With the recent Olympics considered one of the best ever, all eyes and expectations will be on the Paralympians. No pressure, then.
“We actually have a team psychologist that has been discussing that with us,” New Zealand Paralympic cycling medal hope Nathan Smith, 34, reveals of NZ’s preparations from his north Italy training camp. “He’s just been to the Olympics and the Velodrome and he said: ‘I can’t tell you to shut out the crowd, you’re just going to have to realise it’s out of your control. Focus on what you can control, your training, how you’re going to approach the race and trust what you’ve been doing the last few months’.”
For Smith, as well as the other 26 members of NZ’s Paralympics squad, the last few months have been a slog
of hard work to give them the best possible chance of achieving their London 2012 goals.
“Since we had the [UCI Paracycling] World Champs in February in LA, it’s been six days a week, with monthly velodrome camps. Fitting in a full-time job too is tough.”
Paralympics New Zealand’s ‘Xcellerate 2 Xcellence’ project, launched in 2009 after Beijing, identified and shepherded promising talents towards London 2012, Smith among its protégés. The months of preparation, and the two-week Italian training camp, have given him a platform to launch for medal glory, London providing a better opportunity for the 34-year-old than Beijing did four years ago.
“I missed out [then] as I had a few crashes on the track, and I also found out that my wife was going to have our first baby on the week of the Games,” he recalls of his decision not to put himself up for 2008’s Olympics.
“I am a lot more confident now than I was then. Leading up to Beijing, I wasn’t going to have a shot at the medals. But this year, I am a good shot to get on the podium in the C3 pursuit, and also in the time trial and the road race, too.”
Smith, like many Paralympic competitors, came to his sport after an accident. In his case, a 2006 road collision in Oxford left him an above-the-knee amputee. “I needed a sport to compete in after I couldn’t play rugby anymore. After riding with some friends, I found out I was just as fast as them so I joined a club back in New Zealand. I’d always ridden a bike but this was a chance to take it more seriously.”
Sharing Smith’s drive for competition and continuing with sport after a life-altering injury is Anthea Gunner, 30, making her Paralympics debut as part of the team’s twin-pronged equestrian charge with Rachel Stock. “I didn’t know anything about para-equestrian until I broke myself,” Gunner tells us from her UK training base. “It was one of those freak things. In 2006, I was leading my horse back to the paddock when he flipped and we both fell. I landed on a rock and damaged my spinal cord.
“Riding was the one thing I was determined not to give up. We found the website for Canadian rider Lauren Barwick, who had a similar injury. She was aiming for Beijing then and I realised that was possible. It became my new goal. I started riding at the Riding for the Disabled Association and got my horse, Mask, in late 2007. We had our first competition three months later and now here we are in London.”
Gunner was selected in April to compete, and confesses getting to the starting line has been an achievement alone. “I thought we were a couple of years behind the level we needed,” she says. “So I’m happy to be here. I want to give my best, and do well to secure some government funding.”
Funding for many Paralympians remains a hard-fought battle. Combining full-time jobs – Gunner’s a PA, Smith a pharmacist – with fundraising and clocking up the training hours means there’s precious little time left in the day.
Starting out, most training and competition is self-funded, too, and for Gunner this was a challenge. There’s not much money for para-equestrian yet, nor any qualifying events in New Zealand either, forcing the 30-year-old to self-finance £10,000 trips from Christchurch to Australia to get started.
Smith, too, faced a similar situation. “My first world event in 2010 was all self-funded,” he says. “But because I got in the top six in the time trial, [sports foundation] High Performance Sport New Zealand started to help out with travelling to events and equipment.”
London 2012 marks the culmination of years of hard work for Smith, Gunner and the team. With 17 of NZ’s athletes making their Paralympic debut, too, it’s time for a new generation to shine.