I’m at DoC.” Sheppard is now back there working in their internal communications team. 

Of the lessons Sheppard learned in her career, being patient is the main one. Lockdown tested her patience last year but she kept moving once the gyms re-opened. Her motivation will help when she swims in the inaugural Hot Spring Spas Iceberg event on Waiheke Island in early July.

She’s completed other New Zealand Ocean Swim Series events but she’s enjoying working towards a goal after a couple of tumultuous years.  “Just going to the gym every day with no goal sometimes gets a bit tiring,” says Sheppard. 

“And to be honest, I really want to win. When I entered, I was like ‘Yeah I’m going to win’, and then there’s also prizemoney so that will be cool.” 

Sheppard still has a bucket list to tick off in the sport. 

“I told my dentist in 2001 that I was going to swim Cook Strait the following year and I still haven’t done it. My dentist hasn’t let me forget about that so I want to swim it,” she says.

“And I’d like to complete the Oceans Seven, which is seven major ocean swims around the world. Ideally, Cook Strait first and then the Moloka’i Channel in Hawaii is my next goal. 

“I also spend a lot of time at the gym, so I think that would serve me quite well in throwing. I think my running days are over. But I’m keen to throw some tin around.”

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