New Zealand’s most decorated Paralympian Sophie Pascoe has experienced love and loss in the lead-up to Tokyo.
Pascoe starts her campaign in the pool on Thursday, contesting the 100 metre breaststroke in the SB8 classification, as she chases her 10th Paralympic gold medal.
She said she felt the weight of expectation as she headed into her fourth Paralympics.
“It does get harder every year when you are the hunted in the pool,” Pascoe said.
“You put so much pressure on yourself and it’s that pressure that you put on yourself on top of the nation’s pressure, the world pressure to be expected to win. It gets really tough.”
Pascoe will compete in five events in Tokyo, but she is approaching this Games with a different mindset after a challenging 2020.
Describing last year as a year of growth, Pascoe believed she was now a more balanced athlete.
“Reaching for the top of breaking world records, winning gold medals, that doesn’t define who you are.
“I’m defined by the daughter I am, the partner I am, the sister, the auntie, the friend, the granddaughter.
“I’m all of those people and that defines who I am as a person. Not the medal, even though that is a bonus on top.”
With no international competition for two years Pascoe said she was unsure what to expect on race day in terms of who would be standing beside on her on the blocks.
“There’s been another group of young ones come through because of the extra year they’ve had. We don’t know who’s going to produce what they’re going to produce.”
Pascoe’s own build-up to Tokyo unexpectedly taught her a lot about herself.
“It’s been a very different lead-up to this particular Games, with the current world circumstances, with Covid-19.
“Going into lockdown last year, I went through a really hard phase and a grieving phase of the Games being postponed.
“During that time, I had to focus on my mental health. I went into a bit of a dark place for many reasons. I just felt like my identity had gone because I didn’t have swimming.”
Locked out of her training pool in Christchurch for three months, Pascoe turned her focus to land training, including yoga.
The time out of the water was an opportunity to take a different approach to training.
“I cut back a lot of my swim training and we focused a lot on quality rather than quantity in the water.
“I was still finding myself getting better in the water and my times were still really good training times, but I didn’t have to do as much water training.
“So I balanced that out with land training as well which included gym, a bit of HIIT training, boxing, and yoga again. It’s just been a really nice balance leading into this Games.”
The water was not the only thing that Pascoe missed.
Spending more time on her own that she was used to, Pascoe began to crave the human connection that could not be achieved through video calling.
On the advice of her psychologist she had her friend Rob move in with her, so she was not isolating alone.
“We ended up falling in love,” the 28-year-old said.
“Even though Covid has been destructive for many people, there was a positive that came out of it for me.
“Falling in love with this guy has been the best thing that’s ever happened to me. He’s made me feel like I found another side to me because I’ve never really had the chance to be able to fully give myself to anyone before, because swimming would always come first.
“He held my hand through a very, very tough time in my life, one of the hardest years of my life. For someone to stick with me during that period takes a lot of emotional strain.
“We’re very happy now, I’ve just found a new me. It’s nice I’ve had the chance to be able to find that and now try and balance that with swimming.”
Another important person in Pascoe’s life won’t be on the pool deck in Tokyo.
Hospitalised with a blood infection, Pascoe’s coach Roly Crichton has stayed back in New Zealand.
“It was really unexpected. We’ve been together for 20 years which is one of the longest coach-athlete relationships, in New Zealand in particular.
“We have a really special relationship. From coach-athlete to friends outside of the pool.
“It is a shame not to have him here, but also at the same time, I’m relieved this has happened at home and he’s in the best place possible rather than it happening over here in Japan when we wouldn’t know what to expect.
“He can still watch me from home, he’s in contact with me every day. I have the years of experience we’ve created together to be able to do this on my own anyway.”