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Reconstructing Sophie Pascoe

Paralympic swimming legend Sophie Pascoe opens up to Suzanne McFadden about how living alone in England and undergoing major surgery have given her a new outlook on life.

While bedridden, recovering from the removal of a bone from her leg, Sophie Pascoe has had plenty of time to re-evaluate her future.

At times, she admits, she’s over-thought and over-analysed, while contemplating the next three months, the Tokyo Paralympics and her life after swimming.

Nevertheless, the nine-time Paralympic gold medallist has worked out what she has to do to ease herself back into the pool, build towards Tokyo 2020 – and how to focus on becoming “happy, confident Sophie” again.

Not that she’s been terribly unhappy, Pascoe quickly adds. But these past two years have been “really tough both personally and physically”, and she wants to put them behind her.

She's made it a goal to challenge herself away from the pool, to chase new passions outside of swimming. It’s what she believes will help in her quest to gain the “mental X-factor” and win Paralympic gold again.

“People see the confident Sophie Pascoe, and think she must be such a confident person in every spectrum of her life. But actually I’m not. I’m not perfect,” 25-year-old Pascoe says at her home in Christchurch.

“That’s why I want to spend the next three months focusing on looking after my ‘Sophie’ side. So that when I go to Tokyo, I’m confident both as Sophie Pascoe and Sophie. And that’s when I perform at my best.”

Her three-and-a-half month solo campaign in the English city of Nottingham this winter – leaving behind her coach and her family to train with British Paralympic star Ollie Hynd - was testing, she admits.

At times, she was really lonely. “Sometimes, I just wanted a ‘mum hug’; there were lots of times I had a good cry."

But it’s given her the ‘extra one percent’ of mental toughness she was striving for – and surprisingly, a new appreciation for her coach of 17 years, Roly Crichton. It's all made the outstanding athlete, who’s been swimming internationally for over a decade, “more driven than ever”.

“There were times when it wasn’t going great, and times when it went so great. But I’m so glad I did it, because it’s part of the new chapter in my life. Another stepping stone towards Tokyo,” she says.

On her return from England - via the Pan-Pacific championships in Cairns, where she won five medals – Pascoe underwent planned surgery on her left leg, which was amputated below the knee when she was just two.

Earlier in the year, she’d tried on a new prosthetic leg, and felt some pain. Her surgeon told her he would need to either remove what remained of the fibula bone, or the main nerve that ran into her stump.

“It ended up that he needed to remove both,” Pascoe says. “It was a little more major than I thought it would be. But it’s all for the best for my future wellbeing, as I get older now.

“The recovery is longer than I expected, but hey, it’s all part of living with a disability. People might forget we have to go through the regular routines of surgery. It’s that extra challenge we take on board as a Paralympian.”

Two-and-a-half weeks after surgery, Pascoe is waiting for the swelling to subside so she can have a cast taken for her new prosthetic limbs. She hopes to be back up and walking on a new leg in the next week or so.

She has the all-clear to get back in the pool, but she’s not in any rush to take the plunge. She plans to ease her way back into training next month, spend some quality time in the water, and be ready to step it up again at the end-of-year para-swimming training camp.

“I still get to swim and focus on Tokyo, but I won’t be training as much until the end of the year. I’ll be using that other time focusing on my studies and finding me,” she says.

Pascoe has been giving a lot of thought to her future after swimming. Tokyo will be her fourth Paralympic games, and she’s unsure whether she will stay in the sport for Paris 2024.

“I don’t know where I want to end up in swimming. But I have to be realistic and start looking towards the end of my career, to have something to fall back on if I choose not to continue competing,” she says.

“Athletes get lost in that. I remember a time when I solely focused on swimming, and didn’t want to challenge myself outside of the pool.”

She’s been studying business and management online, and has a paper due soon.

“I’m putting in place my ‘Sophie’ goals, and one is to complete the course I’m doing by the end of next year. I don’t know where it’s going to take me, but it’s been good to get my brain active again,” she says.  

As she’s become more active, she’s devoting more time to her family and friends in Christchurch; she’d just spent the day with her 83-year-old grandmother, and was having dinner with her parents, Garry and Jo.

“The next three months are about finding new things for myself, new passions. My No. 1 passion is still swimming, but I need to balance that. I’ve never really had a good chunk of time just to fully focus on me,” says Pascoe, who is a finalist in next week’s Women of Influence Awards.

“It’s just about having that extra one percent above everyone else; that mental factor. Anyone can be physically ready to race on the day, but who’s got that mental X factor that’s going to win it.”

She’s been spending time with her support team too, mapping out the road to Tokyo.

“We’ve had our planning meeting, dissecting the next two years, and making the programme perfect to get the best out of me,” she says.

“I know my team is 100 percent behind me; they’ve been round to my house checking I’m okay. It’s great to know I’m definitely with the best team going into Tokyo.”

What Pascoe is missing most during her enforced break is routine.   

“That’s what I missed over in England too. It’s hard when you’re so used to knowing what you get up for, who you’re going to see that day, and know what’s planned,” she says.

But, in the same breath, she’s mindful of the fact that falling into the trap of 'contentedness' was what drove her to England.

“When you’re two years out from a Paralympics, you can fall into that space of being content, and I was afraid of that,” she says.

“Going to England made me realise I’m with the best team, and I’m reassured we’re on track. The things I’ve learned over there and brought back to my team - not a whole lot, but a few things - can obviously make that difference of 0.1 of a second.”

Among the new challenges Pascoe faced in England was working in a different environment, training under revered Paralympic swim coach Glenn Smith. Some of the time she trained alongside four-time world champion Hynd, who has neuro muscular myopathy.

“Working one-on-one with Ollie, and doing a bit of racing at times, was definitely beneficial. But most of the time, it was squad training, which I’m not used to,” she says. "It was really challenging but made me a tougher person."

She also got a new insight into physical training working with the School of Calisthenics – run by Tim Stevenson and David “Jacko” Jackson, both former professional rugby players turned strength and conditioning coaches who work with British Paralympic athletes.

There’s a video on Pascoe’s Twitter account taken at the gym, groaning while she whips heavy battle ropes into waves. “My gym trainer was constantly in contact with Tim and Jacko, and we’ve learned a few things that will definitely benefit me in and out of the water,” she says.

Crichton also saw it first-hand, when he flew over to England to spend two weeks with Pascoe. Coach and athlete were reunited again at the Pan Pac meet in Cairns last month - along with biomechanist Matt Ingram, who's worked with Pascoe since she was 12. But they were in for a surprise.

“For the first time ever in our career together, Roly and I had a very different relationship. Different in the way we communicated with each other, in the way we appreciated each other a lot more. We were simply passionate about being there, being in the water, and just enjoying racing,” Pascoe says.

“I’d usually be afraid about how I would perform, but for the first time, I wasn’t afraid if I didn’t perform.”

Although Pascoe returned home with three golds and two silvers, she knew she wasn’t in peak condition physically. Coming from England, she had tapered differently than she would have with Crichton and her team.

“I raced just okay in Cairns, and I expected that. But the one big thing that came out of it for me was the mental side,” she says.

“I found out that I’m still a fighter. I still love racing. And I've come back home being mentally stronger than ever.”

Once Pascoe is back to her fighting fitness in the pool, she’ll be preparing for the world para-swimming championships in Kuching, Malaysia, at the end of July next year - a major step in qualifying for the Tokyo Paralympics.

“I’d like to be in a really good place for Kuching. The last two years I feel haven’t stacked up to what some other years have been like. I’d really like to have a good couple of years. And that starts at the end of this year when we go into our first team camp. Then it’s all on.”

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