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Fisher faces new obstacles out of the pool

World champion blind swimmer Mary Fisher is one in a string of New Zealand athletes and sports leaders who will share their experiences at the Sport NZ Women + Girls Summit, with the hope of making a difference. 

Countless obstacles have sprung up along the path of Paralympic double gold medallist swimmer Mary Fisher.

There’s been prejudice, low expectations and the trials of simply getting to the swimming pool. Now her latest hurdle involves flamingos, but not of the feathered kind.

Last week, the blind athlete lamented the number of e-scooters, including the pink Flamingo brand scooters, cluttering Wellington footpaths and impacting pedestrians, especially those with disabilities.

Fisher, by the way, is 26. 

A passionate advocate for accessibility, who volunteers for Access Matters, the now-retired swimmer is handling it with her typical composure – although she admits it has truly shaken her confidence.

“I’ve found the scooters a big hassle, both physically and mentally. Bumping into them, and also having people whiz past really close – though I haven’t had a collision yet,” she tells LockerRoom.

“It’s something I didn’t expect to have such an impact on me – but now I’m thinking ‘Do I walk to the next place by myself, or not?’ They really make me not want to walk around the city by myself."  

Fisher usually has no problem getting around the capital, and she's an accomplished tramper and runner, who's completed the 87km Tarawera ultramathon with a guide.

“With the compact nature of Wellington, there’s not the infrastructure for riding or parking the scooters safely," she says. "The wider aspects of small things like this could increase the likelihood of isolation [for people with disabilities], which I think about a lot.”

Fisher will share examples of the obstacles she had to overcome in her glittering swimming career - that included eight world titles and five Paralympic medals - at the Sport NZ Women + Girls Summit in Wellington on Monday.

She’s a panellist in a discussion on supporting diversity in sport, and the different challenges that women and girls wanting to play sport face, beyond gender inequalities.  

Former world discus champion Beatrice Faumuina (now an advisor in Pacific relations for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade) and former White Fern Ingrid Cronin-Knight (now on the board of NZ Cricket and country manager of MYOB) are also on the panel.

“It’s so interesting to dig into the challenges that women and girls face beyond gender; if there’s another factor in play, like a disability, or coming from a different religion, culture or ethnicity,” says Rachel Froggatt, CEO of Women in Sport Aotearoa, who are delivering the day-long summit with Wellington’s Shift Foundation.

“Sometimes it’s hard for the sports sector to understand how some of those things have an implication on a girl playing sport. They often don’t understand why sport doesn’t resonate with two people in exactly the same way.”

Now retired from swimming, Mary Fisher volunteers for Access Matters, a campaign to make NZ more accessible to people with disabilities. Photo: Getty Images.

During her 10 years in high performance swimming, Fisher faced the twice-daily hurdle of getting to her sessions in the pool.

“Transport is a big issue, but I was lucky to have really supportive family and friends,” she says. “When the hobby turned into a more serious pursuit, all my friends were starting to get their driving licences, and I wasn’t legally allowed to.

“So it was so important having people constantly supporting me and making me feel that I wasn’t a burden.”

She also witnessed prejudice in some swimming clubs around what was possible for a blind athlete.

“There were a lot of ingrained stereotypes I had to deal with,” Fisher says.

“Maybe they could have actually been thinking ‘In her daily life, Mary has to problem-solve a lot of situations in a sighted world, which could make her a tenacious person who will work out a way of training with other people in the same lane’."

Fisher also found that people with little experience working with athletes with disabilities would often set them low expectations.

“But before I went to the London Paralympics, a friend of my coach told me: ‘Mary, there’s no limit on how fast you’re allowed to go’,” she says. Fisher returned home from those 2012 Games with four medals and a world record.

“It was a really good piece of advice. Just because no one else in the world has done a particular thing before, doesn’t mean you can’t be that person.”

Fisher found issues of gender were more subtle.

“As a young female swimmer, you could be as fast or faster than boys because of earlier physical development. But just because you’re a girl, the expectations may be less in terms of performance. ‘If a boy takes 30 seconds to do this, you should aim for 40 seconds’,” she says.

“You shouldn’t limit yourself. A woman [Sarah Thomas] just swam four times across the English Channel, and she was the first human to do that. Women’s bodies are amazing.”

But she also thinks more study could be done around women health in high performance sport.

“I feel there’s not enough research on what’s normal, what’s healthy, for an elite female athlete,” she says.  

“Over my time as a grassroots, development then high-performance athlete, there have been a lot of changes for women in sport, and a decent change around Para sport in terms of coverage and sponsorship. But there’s probably still some way to go.”

Fisher, who works part-time for the Blind Foundation coordinating volunteers, hopes to make more change - bringing the voice of a just-retired athlete to the Paralympics NZ board.  

Women in Sport Aotearoa CEO Rachel Froggatt. Photo: Getty Images.

Froggatt describes the summit, which has attracted 330 delegates from all walks of sporting life, as “a giant conversation – with practical inputs”.

“We’re asking people to bring their ideas to the table, talk about individual challenges and what solutions they've had. The intent is to get everyone to go home with really solid ideas about what they can immediately do to improve their own organisation,” she says.

The delegates cover a wide range of the sporting sector - from chief executives to those working in local sports communities.

“It will be great for people at either end of the spectrum to hear what others are facing or achieving,” Froggatt says.

“It’s not just people from sports organisations, but from councils, secondary schools, academic institutions and the government. The diversity is wide as well – there's a vast array of ethnicities, people from disability sports and the LGBTQI community.

“I don’t know of another event in New Zealand quite like this, in terms of the uniqueness of the group and the conversations we will be able to have.”

Why hold a summit? Froggatt says it’s important to set milestones before the “big performance” – the Women and Sport Secretariat conference in May 2022, where New Zealand will have to show the rest of the world what they’re doing for women in sport.

“We need to temperature check where we’re at. Are we moving fast enough, doing enough, getting to where we collectively want to go, so we can confidentially stand up in two years’ time and say: ‘We are world class',” Froggatt says.

It’s also a year since the government introduced the Women and Girls in Sport Strategy, with a $10 million pledge to try to address imbalances.

“We saw this first year as a foundation year where everyone recognised the issues and made commitments to address them,” Froggatt says. “I feel like there’s huge momentum, and a definite interest, willingness and engagement right across the sector,” she says.

The summit will also feature Dr Nicole LaVoi, the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women’s Sport in Minnesota, who’s recognised as a leading scholar in women coaching sport.

As a keynote speaker, LaVoi will discuss challenging and changing narratives about girls and women in sport.

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