As the curtain comes down on the Tokyo Paralympics, Suzanne McFadden looks back at the unforgettable moments of triumph and raw emotion from our Kiwi sportswomen
New Zealand in lockdown was a good thing for the Paralympic Games.
While Covid-19 confined the country to home, our athletes in Tokyo were enthralling us with powerful performances, edge-of-the-seat drama, and emotional outpourings. It was sport at its best.
Interest in Para sport surged as we tuned in online and on TV. We could have seen more – but the free-to-air coverage fell short of a personal best. The Para athletics field events, where New Zealand won four medals, suffered most, and we were dished up a disappointing sliver of live action.
It wasn’t our most successful Paralympic in terms of medals. New Zealand won 12 in total – down from 18 that the team brought home from Rio five years ago.
But 10 of the medals from Tokyo were won by women; sprinter-jumper Will Stedman was the sole male medallist.
All the medals came from either the pool or track and field. The cycling team didn’t get on the board. In some sports, New Zealand were on the back foot, not having had the same exposure to international competition in the past year as other nations.
It was a relatively green team and New Zealand’s chef de mission, Paula Tesoriero, was happy to have 18 new Paralympians, who she says have set a solid foundation for the Paris Paralympics in three years time. “I certainly believe every one of our athletes left everything they had out there. And that’s all we expected of them, that they gave it their best,” she says.
Another side to Sophie
Sophie Pascoe wore her heart on her sleeve at these Paralympics. Never before have we seen her so candid or so vulnerable, giving us a glimpse of how heavily the past 18 months have weighed on her. And yet she managed to further embed herself as one of New Zealand’s greatest athletes, raising her total haul to 19 Paralympic medals.
The mental strength and resilience of Paralympians has never been questioned, but we got to see more of that at these Games with so many extra challenges at play.
In tearful – sometimes sobbing – post-race interviews, Pascoe revealed how she’d struggled mentally with the pandemic lockdowns and the one-year postponement of the Games, which affected her motivation and her training. Her reasons for swimming.
She didn’t swim near her best, really hurting in the last 25m of her races, yet still won four medals. She needed to be cut from her togs and given oxygen pool-side after winning the individual medley, and was exhausted by the time she reached her fifth event, the 100m butterfly, and for the first time in her four-Games career, she failed to win a medal in a final.
But maybe we all came to revere Pascoe that much more more when we saw that fragility, that self-doubt, and how much performing at her very best means to her. She’s the embodiment of disabled sport, but also of all athletes who struggle sometimes.
A damehood for Pascoe must now be on the cards (Dame Sarah Storey, Britain’s greatest Paralympian, won her 17th gold medal in Para cycling in Tokyo; Pascoe has 11).
You get the feeling Lisa Adams could be in this for the long haul, just like her sister/coach, Olympic icon Dame Valerie. Lisa Adams dominated the shot put F37 – all six of her throws went further than anyone else in the field, and she broke the Paralympic record four times.
And just as she did after finishing seventh in the discus, as the last Kiwi to compete in Tokyo, Adams spoke of the pure fun she’d had out in the middle. You can expect her to be back in Paris in 2024 (although she may need permission from her son).
Sprinting has given Danielle Aitchison the ability to walk unaided – and two Paralympic medals at her first attempt.
Her smile after winning her first medal – silver in the 200m T36 – was priceless. The 20-year-old, who has two rare forms of cerebral palsy, backed it up with a bronze. Tesoriero was impressed by the “lovely, understated way” Aitchison went about her preparation and her performances.
And I’ll include Tupou Neiufi in this category – even though she competed at the 2016 Games in Rio. She was just 15 then and a late call-up to the New Zealand team, swimming in one event.
Her gold medal in the 100m backstroke S8 was New Zealand’s first gold in Tokyo, the most memorable because it was the least expected but reflected Neiufi’s dedication over five years (including leaving school early to train) and how far she’s come.
Otago gold rush
They’re Dunedin’s track and field superstars, and Anna Grimaldi and Holly Robinson probably both benefited from the year-long postponement of the Paralympics.
Long jumper Grimaldi, a gold medallist in Rio, was sidelined for two years after breaking her foot in 2017. And Robinson, who won silver with the javelin five years ago, was hit with physical and mental exhaustion in 2019.
