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On Merit: Paralympian swimmer Sophie Pascoe ends year on another high

The country’s most successful Paralympian is finishing the year on a high note after a difficult build-up to the Tokyo Paralympics, where she won four medals.

Sophie Pascoe with one of two gold medals she won at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.

Sophie Pascoe has been made a dame for her services to swimming.

She is the youngest person to be awarded the title since the New Zealand Order of Merit was established in 1996.

Minister of Sport and Recreation Grant Robertson said there was no doubting her rightful place in the country’s sporting history.

“Sophie has had an astounding career. She made her international debut at just 13 years old and has not stopped performing at the highest level since then,” he said.

“Her determination, talent and total commitment make her a role model for all New Zealanders.”

The 28-year-old Christchurch woman is New Zealand’s most decorated Paralympian, having won 19 medals across four Paralympic Games, 28 medals at five world championships and four medals in two Commonwealth Games.

At the age of 15 she won three gold medals and one silver at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games.

She won another three golds and three silvers at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, setting two world records in the process. She achieved a further three gold and two silver medals at the 2016 Paralympic Games, setting a world record in the 200m women’s individual medley.

At this year’s Paralympics she departed Tokyo with two golds, a silver and a bronze.


However, her build-up to Tokyo was full of ups and downs, and unexpectedly taught her a lot about herself.

“It’s been a very different lead-up to this particular Games, with the current world circumstances, with Covid-19.

“Going into lockdown last year, I went through a really hard phase and a grieving phase of the Games being postponed [in 2020].

“During that time, I had to focus on my mental health. I went into a bit of a dark place for many reasons. I just felt like my identity had gone because I didn’t have swimming.”

Locked out of her training pool in Christchurch for three months, Dame Sophie turned her focus to land training, including yoga.

She approached the Games with a different mindset after a challenging 2020.

Describing last year as a year of growth, she believed she was now a more balanced athlete.

“Reaching for the top of breaking world records, winning gold medals, that doesn’t define who you are.

“I’m defined by the daughter I am, the partner I am, the sister, the auntie, the friend, the granddaughter.

“I’m all of those people and that defines who I am as a person. Not the medal, even though that is a bonus on top.”

Swimmer Sophie Pascoe with her coach Roly Crichton.

Before her campaign began Dame Sophie said she felt the weight of expectation as she headed into her fourth Paralympics.

“It does get harder every year when you are the hunted in the pool,” she said.

“You put so much pressure on yourself and it’s that pressure that you put on yourself on top of the nation’s pressure, the world pressure to be expected to win. It gets really tough.”

She has been named Disabled Sportsperson of the Year on six occasions at the Halberg Awards and was named Para Athlete of the Decade in 2020.

Dame Sophie is regarded as a role model in the disabled community and Paralympian movement, and an advocate for equality and changing perceptions of people with disabilities.

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