In the lead-up to the Paralympic Games, we chatted with Kiwi Paralympians and someone who’s helped them get to Tokyo. First up: Our most successful Paralympian and her beloved grandmother.
Growing up, Sophie Pascoe would shelter at her grandparents’ house in Christchurch between her two daily swimming sessions.
The youngster would dash through the door of Yvonne and John Goodman’s house to raid the pantry for her grandmother’s golden baking goods.
“I do have a bit of a sweet tooth, and Nana is an epic baker,” says Pascoe. “She doesn’t bake as much now, but that’s fine, because I bring the treats now. It works out like the circle of life.”
Sadly John, or ‘Gragra’ as Pascoe affectionately called her grandfather, passed away when she was 10. So it would be Nana who looked after her every day, taking the keen swimmer to and from the QEII Pool nearby, where New Zealand’s most decorated Paralympian still partly trains today.
With her parents’ house 40 minutes away, it was simpler for Pascoe to train in the morning, go back to the Goodmans’ to eat and sleep, then head back for another swimming session later on.
Even today, 28-year-old Pascoe says Yvonne is her “home”. “She’s the legacy of our family, the queen of our family, the person who brings us all together, and she’s just the biggest supporter that I have,” she says.
She can call her grandmother at all hours and Yvonne will pick up and listen – even at two in the morning. “She’s really my person of reassurance… she’s the person I tell my secrets to, she’s my everything. So I’m really lucky to have her,” Pascoe says.
But it’s Pascoe who, in turn, has been Nana’s rock.
When John passed away, he left a big hole in Yvonne’s life. “Sophie filled that hole so beautifully,” she says.
“Because I used to look after her during school holidays, we spent a lot of time together. I used to take her to the pool and pick her up and we’d spend nights together watching television, having meals and lots of laughs. Soph, she’s been my rock.
“I can still remember her saying to me after John died, ‘I’ll look after you Nana’, and she has, right to this day. And I was so thankful for her.”
Watching Pascoe train since she started competing at nine – and won (bronze medal at world champs) her first world title at 13 – meant Yvonne got to see “the real ups and downs of what swimming can bring,” Pascoe says.
“The real tough times, the times when you’re crying, and it’s so hard, and there is self-doubt. Everything that comes with sport.”
In the lead-up to the 2012 London Paralympics, her grandmother witnessed those raw, fluctuating emotions again.
“She has seen me when it’s been so tough, how much it takes for us to get to where we’ve got to. She’s been a massive influence,” says Pascoe, who’s collected 15 medals across three Games. “If I grow up to be like Nana, I’m going to be very proud.”
Before John passed away, he asked all of his beloved grandchildren what they wanted to be when they grew up. At the time, Pascoe – who’d lost her left leg below the knee and suffered severe damage to her right leg in a lawnmowing accident when she was two – was already making waves in the pool.
Her longtime coach, Roly Crichton, had already spotted her competing at a CCS Independence Games and had told Pascoe she had the talent to represent New Zealand on the world stage.
“So, I said to my Grandad, ‘I’m going to win a gold medal at the Paralympics’,” recalls Pascoe. “So not the generic answer most kids would’ve probably had for their grandfather, but that was mine.
“I had a promise and I stick to my promises. And to this day I still remember ringing up Nana from the village after my first gold medal in Beijing and saying that we did it for Gragra.”
When her 85-year-old grandmother reflects on that special moment over our three-way Zoom chat, she says she couldn’t believe her granddaughter was bringing a gold medal home for the country and her family.
“I think my biggest regret would be that [John] wasn’t there to see it happen. But I’m sure he would’ve been up there, somewhere, looking down. And I’m sure he is now, looking after us all. I think about him everyday, and I know Sophie does before all her swims.”
Yvonne has seen the four-time Paralympian swim at some of her biggest sporting events, including the 2012 London Games, where she won three gold and three silver medals (a step up from her three golds and one silver at her first Games in Beijing in 2008, aged 15).
At first, Yvonne wasn’t convinced she could make the trip to London after having an operation earlier that year. Her health had improved by the time the Paralympics rolled around but she was worried about keeping up with the pace and everything involved in travelling to an event of that magnitude.
But Pascoe was determined to have her nana there.
