In a very open account, Anna described her feelings as a child with only one hand, her initial achievements in international sport and inability to accept that as real, to gaining a much more complete understanding of herself, and what she has to offer. Lessons in this for all of us, I feel.
Following a remark by Luke that he had heard she was a very good public speaker, Anna demurred, commenting to the members present:”I haven’t prepared anything, so keep your expectations low!” - In fact, we were treated to a most interesting talk, in which she spoke equally openly about her highs and lows, including the sometimes surprising emotions that went with them.
Born in Dunedin, now 26 years old, Anna studied Quantity Surveying at the Polytechnic - and worked in that last year. This current year, however, she has taken leave of absence to concentrate on sport. Anna commented that she competes alongside Lukes brother Will, who is also a Paralympics medalist. She told us - and showed us - that she had been born with only one hand. Going to primary school in Anderson’s Bay and Intermediate at Tahuna, she talked about taking part in sports in general from an early age. Then she received an unexpected e-mail near the end of Year 12 from Paralympics New Zealand. She recalled her father watching a Paralympics on TV about a year before and him saying,”You could do that one day.” Her response was a startled, “Could I! That would be cool!” (1)
The e-mail asked her to supply a lot of information, “and a whole list of things I needed to go into camp. I really didn’t want to go. I was in a place in my life like a lot of people at the age of 16 - pretty uncomfortable with myself. I didn’t want to put myself forward, just stay back there, which can be kind of tough when you are a bit different. My difference was quite obvious, and I think I really struggled with that growing up. I ended up going and it was the most successful camp there’s ever been in New Zealand with me, Will (Stedman), Len Malone - an incredibly good paracanoeist, and a few others.” (It is the 10 year anniversary of that camp next week). It was there that she met her coach, Brent Ward, with whom she worked until last December, and also discovered the limited number of events in which any Paralympian can perform. Anna can take part in the 100, 200, 400 metre races, long jump and javelin, none of which really appealed, as she was more into long distance running. “I just gave them all a go.” She tried a long jump, and reached 4 metres, “which was apparently OK”. (“It was videoed, and I’ve still got the video, which is so cool.”) She ran a 400 metres not really understanding how sprinting works, thinking she could just sprint all the way. After the first 200 metres, she thought, “Wow, this is way harder than I thought!” and finished up walking the next 100 metres and jogging down the front straight. Although the long jump stood out as her best option fairly early on, she also took up the 100, 200 and 400 metres.
Qualifying for the 2015 Paralympics looked unlikely, then in a long jump in Dunedin she exceeded her personal best by 1 cm, encouraging her to “pursue it a bit more.” Anna went to that World Championships, and “had the best time. Half of our team was new; Will (Stedman) was on the team too and we all had the time of our lives. It was so much fun, like we were all living with friends - and I came home with a bronze! I remember not knowing at the end of the competition and struggling to the coach and saying ‘5th in my first World Champs wasn’t bad.’ ‘No, he responded, You’re in 3rd! . . . That was really a turning point in my career. I thought, ‘This is something I really want to pursue properly.”
The next year was a Paralympics meeting in Brazil, “I was with one of the coolest teams that I have been on.“ Anna said it was still hard to process after 7 years, feeling that for most people taking part in a particular sport they had been doing it since they were little, maybe their parents did it, too. But for her, she got into the long jump because she wanted to be a Paralympian. “So there were no expectations on me. In the last round I was running third and my parents were in the crowd. As soon as the girl jumped before me, that meant I was definitely in third, I remember Dad shooting up and going, ‘Yah!’ with his arms in the air. I just started crying and jumping up and down. I had one jump left, and it’s never come over me the same as it did there - ultimate focus . . . and jumped . . . and thought, ‘Ah, third’s all good.’ And Rayleen said, ‘Just wait a minute, just wait a minute.’ And I’m thinking ”Why? I got third, be happy!”
There was a large screen at the side, on which the distance came up as 5.62 m. which was well above Anna’s previous personal best. “I remember coming round to talk to Rayleen and seeing the other big screen jump from third to first, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God, what has just happened? . . . It was really hard to process. I just remember crying heaps, and saying ‘What the heck?’” She described feeling ‘super excited’ and how she wanted to go back and do it again, while being aware that “those emotions of the first one will never return.” She explained that it was at that moment also that her life changed: “People took me a bit more seriously . . . I guess I had a great sense of pressure from that moment.”
Anna had brought the gold medals for people to see - and feel! Weighing half a kilogram, they are apparently made in two halves with small metal beads inside, more beads for silver than bronze, and more again for gold.