Both could have quit, but they came back stronger this summer, and kept us on the edge of our seats in a rainy Tokyo last Friday – Grimaldi breaking the Paralympic record on her first leap and staying in front for the rest of the competition; Robinson pulling out a clutch sixth and final throw to fly from bronze to gold.
“I’m so proud of our Para athletics bubble, we are lit, we are mean. We had eight Paralympians in our group, our crew got seven medals. Especially the girls – we got three golds, a silver and a bronze,” Lisa Adams, first in shotput, seventh in discus.
“I did really leave it all out there and even left some on the side of the pool. But that is what a fight is all about and I really wanted it, I wanted to make it a four-peat… It just came down to that last 10 metres not breathing,” – Sophie Pascoe, after blacking out after winning the 200m medley, and her 12th Paralympic gold medal.
“Rio, I won on accident and this time I did it on purpose,” Anna Grimaldi on back-to-back long jump golds.
“It’s been such a rollercoaster ride just getting to these Games, she was a winner before she even got onto the blocks,” Carmel Howarth, on her daughter Nikita’s fourth place in the 100m breaststroke S7 with a broken arm.
Sports it would be cool to see Kiwi women in at Paris 2024
How about some women in the Wheel Blacks? It’s a mixed gender event, and having a female athlete on the court comes with points benefits. There are women competing in the sport in New Zealand, so it would be great to see the team back in the next Paralympics (after finishing eighth after a 13-year absence) with female faces.
A women’s five-a-side football event – so far, there’s only ever been a men’s competition for blind athletes in the Paralympics, because too few nations have women’s teams. It’s fast, skillful and mindboggling.
Wheelchair fencing – it’s like ballet with a weapon. Just look at the speed, strength and grace of Bebe Vio of Italy, who removes all four of her prosthetic limbs to fence (she had meningitis at 11) yet decisively won her second consecutive gold in the women’s foil in Tokyo.
Behind the scenes of a peculiar Games
As the Kiwi team packed up in Tokyo, chef de mission Tesoriero – who’s also our Disability Rights Commissioner, said there’s nowhere she feels more comfortable than in a Paralympic Games village.
A Para cycling gold medallist at the 2018 Beijing Games and a broadcaster in Rio 2016, Tesoriero says she’s never had a better insight into the mammoth operation that is the Paralympic Games, or what’s needed to look after a national team – especially in the most trying circumstances.
“On a personal level, my love of the Paralympics continues to grow. For me, there’s no more comfortable place to be than in a Paralympic Games village,” she says. “It’s like a little world of disability.
“There are more people like me, no awkward stares, and most things are accessible. I wish the rest of the world could be like that. More social inclusion, greater accessibility.”
The New Zealand team benefited from going further than the recommended safety protocols, and made their bubble as small as they could – not having cleaners on their floor of the village, utilising fewer volunteers. Even Tesoriero didn’t go to watch the athletes compete in person – instead she welcomed them back to the village afterwards and focused on their pastoral care.
“The challenge for us coming from a country that’s extremely vigilant around Covid, was seeing other nations who were less vigilant. And reminding the team that you can only control what you can control,” she says.
As they did with the opening ceremony, the New Zealand team chose not to attend the Games’ closing extravaganza. It was too much of a risk, Tesoriero says, after keeping the team safe from Covid right through the Games. And most had already flown home.
But on Sunday night, the Sky Tower back in Auckland lit up gold (for medals) and purple (the international colour of disability awareness).
“We got our athletes here safely, they produced great performances and won medals,” Tesoriero says. “And to get everyone home Covid-free and safe is a great achievement.”
New Zealand’s Paralympic medals in Tokyo
Tupou Neuifi – 100m backstroke S8
Sophie Pascoe (2) – 100m freestyle S9; 200m individual medley SM9
Lisa Adams – shot put F37
Anna Grimaldi – long jump T47
Holly Robinson – javelin F46
Pascoe – 100m breaststroke SB8
Danielle Aitchison – 200m T36
William Stedman – long jump T36
Pascoe – 100m backstroke S9
Aitchison – 100m T36
Stedman – 400m T36