Paralympians eager to haul in medals
Paralympic bosses are promising the New Zealand public a big bang for its buck as the small Kiwi contingent of 24 athletes eyes 18 medals from the London Games.
Seven individual able-bodied Olympic sports received more taxpayer funding from High Performance Sport New Zealand during the past four years than the entire Paralympic programme ($5.54 million), but that's irrelevant to the team's expectations.
Notwithstanding being the smallest team in 20 years, their medal target is just one shy of New Zealand's best single Paralympic haul of 19 at Atlanta in 1996.
The size of the team is due in part to the absence of a wheelchair rugby team, which failed to qualify, but also to the fact that selection criteria were stringent - athletes had to be medal contenders in London or top-six material with the prospect of winning a medal at the Rio Paralympics.
The late withdrawal because of back injury of Waikanae's world-champion cyclist Jayne Parsons and her pilot Kylie Young from Invercargill was a blow, but it hasn't adjusted the team's expectations or excitement levels ahead of tomorrow morning's opening ceremony.
"There is obviously disappointment with Jayne having to depart, but the general feel and focus in the team is really strong," New Zealand team chef de mission Duane Kale told Fairfax Media yesterday.
"We had a fantastic day where we raised the flag in the village and were supported by the local London Maori club; it really brought that New Zealand presence to it. We're ready."
Kale, who won a New Zealand record six individual swimming medals, including four world records, at Atlanta 1996, said Parsons' withdrawal hadn't altered their target of 18 medals.
"The analysis that we've done has given us that indication," he said. "With Jayne out it is obviously going to have an impact, but we won't be revising that target. We still think it is achievable."
At the top of the list is Christchurch swimmer Sophie Pascoe, 19, who won three golds and a silver as a 15-year-old in Beijing four years ago to capture the hearts of New Zealanders.
"She's the one they're all trying to catch now, but she continues to develop and break world records and we have confidence she'll do the business here," Paralympics New Zealand high performance director Mal Humm said.
Pascoe, a below-the-knee amputee, will race in six events and spearhead a swimming team that, unlike their able-bodied compatriots, are expected to deliver.
All eight members of the swim team are ranked in the top five in the world, including 13-year-old Nikita Howarth from Cambridge, one of the Pascoe-inspired swimmers that have burst on to the scene after the implementation of a strong talent identification programme.
Kale expected up to half New Zealand's medals would come from the pool, while the six-strong cycling team should also be productive.
Among the prospects is Nathan Smith, 37, an above-the-knee Taranaki amputee who is the elder brother of All Blacks centre Conrad Smith. In his first Paralympics, he is entered in five events.
Invercargill's Phillipa Gray, 22, who suffers from Usher's syndrome, affecting her sight and hearing, and her pilot Laura Thompson are also strong medal hopes in the tandem.
Elsewhere, Waiuku shooter Michael Johnson is on track for a hat-trick of medals, having won gold in his first Games in Athens 2004 and bronze after an intense shootout in Beijing in 2008.
The 38-year-old tetraplegic will carry the New Zealand flag at tomorrow's opening ceremony which "will without a doubt be a highlight of my career".
At the main stadium, 50-year-old Peter Martin from Waikato will compete in shot put and javelin, while visually impaired Wellington middle distance runner Tim Prendergast, 33, is, according to Kale, "back on top of his game" after injury.
Competition starts tomorrow night and runs till September 10.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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