Paralympics: Small team hopes for huge haul

By David Leggat

Sophie Pascoe emerged as the darling of the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, where she won three golds. Photo / Geoff Sloan
Sophie Pascoe emerged as the darling of the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, where she won three golds. Photo / Geoff Sloan

New Zealand's smallest contingent since Barcelona is aiming for 18 medals.

It may be a trimmed-down New Zealand team but they are confidently predicting a sizeable medal haul when the Paralympics begin in London next week.

New Zealand have 24 athletes - plus two cycling pilots - competing across seven sports. It is the nation's smallest team since Barcelona 20 years ago, yet they are expecting to match the 18 medals won at the Sydney Games 12 years ago, a number achieved by New Zealand's largest contingent of 42.

Part of the reason for the smaller New Zealand squad is the absence of teams in wheelchair rugby and boccia, neither of which qualified for London.

"This time every sport is individual, except the tandem cyclist, which has a pilot," Paralympic New Zealand development manager Dave Stewart said yesterday.

"We have a strong history in both those [team] sports and have medalled in both in the past. But they are in a bit of a rebuilding stage at the moment, and there's strict selection criteria as well."

Those criteria call for athletes selected to be either capable of a podium finish in London or to make the top six, with the expectation of being among the medals in Rio in 2016.

When presenting their case for funding support for London, Paralympics, New Zealand put up 18 as the number of medals they would deliver.

"It is an ambitious target but we are still confident we will deliver on that," Stewart said.

Another reason factored into the size of the New Zealand team is the rising standard of performance around the paralympic world.

"It is fantastic for paralympic sport that the standard is continuing to rise. Investment globally is becoming equitable with able-bodied sport," Stewart said.

New Zealand's team includes six world record holders, and all five members of the cycling squad are ranked in the world top five.

The highest-profile member of the New Zealand team is Christchurch swimmer Sophie Pascoe, who emerged as the darling of the Paralympics in Beijing.

A below-knee amputee, Pascoe, 19, won three gold medals - 100m breaststroke and backstroke (in which she set a world record) and 200m individual medley - and silver in the 100m butterfly in China.

The then-15-year-old won the international award for best debut performance of any athlete in Beijing. Pascoe snared two more world records at the Pan Pacific championships last year, amid a four-gold haul.

If the New Zealand athletes are looking for inspiration, they need look no further than their chef de mission, Duane Kale, who won six individual swimming medals, a New Zealand record at a single Paralympics, including four world records, in Atlanta 16 years ago.

There are four wheelchair sports - tennis, rugby, basketball and fencing - a sitting version of volleyball, two shortened versions of soccer, both five and seven-a-side, and goalball, played by athletes with visual impairments using a ball with bells.

The Paralympics, which consist of 21 sporting disciplines, will use many of the venues which hosted the Olympic Games this month.

New Zealand's flagbearer will be named today.

- NZ Herald

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