The idea is that visually impaired competitors can shake them to check which is which by the sound. Unfortunately some of them have come apart due to the construction method! At this point she picked up her own gold medal and looked at it carefully to make sure it was not beginning to separate! Anna’s was the first gold medal won for New Zealand at the Rio Paralympics. The weight of it when it was first placed round her neck was something of a surprise compared to the much smaller medals she had won previously.
That Other Anna
Anna explained that they had returned from a major tour just a month ago, and she had been reminiscing about all the tours she had been on, but also analysing them. On each she had performed well, noting that this does not happen very often. “The version of Anna that shows up out there on the day is probably the most reliable version of myself I’ve ever seen, across any aspect of my life. She’s pulled it out of the bag more times than she hasn’t.” Anna commented that she felt this was due to her ‘incredibly’ competitive personality. She recalled a comment from a team member in the stand during the long jump event, when she occupied third place - telling her that the jump she had just made was really big, (but unfortunately it had been a foul), and all she had to do to win was start her run-up a bit further back. It has taken the last seven years to fully realise that Anna has that capacity within herself.
The Imposter Syndrome Problem
Olympians generally are regarded as the epitome of human endeavour, with bodies that work amazingly, following years and years of hard slog, and multiple Games appearances, whereas Anna had a gold after just 3 years and at her first Games. “I think I really struggled because I didn’t look like someone who would win a medal at a major event.” She talked about being congratulated by people on the street and responding brightly, but inwardly cringing, feeling like an impostor, that she didn’t deserve it, it was simply a fluke.
Doctors, Listen to Your Patient!
Six months after returning from those Games. they went back into practice for the London World Championships the following year: “Probably one of the worst experiences of my life.” Her foot had been sore in New Zealand, but was back in working condition when they went to Australia on the first leg of the tour. After running the 200 there Anna could barely walk, but was reassured by the support staff that there was nothing wrong. However, Anna knew there was something major amiss, and when they arrived in London, she could scarcely walk, “I was hobbling around, I was held together by pieces of tape.” Unable to train, in a ‘pretty average’ group of competitors, Anna was winning until the last round, the three people who jumped before her got gold, silver and bronze, then she took her last jump, “I managed to pull it out from somewhere again” with a jump well clear of the field - but it was a foul jump, leaving her 1 cm behind bronze, and 3 cm behind gold.
Anna was still hobbling, but still the support staff told her there was nothing wrong. She feels that, because of the athletics she was still doing, they could not believe there was anything amiss. Back in New Zealand she still had to fight to have a scan on the foot, finished up having to go to Auckland to get it. That scan revealed a stress fracture of her navicular bone, forming an open wedge half-way through the bone. . [Ed. It’s typical of navicular stress fractures that the pain is relieved quickly by rest. Consequently Anna would be able to perform for a while before the exercise caused the pain to return].
Anna went in to see the Doctor feeling pleased that at last the cause of her pain was known, someone finally believed her, and something could now be done about it. But what he had to say was far from encouraging. “This is probably the worst outcome we could have. It is potentially career-ending.” There followed a period of rehabilitation that took two to three years.
For once Covid had a positive outcome. It caused the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics of 2020 to be postponed for a year. While many people were gutted, Anna was relieved. She was still beset by Impostor Syndrome. After that gold medal in Brazil, she had not won gold, reinforcing her feeling that it had just been a fluke, and she was not really worthy of it. The postponement of Tokyo meant there was a chance she could compete again. But it was also a very anxious time, with the country in Level 4 lockdown, the highest alert level in the system. Everyone in New Zealand had to be isolated or quarantined at their current place of residence except as permitted for essential personal movement. With all that had gone before in her own life, on top of this Anna felt more nervous than she ever had done before. Earlier that year she had achieved a jump of 5.91 metres with the world record at the time standing at 6.01 metres, and she had set her sights on achieving that in Tokyo to prove she truly was a gold medal standard athlete. ”I remember walking out on the morning of the competition and thinking ‘ where can I vomit so no-one will notice?’”. She had trained with the expectation that the temperature could be 42 °C, and on that morning it was 16°C, and raining. Anna was at pains to point out - “It was horrific! Noone else in the field came from a place that was cold, or had to train outside.” That knowledge did help to calm her nerves during the competition, but it is doubtful if it had any material effect on the result, since her very first jump, of 5.74 metres exceeded the then Paralympics record - although she was unaware of that at the time. Her fourth jump was even better, at 5.76 metres, the gold medal was hers.
