Sophie’s choice to leave her life behind
Our greatest Paralympian is "jilting" her family, her coach and her support team in a bid to get mentally tougher for Tokyo 2020. Suzanne McFadden reports.
Sophie Pascoe is packing her bags and leaving New Zealand.
This time, she’s not going off to compete. She’s leaving behind everything that is fundamental to her: her coach of 17 years, her support team, her family, friends and her home.
It’s the only way, Pascoe believes, that she can find the extra “one percent” of mental toughness that she needs to succeed in the pool at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
Next week, the nine-time Paralympic gold medalist is moving to the English city of Nottingham, spending three-and-a-half months away from all of those who mean the world to her.
“I’m doing this to really challenge myself, to put myself outside my comfort zone,” says Pascoe. “I’ve always lived in Christchurch. I’ve always had the same core support team around me – and believe me, they are the best support team in the world.
“When I wake up in the morning, I know everything that’s going to happen to me. I know everyone I’m going to see, and I know exactly the responses I will get. But now I’m not going to be in that position anymore. I'm doing this to get that extra one percent mentally.”
Pascoe’s move comes with the blessing of her long-time coach, Roly Crichton. In fact, the pair plotted this together well before she won her two Commonwealth golds on the Gold Coast.
“I’ve been in this sport for 17 years now, which is a long time. Roly and I talked about how we’re going to make ourselves bigger, better and faster for Tokyo," says Pascoe. "And this is the option I came up with.
“It’s totally outside the box, and it’s a little bit crazy, especially not having Roly beside me - we’ve never spent that long apart. But it’s what we need.
“We’ve decided to make it really tough on ourselves so we can get to Tokyo and have that extra one percent of mental strength to deal with every scenario we’re given.”
It was immediately after Pascoe’s dominant 2016 Rio Paralympic campaign – where she became New Zealand's most successful Paralympian with a career haul of 15 medals - that she began planning the next four-year cycle.
“I started thinking ‘How am I going to get to my fourth Paralympic campaign and achieve even better than I have in the previous three?’” says Pascoe, who has been nothing but consistent, winning three gold medals every time she's lined up at a Paralympics.
“You want to go into Tokyo knowing you can achieve that, or do even better than that. So I thought right, I’ve always been in the same environment, but obviously with different levels of maturity as I’ve aged. Where can I find that extra one percent where it’s really tough? Let’s go overseas for a little bit.”
Pascoe chose Nottingham – once home to Robin Hood and the Mayflower Pilgrims - so that she could train with some of the best in the sport. She will swim with Ollie Hynd, one of Britain’s most successful Paralympians, and will work with Hynd’s celebrated coach Glenn Smith.
Hynd, who has neuro muscular myopathy, has three Paralympic gold medals and four world titles behind him. Like Pascoe, he promised to be a headline act at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, but pulled out when his international classification was suddenly changed – meaning he would compete against swimmers with less severe impairments. He's now focused on the 2020 Paralympics.
“Ollie is a couple of classifications below me and we swim the same times,” Pascoe says. “It works out really well having a good training partner. He’s improved at every games as well, and he and his coach have a similar relationship to Roly and I.”
Crichton is still very much part of Pascoe’s pilgrimage, and he will fly over to see her at the end of May, when Pascoe will race in a local swim meet.
Nottingham is a city that Pascoe has never visited, and she believes three-and-a-half months will be just long enough to keep her stimulated. “I’m a little sad that I’m leaving my team and my family. I am a very family-orientated person. But at the same time I know it’s going to be exciting,” she says.
“I’m only 25, and I want to live a little bit like a 25-year-old.”
In August, Pascoe will head to Cairns for the Pan Pacific championships, before returning home for surgery. “It’s minor surgery on my left leg so it can help me get into a new system of prosthetics. That’s going to help me for my future well-being too,” she says.
Then she’s back into training for the world para swimming championships in Kuching, Malaysia, next year. She describes that as an exciting time, when she can scope out promising new athletes and prepare to take them on in Tokyo a year later.
She already knows exactly what she wants to achieve at the Paralympics, “but unfortunately I’m not going to tell you,” she laughs. “Roly and I very much keep those goals to ourselves. But I can say that it will be tough, really tough to achieve it, and it’s something that hasn’t been done before. I just really want to take that challenge on.
“My goals are always extravagantly high, because I operate well under pressure.”
The consummate athlete, Pascoe was back swimming this week in the warm-down from her Commonwealth campaign. Time away from the pool is a rarity – she only had Christmas Day off in the lead-up to the Gold Coast.
But she feels that she’s in a “really good place” - content with her Games performances. Although she didn’t set the times she aimed for defending her 200m individual medley and 100m breaststroke titles, with time to reflect, she’s happy.
“Being an elite athlete who puts so much pressure on myself, I had higher expectations to swim faster times,” she says. “I still gave everything in those races, but they just didn’t pan out exactly as I wanted.
“Now that I’ve had time to reflect, I look back and think, well you know what? If I’d actually achieved everything I wanted to at the Comm Games, I could possibly have done it too early. Then I’d be thinking ‘Crikey, how am I going to swim faster in Tokyo in two years’ time?’
“As a team, we’ve already analysed quite a lot of the racing, and we know we’ve got a lot to work on. Which is really fantastic when you’re an athlete driving forward and wanting to constantly challenge yourself. I know it’s there and it’s going to happen, but it’s going to happen at the right time.”
Carrying the New Zealand flag at the Games' opening ceremony was a lifetime highlight for Pascoe, but it came with its own challenges.
During an online Q&A session with Beef + Lamb New Zealand, as one of their “Iron Maidens”, Pascoe revealed that she struggled with the weight of the flag pole when it was first handed to her outside Carrara Stadium. Given the option of wearing a holster to help balance the pole, Pascoe declined: “I wanted to look like a tough cookie.”
But as soon as it was handed to her, she accidentally clonked a unknown male athlete on the head. No serious damage was done, she insists. “But it really was heavy!”
Almost three weeks on, she’s still buzzing from the honour. “It demonstrated how New Zealand embraces equality and inclusion, not just in sport, but right through society. And that’s something I’m incredibly proud to stand for, and hold the flag high - with a massive smile on my face,” she says.
Pascoe was brought back to the reality of everyday life when she arrived in Christchurch, and landscapers were working around her home.
She also has a university assignment due this week. She’s studying business and management on-line, and has to complete her course by July next year.
“It’s good for me. But it’s tough and I struggle with it more than I do swimming… finding the motivation to do it is hard,” she says. “But I’ve passed all my papers so far."
She’s unsure what direction she wants her life to head in once she retires from the pool. “I’m an opportunity grabber, and something is lurking in the background, but you never know what that is until the right opportunity pops up.
“I’m a firm believer in fate. As with my accident, things happen for a reason. I wouldn’t be who I am today without that.”
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