Daniel Richardson

Daniel Richardson is a Wellington-based sports journalist for NZME. News Service.

Paralympics NZ setting the bar higher

Sophie Pascoe led the way for New Zealand with six medals. Photo / Getty Images
Sophie Pascoe led the way for New Zealand with six medals. Photo / Getty Images

Going to the Paralympics is no longer a matter of simply competing as a disabled athlete, as New Zealand's governing body continues to strive for excellence.

Following their 17-medal haul at the London Games, Paralympics New Zealand high performance director Malcolm Humm says a big shift in attitude has led to increased success.

"You want to set the bar high and ensure we are investing in the right athletes," Humm says.

"I guess in the days gone by it could have been seen that going to the Paralympic Games at times was quite easy, but it's most definitely not now. But I guess, across the organisation we are trying to raise the bar and be more professional and ensure the athletes understand what they need to do to be at the Games.

"We have very good relationships with disability organisations such as Blind Sport New Zealand, the blind foundation, the spinal injury unit, the Cerebral Palsy Society and the Artificial Limb Board. So we are really starting to build those relationships with those disability organisations to get the word out there that there is an opportunity in Paralympic sport.

It's become a lot more difficult to get to the top level than it used to be. With talent, desire and the commitment the opportunities are there."

Cyclist Fiona Southorn won a bronze medal in the C5 women's individual pursuit in London, and the veteran of three Paralympics says the change in standards for the New Zealanders now, compared with her first Games in 2004, is huge.

"As a cycling team in my first Paralympics I probably would've considered us to be one of the least professional cycle teams out there, the least organised," she says.

"But now we are definitely up there with the most professional teams and well-run teams. So the transition between Athens and London was huge."

In London, New Zealand won more medals per capita than any other country and Southorn backs Humm's assertion that getting a ticket to the Paralympics isn't a matter of signing up, collecting a team shirt and getting on a plane.

"The standard's definitely improved. A lot of the times are very, very close, if not similar, to able-bodied times. So we certainly put in the hard yards and train just as hard as they do. I think there's a lot of misconceptions out there that people think it's really easy to go to the Paras; it's not. You've got to train just as hard, probably a little bit harder in some cases because of your disability to actually get there, so it's not easy."

Paralympics New Zealand's competitive outlook is reflective of how the Games have evolved during the past decade.

In London more than 4,200 athletes took part and they smashed 251 world records along the way, which goes to show how quickly the competitors are improving.

New Zealand selected a small team of 24 for the London Games, but Humm says that was simply down to the stringent criteria they set for their competitors, who had to be a top prospect.

"Our selection criteria was quite clear; that the athletes were either medal potential, or they were top-six potential and Rio medal potential [in 2016]. So we were always going into London knowing not everyone was going to be in medal contention so we needed to be very clear."

Six Kiwi athletes stood on the podium in London, led by Christchurch swimmer Sophie Pascoe, who claimed half a dozen medals on her own, including three golds.

Humm says the success of Pascoe, who also impressed at the Beijing Games where she won a treble of golds and a silver, has been a catalyst to get new athletes involved.

"I don't think it was any coincidence that we had one female swimmer at Beijing, being Sophie, then we had five in London and I think Sophie had a lot to do with that and a lot of young girls wanted to be the next Sophie Pascoe. We've got a bundle of them coming through underneath this lot as well."

Paralympic athletes also receive much smaller training grants than their able-bodied contemporaries and Southorn was back to work in Waipu shortly after returning from the Games where she makes a living as a real estate agent.

As for whether the 44-year-old has another Games in her, she seems happy to sit on the fence for now.

"I'm just going to keep riding my bike and see where the journey takes me," she says.

No doubt it will involve plenty more hard slog to find her way back to that podium.

- APNZ

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