By Joseph Romanos
Several years ago, I attended the Canterbury sports awards and was intrigued when the battle for the top gong came down to the Sportsman winner, Richie McCaw, and the Sportswoman winner, Sophie Pascoe.
The room seemed to be packed with rugby people and many felt McCaw, Canterbury and Crusaders stalwart and All Black captain, would be a popular winner.
But when the announcement was made, it was Pascoe who was called forward.
The interesting part was the reception Pascoe received. There was overwhelming rejoicing and she was given a standing ovation.
I reflected then that Pascoe, because of her wonderful deeds as a swimmer, had bridged a great divide. Though she competes in the para sport category, she was judged purely as a sportswoman. The “para” caveat was no longer required.
Pascoe has gone on to build a fantastic career, which includes nine Paralympics gold medals and 13 world titles. She has been on the international scene so long – right back to the IPC world championships in Durban in 2006 – that it is difficult to believe she is just 25.
Pascoe today broke through another barrier for para athletes when she was named as the flagbearer for the New Zealand Commonwealth Games team. There were strong contenders for the role, including shot put world champion Tom Walsh, and some experienced and well-performed hockey players, netballers and cyclists.
But when Pascoe’s name was read out, the 250-strong New Zealand team rose to applaud and cheer her. She joined a distinguished list of New Zealand Commonwealth Games flag bearers that includes such recent notables as Valerie Adams (2014), Irene van Dyk (2010), Hamish Carter (2006), Sarah Ulmer (2002), Graeme Miller (1998), Brian Fowler (1994) and Anthony Mosse (1990).
“It’s very humbling to have been chosen out of the many world champion athletes that we’ve created in New Zealand,” Pascoe said.
“I wasn’t considered as a Paralympic athlete. I was considered as just one of the athletes of the New Zealand team, so to lead that team out is very special and it’ll be a moment to remember forever.”
Right back to the pioneering Eve Rimmer in the 1960s and 70s, New Zealand has produced superb para sports stars. But Pascoe has taken it to another level.
When para sport was first included in the Commonwealth Games, at Victoria in 1994, few would have believed it would become so much a part of the Games schedule.
Pascoe, who two gold medals at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, has been tagged the queen of the New Zealand swim team, and few would quibble with that analysis.
Coached for so long by Roly Crichton, she is a sports superstar, whose accomplishments put her on at least the same lofty pedestal as world champions like Walsh, Adams, Linda Villumsen, Hamish Bond, Eddie Dawkins, Ethan Mitchell, Sam Webster, Shannon McIlroy, Jo Edwards and Val Smith in the New Zealand team. Today she lists her occupation as “athlete”.
New Zealand team chef de mission Rob Waddell summed up perfectly when he said that Pascoe transcended sport. “She touches the hearts and emotions of every New Zealander. She is an inspiration to all people,” he said.
Pascoe’s path in life was set early. A lawn-mowing accident when she was 2 left her with no left leg below the knee. Undaunted, she has made her way so well that she has been made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, has won four Halberg sports awards and in 2013 had her autobiography, Stroke of Fate, published.
Over the next fortnight she will compete in the SM 10 200m individual medley on April 7 and the SB9 100m breaststroke on April 9.
Commonwealth Games Federation President Louise Martini said in the build-up to the Gold Coast Games that this was the largest fully inclusive para-sports event. She emphasised the need to be rid of discrimination and to be inclusive. It was a good message, but not one New Zealand needed to be told.
The New Zealand team already leads the way in that area, as the unforgettable sight of Pascoe being acclaimed by her team-mates today emphasised.Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games Sophie Pascoe Tom Walsh Dame Valerie Adams Linda Villumsen Hamish Bond Eddie Dawkins Ethan Mitchell Sam Webster Shannon McIlroy Jo Edwards Rob Waddell Val Smith Swimming