Pascoe smashing boundaries in and out of the pool

Paralympic legend Sophie Pascoe has cut down her time in the pool and is swimming faster than ever leading into the Tokyo Paralympics.

This is not where you’d expect to see Sophie Pascoe. Scaling a rock wall with her powerful upper body muscles. Shadow boxing in padded gloves. Gracefully hanging upside down from long streams of silk.

But this is a new era of Sophie Pascoe, Paralympic swimmer. She's been pulling on her swimsuit just once a day, and opting for a very different regime of strength work on land. And she's loving it.

It's those daily pursuits away from the pool that Pascoe believes have helped her go beyond her personal best performances and set new world records. Even, she says, at the ripe old age of 26.

When the nine-time Paralympic champion bettered three world marks at the Para Swimming World Series in Singapore last month, she said poolside: “My training is working.”

What she didn’t reveal was how different her training had been leading into that key event.

Pascoe and her support team, including revered coach Roly Crichton, decided “to change the entire dynamics of how we train” in the month leading into Singapore.

They focused on strength blocks - dropping her twice-a-day sessions in the pool to one, and mixing it up with cross training each day.

“I was doing boxing circuit classes, aerial silk workouts, rock climbing and yoga. It was a really cool month,” says Pascoe, in Auckland for this week’s Aon NZ Open swimming champs.

“It’s a new challenge, something completely different and it took me out of my comfort zone. It brings big rewards and you’re bloody sore afterwards, but it’s worth it. And I enjoyed it as well.”

After 18 years in the sport, and focused on her fourth Paralympics, in Tokyo next year, Pascoe knew it was critical to do something different to re-energise her career. “You can’t do the same thing going into another Paralympic cycle. You have to change things up,” she says.

She did boxing training with Tania Barry, niece of Olympic boxing silver medallist Kevin Barry, at the Round 12 fitness centre in Christchurch. “It’s an awesome class where everyone supports and pushes you,” she says.

“Rock climbing is so hard, especially when you have upper body dominance in the pool, and then have to climb a wall - the arms are pretty fatigued by the time you’re finished.”

As well as the physical benefits, Pascoe says her new strength routine gave her a mental lift as well.   

“I really enjoyed meeting new people in these classes. With swimming, you’re just face down, black line, not much of an atmosphere,” she says. “So it was really nice to be able to chat, encourage other people and have them encourage you.

“It’s been fun, and it’s part of the programme for now.”

Pascoe admits to being surprised by how effective the switch in training was. She collected four gold medals and broke three world records in three days at the OCBC Aquatic Centre in Singapore – in the 50m and 100m freestyle in the S9 category, and the SM9 200m individual medley. She also broke her Oceania record in the 100m backstroke.

Her time of 2m 25.22s in the medley – her signature event – shattered the 11-year-old record of 2.27.83, set by South African Natalie de Toit at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.

“The meet ended up being a lot better than I’d thought. To be doing personal best times at 26... you train to do a personal best, but you never really think you’re going to be shaving off that amount of time,” Pascoe says.

“I’d built up quite a lot of strength, and I didn’t think I would perform the way I did. Before the meet I even said to Roly poolside, ‘I’m not really feeling it’. Maybe I wasn’t feeling the vibe of the competition; maybe I felt heavier than usual. But I gave it 100 percent and the results showed. And I went ‘Oh wow, okay’.

 “It’s a really good start to the campaign going into the world championships this year, and now it proves you can do different training blocks and be successful.”

Alongside Pascoe in all of her training in and out of the pool this year has been her new training partner, Mya Graham. The 18-year-old triathlete has swum at Pascoe’s QEII club in Christchurch for years.

“She’s decided to give this year to me, which is amazing,” says Pascoe. “She’s a great training partner who works tremendously hard and that’s what I need. She’s there for me, as a training partner and a friend as well.”

“Every time I race is like I’m racing at the Paralympics... I want to show those younger athletes, and get it programmed into them, ‘If that’s how Sophie does it, maybe I should do that too’.”

Since Singapore, Pascoe has spent the past month at training camps in Thailand and Cairns, preparing for the nationals.

“I really want to have a good nationals. I love racing on home soil, and with lots of family and friends coming to watch you, there’s that extra pressure knowing you want to perform for them and put on a good show,” she says.

She’s unsure whether she will break any more records this week, but she will be happy to finish “within one or two per cent” of her personal bests – and stay ranked between numbers one and three in the world rankings going into September’s world championships in London.  

“The world champs are obviously the pinnacle for this year, but I still tapered for this meet. I’m expecting to be in race condition just as I would be for a world championship,” she says.

“I want to show the rest of the world that I’m coming into the world champs ready to race. This years’ worlds are about qualifying for Tokyo, and also taking a look at the new athletes coming through. I’m going to be expecting the unexpected there.”

Pascoe is especially looking forward to returning to London – the scene of her unforgettable 2012 Paralympics performance where she won three gold and three silver medals, and set two world records.  

“I haven’t been back there since. London was a really fast pool for me, and I have great memories. Being London, they always put on a great show, too,” she says.

Between now and then, she will return home to Christchurch after two months away, and move in with her parents (she renovated and rented out her house before she left). There will be a training camp in Auckland, and one overseas on the way to London.

Next month, Pascoe will be spending time with Australian physiotherapist Cathy Howells, who’s worked exclusively with amputees for the last 25 years.

“We’re bringing her over to talk about not just what we can gain out of her for sport, but also for our future wellbeing. We’re putting our bodies under pressure every single day, and they are our temples,” she says.

It’s almost a year since Pascoe underwent planned surgery on her left leg, which was amputated below the knee when she was two. She received a new prosthetic leg just before she left for Singapore.

“It’s amazing how far we’ve come with prosthetics. It’s such a lighter leg, and really comfortable to walk in. I love it,” she says.

She’s excited that her whole family are flying up to Auckland to watch her compete this week “which is a first”.

“In the back of my mind is always Tokyo, but right now it’s about the nationals, and putting on a great show for New Zealand,” she says.

“And for the younger Para athletes too. We have a huge range of athletes racing at these nationals, which for many of them is their pinnacle event.  I want to be able to show a high standard of poolside processes and professionalism as an athlete.

“Every time I race is like I’m racing at the Paralympics. Every meet is a big meet. And I want to show those younger athletes, and get it programmed into them, ‘If that’s how Sophie does it, maybe I should do that too’.”

* Pascoe will be swimming every day of the five-day Aon NZ Open championships at the Sir Owen G. Glenn National Aquatic Centre on Auckland's North Shore. The meet runs from June 17-21, with finals sessions starting at 7pm.

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