Newly crowned world champion sprinter Danielle Aitchison is hurtling through a massive year of change – in the way she runs, in how she trains and how she’s helping change perceptions around disability.
The 22-year-old Paralympian has made “dramatic changes” to her running technique – which helped her bolt to her first gold medal over 200m at the world Para athletics championships in Paris in July.
“At the start of this year, my team and I weren’t happy with my progress. We were in a rut, doing the same old, same old and not getting any changes,” says Aitchison, who won silver and bronze at the Tokyo Paralympics two years ago.
“We knew I could go faster. So we broke it all down. And you come to realise there’s a lot to get right to make the perfect recipe for a sprinter.”
They’re edging closer to perfection – Aitchison smashing her own Oceania record and decimating the field to win the T36 200m final in 28.50s in Paris; and equalling the world record (13.68s) in the 100m heats before being pipped by her perennial rival, Yiting Shi of China, and having to settle for silver.
“It just makes me so excited to continue building on all those dramatic changes that we’ve made and see where it takes me,” she says.
Next stop: the Paris Paralympic Games in August next year.
As she continues with her new training regime in Hamilton, Aitchison has also started a new job – her first since completing her bachelor’s degree in social sciences this year. And she sees it as the ideal way for her to give back to Para sport, while she’s still at the top of her game.
Through a Prime Minister’s Scholarship, Aitchison has just begun an internship at Paralympics New Zealand, helping to run a programme sending ‘Parasport Champions’ into primary schools throughout the country.
It’s a programme she wishes had been around when she was a school kid in the rural Waikato town of Patetonga.
“Growing up in a small country school I knew I had a disability, but I just didn’t know there was Para sport or anything like it,” says Aitchison, who was born with cerebral palsy and almost complete hearing loss.
“I just competed in mainstream sport with all the other kids, which wasn’t an issue back then because we all supported each other. It wasn’t until I went into high school that I really found it difficult; when I was made to feel I was different from everyone else.
“I shut down and didn’t play any sport in high school. And that now makes me think if younger Danielle would have known about Para sport when she was a kid, and all the different sporting opportunities that are out there, I wouldn’t have had to go through those struggles at school.
“I really want kids with disabilities to know there’s a community and there are so many sports they can try. But I also want more kids, teachers and parents to be aware of disabilities and sport.”
Aitchison has insider knowledge. Last year, she was a Parasport Champion. Next week, she’ll help launch the Paralympic education programme nationwide.
“When I went into two schools last year, the kids were so excited to see me and they treated me like a celebrity,” she says. “They were asking ‘Do you want to race against me?’
“That’s what I really love about kids – they’re like sponges, they want to learn and they don’t care if people are different.”
Paralympics NZ have taken the ‘I’mPossible’ education programme of the global Paralympic movement and fine-tuned it to align with the New Zealand school curriculum.
“We also developed the Parasport Champions, our athlete ambassador programme, and in our pilot we had 11 Paralympians and Para athletes visit 20 primary schools across the country,” says Melissa Dawson, strategic engagement manager at Paralympics NZ. “These athletes have such important stories, and we help them to tell their story and bring the Paralympic values to life.”
Aitchison is one of six High Performance Sport NZ athletes to receive paid internships through the Prime Minister’s Scholarship programme this year. Olympic silver medallist sailor Alex Maloney is doing her internship through Mercy Ascot Hospitals working in change management.
Aitchison’s degree major in education and society meant the Paralympic NZ role was the perfect fit. She’s working alongside education lead, Kasey Wilson, recruiting and training 20 athletes to become Parasport Champions, then coordinating their school visits.
“Danielle is really driven, organised and good at managing her time. She has a real passion for the Paralympic movement and her insider perspective is really valuable,” says Dawson.
“We want to have as many Paralympians – retired or still competitive – working within the Paralympic movement.”
The year-long role also works for Aitchison, who’s looking to find her career pathway after the Paris Games.
She can’t wait to experience a Paralympics that isn’t delayed and then distorted by a global pandemic with masks and distancing. And she’s armed with the confidence she’s capable of winning gold. “I’m in a such a better space, in terms of what I’m aiming for and what I can achieve,” she says.
This year’s world championships in Paris doubled as a dress rehearsal, and she thrived on the experience – especially having her coach, Alan McDonald, with her for the first time at an international meet.
“He didn’t get to go with me to the world champs in 2019 or Paralympics in 2021. So it was cool to have him see all our hard work in person, and it was really special to celebrate with him,” she says.
McDonald and Aitchison spent six months working on her running technique, knowing she had more speed in her. They leant on specialists, like strength and conditioning coach George Wardell, to break down her gait.
“We took the model of running and cut it down to see what the running style looks like – the pelvic tilt, the arms, the stride and metres per second. We did some biomechanical testing of my racing and we noticed I would have a high metres per second pace and then be really low. And so we tried balancing it out and running the same metres consistently,” she says.
And it’s paid dividends.
“It’s just really interesting to see what I can do. People think, ‘Oh, you’ve just got to run as fast as you can’. But then you actually break it down there’s so many different components to running fast. What about your knee lift? Where your footfall is? What about your stride length? Where your arms are? Is your body is tilting too far forward or too far back?”
Aitchison expected finally acquiring the title of world champion would somehow make her feel different.
“You work so hard towards something but you can’t comprehend, once you achieve it, how you’re expected to feel. I was expecting to be over the moon,” she says.
“But instead, it was a lot of different emotions hitting me at once – I just needed to be by myself to unpack what I was feeling. Then the next day, when I had the medal ceremony, I felt much better. I was able to celebrate with all my family and friends. And it was so cool to stand at the top of the podium.”
It’s an elevated view she plans to become more familiar with in just under a year’s time.