“I am a daughter. I am a partner. I am a sister, an auntie, a friend, a cousin, and a colleague,” says Dame Sophie Pascoe.
She is, of course, also a champion swimmer – which was the only way she thought of herself until recently. Swimming was her identity, end of story. But the past few years have taught Pascoe an enormous amount – about balance, love, and who she really is.
And after her darkest days – when her team had to pull her out of “severe depression” – she’s discovered there’s much more to life than just being ‘Sophie Pascoe the swimmer’.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned – thanks to my identity crisis during Covid – is that I’m worth more than my gold medals,” she says. “It’s been a game-changer for how I approach sport and life.”
As a result, Pascoe now only makes goals for the year ahead. And her number one goal this year isn’t to add to her tally of 21 world championships medals, although she’d like to do that too. Her top priority, she says, is her wedding.
“It’s already a successful goal,” she adds. Her marriage to fiancé Rob Samson is set for mid-year. Soon after, she will contest the world Para swimming championships, in Manchester, where she aims to qualify for the Paris 2024 Paralympics.
Dame Sophie Pascoe celebrated her 30th birthday in Fiji with fiance, Rob Samson.
So how did the 11-time Paralympic gold medallist find balance as a high performance athlete?
Pascoe’s journey of transformation began in March 2020, when life as she knew it began to unravel.
Up until that point, she’d immersed herself in successive four-year cycles – preparing for Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016 – with a single-minded focus on success. And she’d mirrored this approach for the 2020 Paralympics.
“Preparing for Tokyo, I focused only on the black line. I’d set an extremely high goal that no able-bodied New Zealander or Paralympian had ever achieved, and I knew I was going to achieve it.”
But what she was really doing, she says, “was barely seeing my family and friends and pushing relationships aside. I was living behind a facade. I wasn’t really me; I was only an athlete – and so robotic. I figured that’s what it was going to take.”
Was she happy? No – there were lots of tears behind closed doors, she admits.
But she was breaking world records. The week before the 2020 New Zealand Swimming Championships – “the same week before Covid threw a big spanner in the works” – she broke the 50m freestyle world record during training.
“I was sure I was headed for a fantastic nationals. All my family and friends were going to be there. I was going to put on an absolute display for them.
“But we went into lockdown, and nationals got taken away, just like that. And not just nationals, Tokyo was postponed. Everything was taken away in the space of one day,” she says.
It left Pascoe thinking: “What now? Do I have to go through another year of this pain, this love-hate relationship with the black line?”
The Tokyo Paralympics had always been her long-term goal. “I’d thought 2020 was possibly going to be ‘my bang’,” she says. “I had no idea what came next. And now I had no control over any of it.”
Unable to go to the pool, Pascoe found herself isolating alone when her flatmates had to move out. “Things began spiralling pretty quickly,” she says. “I was advised by my sport psychologist to find somebody to join my bubble.”
Samson, who she’d been dating for a few months at the time, agreed to move in.
“I felt like I had a purpose when Rob moved in. I wanted to cook really nice meals and it brought me back to who I actually was. I got to be Sophie again.”
But things “really spiralled” after lockdown, when Rob moved back to his place and Pascoe returned to the pool and her athletic routine.
Her biomechanist, Matt Ingram, and life advisor of 17 years, Olympic swimmer Anna Simcic, noticed Pascoe was not herself.
Pascoe remembers the day she walked into High Performance Sport New Zealand: “And Anna and Matt pulled me aside and said, ‘Are you okay?’
“It took that one simple question for me to realise, I wasn’t. I remember thinking, through the tears: ‘I don’t want to be here anymore. I can’t do this. I don’t understand what my purpose is. I don’t even know how I’m going to get to where I was before.’
“In lockdown, I’d glimpsed getting to be Sophie around someone I really liked and who liked me back. But I was wondering: how will Rob fit into my world if I go back to the way I know gets gold medals.”
“Team Pascoe” sprung into action, providing “an incredible support system” and adding a clinical psychologist into the mix.
“I started to more fully understand who I was. My sole identity as a swimmer had left me in a dark place. When swimming was taken away, I felt like I had nothing.
“It took Team Pascoe and a lot of work with experts to get me out of a severe depression. I wouldn’t ever want to go through it again, but I gained so much knowledge and know how to protect myself now.
“It ended up being a huge positive. I gained an amazing fiancé. It’s changed my whole outlook. Now I know I’m worth more than success in the pool.”
