On a night where Sophie Pascoe claimed her 11th Paralympic gold in dramatic fashion, her swimming flatmate in Tokyo, Nikita Howarth, swam to her own victory, of sorts.
Nikita Howarth will bring home a handful of metal to remember the Tokyo Paralympic Games by. Just not the kind she wants to keep.
Eleven metal screws and pins and a plate in her elbow – after a skateboarding lesson four months ago went terribly wrong – ensured the three-time Paralympic swimmer got to step up onto the starting blocks for the first time in Tokyo on Wednesday.
Making the final of the 100m breaststroke S7 was a massive achievement, only six weeks after her surgeon gave her the all-clear to dive back in the pool, following surgery that was like repairing a shattered glass.
Then to finish fourth in the medal race, just 1.6s off bronze, was even more remarkable. “I wasn’t expecting to come about a month ago,” Howarth said after the race. “So the fact that I’m here, and raced in a final, is quite cool.”
An hour later, Howarth was in the stands cheering as Paralympic legend Sophie Pascoe dramatically won her second gold in 24 hours – and her fourth medal of these Games – in the 200m individual medley. Pascoe needed medical attention immediately afterwards, when she “blacked out” on the side of the pool and had to be cut out of her swimsuit. She was fine afterwards, but put it down to not taking a breath for the last 10m of the race desperate to cling on for the gold.
At the track, their Kiwi team-mate sprinter Danielle Aitchison doubled her medal tally with bronze in the 100m T36.
Howarth’s family would normally have joined her in the pool stands – they were there in force at the last two Paralympics. Instead, in these odd times, they were back home in Cambridge, but still celebrating what she’d achieved.
“It’s been such a rollercoaster ride just getting to these Games, she was a winner before she even got onto the blocks,” her mum, Carmel, says.
It has to be said, Howarth has never been short on determination. As an eight-year-old, she met Olympic gold medallist Sarah Ulmer at school, and promptly came home and told her parents she was going to be a Paralympian.
Five years later, she became New Zealand’s youngest ever Paralympian, when she competed at the London 2012 Games as a 13-year-old. Another four years, and she was a Paralympic champion, winning gold and bronze at the Rio Olympics.
Then she left swimming to take up Para cycling – chasing another dream she’d had since she was a kid. She immediately broke a world sprint record and started training for Tokyo, but developed psoriasis and the pain forced her to give up riding. She then returned to the pool and kept her goal of a third Paralympics alive.
Then in April this year, 22-year-old Howarth was spending time in Raglan with her partner, who’s a keen surfer and skateboarder. She broke her left arm so badly trying a move on his skateboard that the first doctor who saw her doubted her chances of competing at the Paralympics four months later.
“It was a shocking break,” Carmel Howarth says. “The surgeon said it was like trying to put a shattered glass back together.”
Howarth was born with a bilateral upper limb deficiency, which made the repair that much more difficult. “The surgeon had never done that operation on someone without a hand before,” Carmel says.
She couldn’t start swimming again until July 12 – just six weeks before the Paralympics began. “Even then she could only kick to start with,” Carmel says.
As she warmed up in the pool during the week, she wore a brace to protect the arm. She admitted after the 100m breaststroke final, the break was still causing her grief.
“So much. It definitely impacts my training and my racing,” she said. “But at the end of the day, I’ve just got to get it fixed when I get back home, and then hopefully it should be good.”
Carmel Howarth wasn’t surprised her daughter pushed her recovery faster than normal. “Her determination is phenomenal, it always has been. But she doesn’t exactly see it. She doesn’t realise how inspiring she is to other people,” she says.
She sent her a text in the morning that said: “Go hard, Toes, and have fun.” (Why Toes? “Because she doesn’t have hands,” Carmel laughs).
After her heat she rang the family on a group chat, including her sisters Rhiannon and Astrid, and dad Steve. “She was really happy,” Carmel says. “Even though she said her time wasn’t anywhere near her personal best, we told her we didn’t expect that. She said to us what if I don’t medal? I said ‘So? Just have a good swim and enjoy it’.
“The fact she’s even in Tokyo is phenomenal.”
Howarth was the last of the New Zealand Para swimmers in Tokyo to get her chance to race, eight days into the Games competition. She still has the 50m butterfly on Friday – the event in which she won bronze in Rio five years ago. She withdrew from her gold-medal event, the 200m individual medley SM7, knowing she wouldn’t have the race fitness with her bad break.
She’d got a little bored waiting eight days for her first race, unable to go anywhere with the strict Covid protocols. “It’s been quite strange for them, confined to their apartment or the pool,” says Carmel (all of the Kiwi swimmers share a four-bedroom apartment in the village). “This was the first Paralympics where Nikita wasn’t considered a child. But she hasn’t had the freedom to get out and see things.”
Howarth is used to having her family in the stands at the Paralympics, and even hearing her very vocal mum from the pool. “I yell every time she lifts her head in breaststroke,” Carmel says. “She told me once that I was the reason at the Rio Games the swimmers had to come off the blocks in one race, because I’d been yelling after the starter’s whistle. I told her it wasn’t me, but she’s adamant it was.
“It’s bizarre to watch her on TV, but you still get all the same nerves. Five minutes before the race my heart starts racing.”
As Pascoe held on for victory from a fast-closing Zsofia Konkoly, she beamed and held up four fingers. It was a ‘four-peat’ – the fourth time she’s won gold in the 200m individual medley across four Paralympic Games.
She stormed ahead in the opening butterfly leg, and, unchallenged, looked certain of the gold turning into the final freestyle 50m almost 4s ahead. But Hungarian Konkoly made a late charge and Pascoe clung to the gold, touching the wall just 0.27s ahead.
But she said her body was in agony as lactic acid built up in the final leg, and she didn’t take a breath in the last 10 metres. She remembers little of what happened next, other than blacking out.
Pascoe swore afterwards it would be the last time we’d see her race in the 200m individual medley, one of the toughest events in swimming.
New Zealand’s most decorated Paralympian now owns 11th Paralympics golds – and could make that 12 on Thursday in her final event, and her favourite, the 100m butterfly.
Another Kiwi woman made a final in the pool on Wednesday, with backstroke gold medallist Tupou Neuifi making the top eight for the 50m freestyle S8 splash and dash. Despite a powerful start, she was quickly mowed down and finished fifth.
At the Olympic Stadium, Aitchison was confident of gold in the 100m T36 at the Olympic Stadium, having recorded the fastest qualifying time. But with her cerebral palsy, she didn’t recover as fast for the evening final. “It was brutal,” she said, after crossing the line in a photo finish for second to fourth.
Aitchison flies home on Thursday, proud of her bronze and the silver she picked up in the 200m. Both of her races were won by China’s Shi Yiting, who ran a world record 13.61s in the 100m.