During the past two years swimmer Sophie Pascoe has clockedup more than 5,700km in the pool – the equivalent of swimming the length of New Zealand three-and-a-half times.
For mere mortals it seems a staggering achievement; for this Paralympian it’s simply what had to be done in order to successfully defend the gold medals she won at Beijing four years ago, when she hits London this September.
Sophie Pascoe set her first goal at just 10 years of age. At the time she divulged this goal to her much-loved grandfather, who was dying of cancer, by way of a promise.
“The last thing I said to him before he passed was ‘I want to win a gold medal for you’.” He never got to see her win any of the three gold medals or the silver at Beijing only five years later, but she kept her promise to him – and it was him she thought of on the winning dais.
This determination and clarity at such a young age may have transpired because of the loss of part of her left leg and severe scarring on her right at 2 ½ years, as a result of an accident involving a ride-on mower. Her determination and clear focus may have been there anyway – no one will know, but there is no doubt it is these characteristics that have been instrumental in her success on the world swimming stage.
She started in the pool like other kiwi kids – through swimming lessons. She found swimming in a group hard and confesses she wasn’t very good at it. “Mum then enrolled me in one-on-one sessions with a swim tutor with the help of a grant from the Halberg Trust so I could learn a lot easier. That year I had the school swimming sports where I bet my good friend who had two legs and that’s when I thought to myself I have a talent here.”
Up until she was about eight, she swam solely just because she enjoyed it. But in the same year she competed in the CCS Independent Games where she caught the eye of talent spotters. Actually Paralympians Roly Crichton and Graham Condon would’ve had to have been blindfolded not to recognise her ability – she won every single class in her age group.
“They got me out of the pool and asked if I wanted to join the QEII swim squad and if I wanted to represent New Zealand later in life.” Her answer was an unequivocal yes. This was the introduction to Roly who would become Sophie’s coach, mentor and friend and would be the man pivotal in her success.
She began with the squad and only a few years later travelled to Australia for her first international meet – bringing home a medal haul of seven golds at just age 11. But the real surprise came in 2006, when at just 13, she won bronze in the 200m individual medley at the IPC World Championships in Durban, South Africa.
Her Paralympic feat in 2008, at 15 years of age, astounded many. Her medal haul of three golds in the 200m individual medley, 100m breaststroke, 100m backstroke (where she also broke the world record) and silver in the 100m butterfly came as a surprise to both competitors and perhaps her own family.
“Definitely it was everything. One thing you can never explain to people is being up on that podium. No one has the understanding of the life you’ve gone through, the life you’ve chosen which is completely different to anyone. Once you’ve finally achieved that goal the emotional relief and space after that is unreal.”
That medal haul combined with success in the past four years (where she has continued to break world records) has meant a step up in training in preparation for London. There are 10 to 11 swim sessions each week as well as three gym sessions. This campaign has also seen the introduction of high altitude training which sees her travelling to Flagstaff in Arizona, United States.
Having confidence in her own ability means she is quite vocal about what she wants to achieve this time around. She admits that the one who is hardest on her to achieve it is her.
“I actually think the biggest pressure is from myself. I put very high expectations on myself, I always have. I’m kind of like a perfectionist. In Beijing I was the unexpected who came out of nowhere. This year I’ve got to expect the unexpected – that’s what I train for.”
Like any job there are days when she would rather not be there, but she knows in order to reach her goal, she needs to follow the prescription of time in the pool and gym.
“You’ve got to do it – got to get up for the job. There are days that I hate it and days I love it. Those days (when you hate it) make you stronger. You do realise if you miss a session you can’t make up for it – that’s the life of being an athlete. You’ve just got to get through those harder days and push yourself.”
This lifestyle means she does not have the lifestyle of your average New Zealand young adult. “I wouldn’t call it sacrificing. I chose to be in sport for a reason, to be the best in the world. Obviously you have goals. You want to achieve them to the best of your ability. To do so you have to make these right choices.”
There are days, like any other job, where Sophie doesn’t enjoy it as much. There are long stretches away from family and friends as well as the need to rest a lot between training sessions. “It can be lonely. When you’re in that dead space (resting) when you have your own time you can get into the bad area. “That’s when I do rely on the support from family, friends and sometimes junk food.”
To counteract the loneliness she now has a training partner, Alex Laidlaw. Alex is a New Zealand open swimmer who is the same age as Sophie and also lives in Christchurch. She will also accompany Sophie to Flagstaff for her next lot of altitude training just prior to the London Paralympics which start on 29 August.
Pertinent at these times is her coach Roly. After all the years they have been together he is quick to read when things are not going so well and can adapt training accordingly. But his support also spurs her on to get on with the job.
“I’ve been with him for 11 years he’s a huge influence. He’s been to the Paralympics – he’s been there, done that. He wants the best out of me and I want to do my best for him – we push each other to be the best. He’s there waiting for me at the pool every day. I don’t want to let him down as much as he doesn’t want to let me down.”
There have been two skin graft surgeries on her right leg since Beijing which didn’t go to plan and set her training back a bit. But like always she shrugs it off and says she has just had to get on with it. Dealing with the setbacks seems just like part and parcel of the job.
When it comes to race day she has a routine she sticks to. She sets a time plan the night before and her team is all aware of what is on it and when it will happen. “Everyone knows where I stand and knows when they are needed. I like to be on my own on race day. I don’t like to be really in contact with anybody unless I choose to be. The plan is from when I wake up to when I have to race and also after racing.”
This time she won’t be the wide-eyed 15-year-old she was in Beijing. “I’m older more mature. I know what to expect at a competition and I’ve learnt a lot along the way. I’m the only one that’s done the training. You know you have to be 100 percent physically and mentally ready on the day. If I’m not nervous I’m not ready to race. I can now get my head space into the nervous space needed and when I do that I know that I’m ready to go.”
The people who she has been most influenced by are her family. “I’m really lucky that I was brought up in a family where I was never treated any differently by anybody.”
Her mum, dad, nana and aunty will all be in the stands at London watching, hoping and cheering for her – for her it is important to know they are there. “They’re the only ones that know what I really go through and what it takes to be an athlete. For them to be there to share that moment is just as important for me as it is for them.”