Returning to New Zealand was something of an anti-climax, as they had to go into 2 weeks quarantine before proper celebrations could take place, though it did give an opportunity for a good rest after the anxiety and exertions.
Anna still wanted to jump further, with the ‘magic’ 6 meters in her mind, feeling she could have achieved that in Tokyo but for the nerves - a feeling backed up by her new coach.
Now an experienced competitor and with two gold medals to her name, Anna told us she had more fun competing at this one than ever before. She left NZ with fellow competitor Will Stedman earlier than on previous occasions, partly “to enjoy the opportunity the sport had given me beyond the medals.” First stop was a holiday in Switzerland for a week, then, after a period of training in the UK, another little holiday in London - where she saw a Harry Stiles concert and "just did life things - made friends, went out - you know.”
Kiara Rodriguez (Ecuador) won gold in the long jump hitting 6.23 metres and so setting a new world record. Anna was the first to congratulate her and give her a hug “in appreciation for just how far that was . . . that it didn’t matter if it was me, what mattered was that the sport was progressing.” Anna took silver with a new personal best of 5.96 metres, 5 cm better than her previous PB. Then the ‘real shock’ was winning a bronze medal in the 100 metres race, and another new personal best. (Interestingly, gold went to Kiara Rodriguez in that event also).
Heading into next year, Anna is going to enter the 100, 200 and long jump. “Makes me feel quite good the pressure’s being taken off the long jump.” Reflection in the last few weeks on what has gone on so far in her career and why she felt the way she did has been very helpful. “It has been a bit of a roller-coaster of a career.” Anna now has regular meetings with a psychologist. “We’ve unpacked most of my sporting woes, how I feel about myself and my circumstances.” There now is a psychologist in the support group when they go to a Paralympics meeting.
Asked to describe a typical week in training, Anna told us they train all year round, with a month off after World Championships. At home, currently, she does 11 training sessions per week, track in the morning, some sort of running, and weights in the afternoon. She sees a physio twice a week, massage therapist once a week, and her psychologist once a week.
Another question was concerned with dealing with the mental aspects of her injury, and restarting training and competition after it. “Yes, that was really hard.” After winning that first gold medal, Anna got back into training “really hard, and I guess that was why it broke . . . I attached a lot of my identity to the long jump . . . I couldn’t jump for a year. I saw a psych back then. I guess a lot of what I felt was anger.” A lot of people had failed to see that she had a problem, and as a result Anna could no longer even train, never mind take part in competition. If it had stayed that way, she feels she would probably still feel something of an imposter. “I think it just took a lot of time. My body wasn’t ready, but my mind wasn’t either.” She had a year and a half of feeling pretty angry snd pretty sad, but over that period she was also “unpacking it all”. . . “When I did get back, I didn’t think about it, I just hit the ground running.”
The Future for Anna in Sport
Concerning plans for the future, Anna told us that, if she had been asked last year, she would probably have said she would be retiring at this point, but she had enjoyed the 2023 tour very much, and it had brought the joy back into her life. “It [the tour] was incredibly successful whether I had won a medal or not.” Now it is more about mastery than winning for her. “I’ve been able to see the sport as more than just winning a medal. It’s about the people, the places, the experiences that I’m able to have. I’m incredibly lucky that it’s my job.”
Sporting Heroes - And Now Being One
Asked to name her sporting heroes, Anna said that when she was younger, she really wanted to be a Silver Fern, like Irene van Dyk or Maria Tutaia - “which might have been delusional, but when you are six . . . and then it became apparent that I didn’t have the skills - or the hands.“ - a comment made with a quiet smile on her face. One of the people she currently looks up to is her own younger sister. Twenty years old, she is a University student, moved away from home after finishing school. “The way she lives her life and thinks about the world, she is passionate about things - that’s something I want to strive to be.” Another was Holly Robinson, Dunedinite, one-armed Paralympic javelin thrower and winner of silver and gold medals in the Paralympics. The parallels are very obvious. “It was the most inspiring thing. ‘Well, she’s doing it. Why can’t I?’”
Anna then talked about how she felt as a child with a disability, “feeling I was so different, and that difference was bad.” She went on to postulate what it might be like for a child 7 or 8 years old with a disability, “feeling deeply unsure, seeing someone like me on the TV. You know, making the most out of it and being really comfortable in her own skin . . . I’m hoping more people will watch the Paralympics and show it to their kids. That it’s cool to be different. That it gives you opportunities.”
(1) There is a classification process which provides a structure for fair and equitable competition in Paralympics. Each person is classified according to the nature and degree of their impairment. - More info at: https://paralympics.org.nz/pathway/classification/