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Lesson in determination

CIARA PRATT
Last updated 05:00 10/01/2014
Cameron Leslie
Getty Images
MEDAL WINNER: Cameron Leslie at the London 2012 Paralympic games.
Tupou Neiufi
NO LIMITS: Tupou Neiufi, 12, is aiming to be a paralympic swimmer.

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She doesn't say much but she doesn't have to - her swimming does the talking.

Watching Tupou Neiufi swim is a lesson in what can be achieved with determination.

Five nights a week, this young athlete makes her way from South Auckland to Pakuranga to train - rain, hail or shine - among a sea of 60 other young swimmers.

But what you don't see as she powers her way through the pool is Tupou's disability. The left side of her body suffers from paralysis.

She is a young paralympian in the making and if her dedication and effort in the pool is anything to go by, she will definitely be one to watch.

Tupou is among the next generation of paralympians who will overcome adversity and inspire others. She is also very certain of her dream.

"I want to be just like Sophie Pascoe and win at the Paralympics," she says.

Athletes such as Tupou, Sophie Pascoe and Cameron Leslie appear to achieve what seems near impossible to the able-bodied spectator.

The 2012 London Paralympics saw the New Zealand team of 24 come away with 17 medals, our most successful team to date.

Behind the scenes since 2009, Paralympics New Zealand has been developing promising young athletes with disabilities and fast-tracking them to sporting success.

Accelerating talent

The Paralympics New Zealand talent idenfication programme is building a talent pool of young athletes with disabilities.

Paralympics New Zealand's talent identification manager Hadleigh Pierson is the man who travels around the country scouting talent and is responsible for being at the heart of the network that develops athletes into world-class paralympians.

So what does he look for in these young athletes?

"It's a question I get asked a lot. The obvious one is we're looking for people with disabilities. We're looking for people who are really motivated, competitive and who have the sporting ability."

The programme identifies athletes who not only show physical promise but a willingness to put in the work.

Once an athlete is accepted into the programme they are given access to elite coaching, mentoring and have the opportunity to compete more frequently against other paralympians rather than able-bodied athletes.

"We identify the athletes for future paralympics. The goal now is to make the development squads for Rio in 2016 and Tokyo in 2020."

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Hit and run

Determination is very much what drives Tupou in the pool. The 12-year-old swimmer was left paralysed down her left side after a hit and run accident when she was two.

"She had deep cuts and bruises to the brain. We were taken from Middlemore to Starship and when she came out of a coma she was like a newborn baby," mum Lose Neiufi says.

"We had to teach her how to sit, use her arms. We went back to square one. The doctors had told us that they weren't sure if she'd ever be able to walk again. But she proved us wrong."

Tupou's disability is not obvious however her mother says the brain injury has resulted in her processing at a slower rate as well as her weaker left side.

"She has always been our miracle. I mean her determination to walk again - we've always used her as an example that anything is possible."

As the eldest of seven children, Tupou is a role model to her younger siblings, Mrs Neiufi says.

Training

Mrs Neiufi is the one who decided to get Tupou into competitive swimming but struggled to find any club that had the resources to coach a disabled child. Tupou now trains at the Howick Pakuranga swim club under the watchful eye of junior national coach Sheldon Kemp.

"As a coach you look along the pool and there really isn't much difference unless you really know the history of Tupou.

"She's very quiet and often won't say much. She allows her actions to speak what she's thinking and she expresses herself through movement."

It is clear to see that Kemp is one of Tupou's loudest cheerleaders. He can be seen patiently following her up and down the pool mimicking strokes so she can visualise his instructions while also helping coach the other 60 able-bodied children in the squad.

"She has taught me a lot. My coaching style has had to change to make sure she understands. It's definitely challenged me which has been really good and its made me aware of other areas of how to better help young athlete's because they're all different."

Kemp is quick to praise the Paralympics New Zealand programme crediting it with not only building well-rounded athletes, but well-rounded people.

"It's really good for Tupou's development as a person because it tells her that although you've got this disability, there are areas of success you can experience as a potential athlete."

Paralympics New Zealand received $5.9 million from High Performance Sport New Zealand which will help boost development programmes to identify sporting talent.

Hadleigh Pierson is thrilled that the profile of paralympic sport is changing for the better. The mission now is to keep it relevant.

"It's getting better, our athletes used to be the story they'd put on after the weather but the coverage is improving and there is now growing demand for young athletes with disabilities to be involved in sport."

- North Shore Times

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