Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to swimming
Sophie Pascoe’s drive towards becoming a world beating Paralympian may have started with a promise to her dying grandfather.
The swimmer was two when she had her left leg amputated below the knee after an accident involving a ride-on mower driven by her father at their Halswell property.
At the age of seven, talent spotters set her on a swimming path. Three years later, she made a prophetic promise to John Goodman, who she nicknamed ‘GraGra’, her grandfather who was dying of lung cancer.
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“The moment I really wanted to become somebody and a swimmer was when my grandfather fell ill and was asking all the grandkids what we wanted to be when we grew up,” she says from Christchurch.
“I said to him that I wanted to be a swimmer, to go to the Paralympics and win a gold medal for you. I’m very good at keeping my promises. I can definitely say I’ve made him proud.”
“A gold medal” doesn’t really cover the situation when it comes to Sophie Pascoe.
She has won 11 Paralympic golds, 20 other major golds, and another 19 medals.
The 28-year-old is now New Zealand’s youngest Dame or Knight, an honour previously held by shot putter Valerie Adams, who was 32 when awarded the gong in 2017.
‘Awarded for services to swimming’ is only a part of the story.
“Obviously swimming has enabled me to make a positive impact in the pool but also the Paralympic movement,” Pascoe says.
“My advocacy for equality for people with disabilities…being the youngest (Dame or Knight) now is very overwhelming and a huge honour and I accept it with pride.”
Pascoe says her family – dad Garry, mum Jo and older sister Rebecca – hardly ever discussed the accident which has had such a massive influence on her life.
“It wasn’t a massive sit-down conversation that we needed to have…and my father isn’t one to talk to me [about it],” she says.
“We all knew it happened but we decided to utilise it and see the positive side. I know he is very, very proud of me and has been a massive supporter of what I do.
“I was never really seen as the girl with one leg, and I was always treated the same as my sister who is nine years older than me.
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“My parents allowed me – and this is the big, fortunate thing – to challenge myself against my able-bodied peers.
“They wanted me to explore and climb up the jungle gym when I was young. If I didn’t know how to, they wouldn’t help. ‘You find a way to do it.’
“Because of that mentality instilled in me, I have the benefit to this day, of being able to adapt really well to society.
“I do think adversity has a lot to do with my strong-willed dedication and drive.”
Another pivotal moment in Pascoe’s sporting life occurred at the age of seven, when champion Paralympic swimmers Roly Crichton, who would become her coach, and Graham Condon spotted her talent, one which saw her already beating able-bodied kids. She enrolled at the QEII swim club the next business day.
Innate swimming talent had met fierce determination, and a legendary career was underway, leading to glorious Paralympic campaigns in Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro.
It continued in Tokyo in 2021, where she won two golds, a silver and bronze, the highlight being an unforgettable fourth consecutive 200m medley triumph which left her shattered, to the point of confirming she would ditch that event and its gruelling training regime.
She says Tokyo was a career highlight, for reasons she does not want to fully explain.
“My other Paralympic campaigns look better, but what I did in Tokyo was far beyond measures for me,” she says.
“I was in a very dark place when Covid struck and to even get back in the pool, to even make it on the plane to Tokyo…there are many more circumstances than I am saying here.
“It has been a whirlwind of a journey over these past couple of years. Some parts I wish nobody would ever go through in their life. I’ll just leave it at that.”
There has been a price to pay for all of the success, but she is on a new path.
The last couple of years have been spent finding the real Sophie Pascoe, the one which isn’t just a superstar athlete.
Her post-swimming aim is to be part of the fashion industry, and establish her own line.
“Athletes are 100 per cent coachable. That is why they are successful in their next venture. We’re willing to learn,” she says.
Even as a kid, Pascoe had only contemplated a career in swimming, a sport she says gave her a sense of freedom, without the sort of pain that running on a prosthetic would bring.
“I put all of my eggs in one basket, just wanting to be a successful athlete, and I only ever thought and dreamt about what that could look like,” she says.
“When you are successful you get the identity of being Sophie Pascoe the Paralympian, and I didn’t continue my education. I didn’t know what I could be good at outside of swimming.
“Understanding my identity became very challenging but the last couple of years have involved a really nice balance and change in my lifestyle.
“Now I feel I have a place in society which is not just as an athlete.”
Pascoe’s advocacy for disabled people is a huge part of her story.
The world has come a long way from her childhood, when she competed in what now seems the awfully named Crippled Children Society games.
The prosthetics have advanced, as have the terminology and attitudes around disabled people.
But there is still room for plenty of improvements, something brought home to her while travelling with her wheelchair-bound coach Crichton.
Hotel claims of being “disabled friendly”, for instance, are often false. Better consultation with disabled people is needed.
Proper facilities assist disabled people to feel like a normal part of society, although in Pascoe’s case her sporting ability always helped on that score.
“I was just another kid at school – I think it comes from being successful,” she says.
“People saw me as Sophie the swimmer, never Sophie the girl with one leg.
“It was almost as if swimming overshadowed my disability, so I was fortunate to grow up without any bullying or feeling different.
“There are still times when I feel somewhat insecure, because we’re not there yet with the equality between the disabled community and the able-bodied community.
“I think we can always do more. It makes you feel disabled when the facilities aren’t right.”
Pascoe’s competitive future is uncertain. She is committed to next year’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, but makes no promises about the Paris Olympics.
She has plenty of sporting laurels to rest on, when the time is right to retire. And it’s not just the remarkable medal count that will leave a satisfying glow.
“I constantly have pressure that I put myself under, because that’s what I strive for every single day, to make my parents proud, to change the image of what my dad lives with from the accident,” she says.
“It’s nice when my dad and family are in the stands – one of my favourite parts of the Paralympics is looking up into the stands and seeing my family there.
“I’m a very proud Kiwi, and I’m very proud of where I’ve come from and what I’ve done so far.
“I can change the image of going through an accident into being a world champion.
“The reward for me is making people proud and leaving a lasting legacy which I hope will make a positive impact in society.”
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