Pascoe remembers having struggled with self-worth despite the many accolades, recalling the time she won gold in the 100m butterfly S10 at Rio 2016, but was completely dissatisfied because she was 0.05 seconds off her world record.
“Anyone would be happy to win a gold medal. But I was so hard on myself, and thought it wasn’t good enough.”
“Now, when I touch the end of the wall and look up at the scoreboard, I’m proud of myself, no matter what the number is,” she says.
Pascoe’s pandemic rollercoaster culminated at the Paralympics in Tokyo. When she arrived at the Games village in 2021, she was carrying a secret: not long beforehand, she’d contracted respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Her final preparations had been significantly impacted.
“I’d only been well and able to train again for about a week. At previous games I could mostly control the outcome. This time I couldn’t. So it was an unusual feeling going up behind the blocks, knowing I’d done everything I could to get there, with no idea what I was going to achieve.”
“But I was proud to have made it to the Games after the emotional rollercoaster I’d been on. And I still won a silver, followed it with a bronze, then a gold and another gold, with a blackout in between.
“It was the most unusual games in history. And I had a most unusual journey, a very traumatizing journey, but one I’ve learned from.”
While Pascoe didn’t quite achieve the extreme goals she’d originally set herself, she now knows how to feel like a winner no matter what.
“Whatever I achieve, I’m still going to have people who love me. I’m worth more than gold medals,” she says. “I still have the drive to win and stand on the podium and listen to the national anthem. But no matter whether I achieve my goals or not, I’m still walking away winning.”
For the new Dame Sophie Pascoe, living a happy, well-balanced life trumps everything.
“If someone said to me, ‘This is how you’re going to win a gold medal – but you’ve got to give up these things’ – no, I couldn’t do it now,” she says.
Last year, Pascoe began working with a new coach, former national swim coach Brett Naylor, and says they have an “amazingly balanced coach-athlete relationship.” Her training programme has become “smarter”, and prioritises variety, and quality over quantity.
“A black line is not as riveting to me as it used to be,” quips Pascoe, adding that a pool can be a lonely and secluded place where it’s all too easy to overthink.
Now she supplements her reduced swim training schedule with gym workouts, high intensity interval training (HIIT) and yoga classes.
“I still have the heart for racing. I still love the feel of the adrenaline kick you get so I know I’m still a competitor. But training has been adapted to my life.”
These days, it’s a life that includes far more than swimming. On International Women’s Day, Pascoe launched her ‘Dare to Dream’ programme, in conjunction with Westpac, where she travels the country, sharing her story of success and self-doubt with the aim of helping young people embrace their differences and reach for the stars.
She’s also laying the groundwork for life after sport, aided by Simcic and initiatives such as the Ernst & Young Women Athletes Business Network (WABN).
“Right from day one of WABN, I gained immediate confidence that there is a place in the business world for me post-swimming,” says Pascoe, who was part of a roundtable conference in Portland, Oregon, last month.
She explains she’s now in “the transition phase” of her sporting career and builds on her future plans every day.
At last week’s national championships in Auckland, Pascoe swam a season’s best in the 50m freestyle, then after a five-minute turnaround, anchored the mixed multiclass 4 x 100m medley relay to a New Zealand record and qualification for the world championships. It was the first time the team had raced together.
How will she know when it’s time to retire from elite sport?
“I’ll never lose the passion for swimming,” she says. “But when I don’t have that fire in the belly for racing, that will be the time to hang up the [competition] togs.”
So will we definitely see her contest a fifth Paralympic Games at Paris 2024?
“Let’s see,” Pascoe says. “I want to focus on one goal at a time. A lot can change in a year. But the fact I’m making the journey to qualify for Paris at worlds is obviously saying something in itself.”
As well as broadening her identity beyond swimming, Pascoe has gained a whole new identity – as a Dame.
“I’m still very much Sophie around my peers. But it’s a huge title and honour to receive and has enhanced my platform, allowing me to use my voice to help the Paralympic movement, empower others, and make positive impacts in society,” she says.
“I’m a believer that things happen for a reason. I believe in fate. I had the accident [leaving her with an amputation below the knee when she was a two-year-old] for a reason: I’m now able to help change perceptions of people with disabilities.”
Similarly, Pascoe believes her journey through depression happened for a reason, ultimately leading her to a far more positive place, and equipping her to help others.
“When people are struggling, it’s about pulling them aside and saying, ‘Are you okay? Can I help you?’ And most importantly, making people aware they are loved.
“It took me understanding that I am loved for me to be able to enjoy the journey and path I’m on now.”