“I’ll never ever be able to thank her enough for actually forcing me to go over to London,” laughs Yvonne. “It was such a wonderful experience, not just to watch Sophie swim, but all the Paralympians.
“It’s just mind-blowing what the Paralympians can do, not just in swimming, but all the other sports. To be there with the explosive clapping and cheering, it was absolutely wonderful.”
Yvonne was also able to reconnect with some of her family in England who she left to live in New Zealand in 1953; they also were able to see Pascoe compete.
Despite the accident, Pascoe is the only swimmer in her family. Yvonne had a couple of near-death experiences around water so is not too keen on being in it. “But I still shower,” she laughs.
Pascoe says there’s quite a bit of fear around swimming in her family. “And this is why I’m such a big advocate because I actually learnt how to swim in primary school,” says Pascoe, who started aged seven. “It was part of our school curriculum back then, so it was built into our classes.
“Whereas today it’s not part of the curriculum, and it’s obviously quite expensive for people to swim. But it’s so important because we are surrounded by water in this country.
“It’s not just a sport for me, it’s about being an advocate to be able to save your life or somebody else’s life. It’s a full package of reasons why I do it and why I love it.”
On top of her Paralympic medals she has nearly 15 world titles and a swag of world records. In 2009, Pascoe was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to swimming.
With family and friends unable to travel to Tokyo because of Covid-19, Yvonne went to last year’s nationals instead to watch Pascoe qualify for the Paralympic Games.
“I’m glad I forced her to go again,” laughs Pascoe “Because if I can have Nana at as many events as possible, coming into my last years… I don’t know when I’m retiring by the way, but I am in the final stages of my career, and I don’t know when that’s going to end.
“So I want Nan to be at the finish line as well with me. It’s been really lovely to have her on the pool deck. And it doesn’t just feel like Nana – she’s Gragra as well, and she was very much both of them in London. She’s got the cheer of both of them anyway and she drinks as many wines as both of them.”
In those big sporting moments, Yvonne nervously watches on as Pascoe gets ready to compete. She’s hoping her granddaughter performs well, knowing how hard she has worked to get to those opportunities.
“All the athletes put so much time and effort into their sport,” Yvonne says. “They have to forgo so much in their lives to become what they want to be in sport, because if they don’t, they don’t get anywhere.”
Pascoe says she received so much love and encouragement throughout her childhood. “I was in and out of surgeries, right through primary up until I was 19,” she says.
“And I definitely believe if Mum and Dad wrapped me up in cotton wool, I would be a very different child and person now, but they very much left me to my own devices, and learnt how to adapt to society.”
Asked to describe one another, Yvonne says Pascoe was a “very determined little girl.”
“Right from a very early age and especially after her accident, she was determined to be like everyone else. I think this is why she’s so good at what she does, because she never ever gave up,” she says.
“As she was getting older and we would go out together, she would get a little bit ‘Oh they’re looking at me Nan’, and I would say to her, ‘Don’t worry darling, they might be looking at you, but you’re absolutely beautiful – inside and out’.
“And as she grew older, she had more confidence in herself. And we had to give her that confidence. And I think that confidence and that spirit she’s got, that’s seen her right through to this day.”
Pascoe’s parents, family and now partner, Rob Samson, have also been by her side offering support when needed, especially in the last year when the Games were postponed and Pascoe was out of the water for three months during lockdown in New Zealand.
Yvonne is also thankful for Rob and says the family loves him. “He’s so good to Sophie. He came at the right time, when she really did need somebody to be with her all the time because we can’t,” she says.
Her grandparents’ relationship is one Pascoe has always admired. “So, it’s nice to finally have that myself,” she says.
“It’s a really lonely sport, you have a lot of time to think, looking at that black line swimming up and down for two hours. So that’s why family, friends and Rob are so important to me.”
It’s Yvonne’s big heart that makes such an impact on people, says Pascoe. “She’s so supportive of everybody and her house is always open,” she says. “I think that’s what makes her feel like home, and a nana.
“And it’s like that for every grandchild, for every daughter and son, nieces and nephews, whoever – she’s got that door open, and she can make a really powerful impact on anybody.
“That to me is more powerful than swimming. But I know that it gives me the power to swim fast because I get to make her and Gragra proud.”
* The Paralympic Games in Tokyo start on August 24, and Pascoe will swim in five events, starting with the 100m freestyle SB8 on August 26.