At only 23 years old, Sophie Pascoe is New Zealand’s most successful Paralympian. With 10 Paralympic medals already under her belt from both Beijing and London, Sophie is now training harder than ever to win big in Rio De Janeiro.
Sophie took some time out of her gruelling training schedule to speak with Remix writer Emily Triggs about her build up to the games.
THE PARALYMPIC GAMES ARE JUST AROUND THE CORNER. HOW ARE YOU FEELING?
I’m excited! I’ve been living between Christchurch and Auckland because there’s a 50-metre pool in Auckland, which we don’t have back home. I wish the Paralympics were tomorrow because there’s so much anxiety around going out and racing. It’s been on the calendar for three years but there’s still so much training to do in these final days.
TAKE US THROUGH A TYPICAL DAY IN TRAINING. WHAT DO YOU DO?
I train Monday to Saturday every week. I swim for two hours in the morning then gym for an hour and swim again in the afternoon for another two hours. I’m a sprinter so I don’t need to focus too much on endurance, but I swim about 10 to 11 kilometres every day. My morning sessions are my main sessions and they haven’t changed since the beginning of the year. My coach Roly, and I always set high expectations. He’ll write down a target time before every race and I always want to beat that time. Other athletes are different. For instance, Michael Phelps and his coach will write down a target time together and he will hit the exact time, whereas I want more than just the target time.
YOU’VE WON A TOTAL OF 10 MEDALS AT BOTH THE BEIJING AND LONDON PARALYMPICS. DO YOU FEEL A LOT OF PRESSURE TO PERFORM THIS YEAR?
Yes, I think once you’ve become a champion people expect you to be that champion time and time again. I’m not a robot though; I am human. My expectations are so much higher than the rest of the country’s and the world’s.
WHAT RUNS THROUGH YOUR HEAD WHEN YOU’RE STANDING ON THE PODIUM AT THE PARALYMPIC GAMES AND THE NEW ZEALAND NATIONAL ANTHEM STARTS PLAYING?
When I’m on the podium, I already know where my family is, I always look for them first and I keep looking at them when I’m standing on the podium. They’re the people who have supported me and I feel a sense of closure knowing I’ve finally done it and all that hard work has paid off. It’s a moment of pleasure and respect when the national anthem starts playing, that’s what we strive for. No one knows the feeling unless you’ve been there and done it.
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS JUST BEFORE YOU START A RACE?
The toughest part is the holding room. People don’t realise but you have to be there 30 minutes before you race and if you’re one minute late, you’ll be disqualified. This is the hardest part; it’s where all the tactics happen and psyching out the other athletes. You need to be tactical and give off the right vibes. The swimming is easy, you trust your instincts that you’ve done enough. If you question that, you question the last four years of your training. As soon as the whistle blows, my gut drops like a rollercoaster and I get that adrenaline rush, that’s why I do it. I love the adrenaline rush, then everything just goes blank.
HAVE YOU HAD ANY CHALLENGES IN THE BUILD UP TO RIO?
Every day is a challenge; getting out of bed at 5:30 in the morning and putting yourself out of your comfort zone is a challenge in itself. The biggest challenge for me has been travelling. I’ve been living out of a suitcase for the past year and I have my own house and a partner so it’s hard being away. I was hospitalised a few weeks back with a cyst, and then my appendix had to be removed six weeks out from trials. I was worried that I wasn’t going to make it to Rio. I always knew I had it in me but it’s terrifying to think that Rio could be thrown out because of something that’s out of my control.
YOU BOUNCED BACK FAST FROM YOUR ILLNESS AND YOU GOT A WORLD RECORD IN NATIONALS, SO YOUR PHYSICAL CONDITION MUST BE AT ITS PEAK.
In that six weeks as soon as I recovered I had to treat trials like a mini Paralympics and that was my ticket to Rio. I worked my ass off. I was expected to qualify, but I was more surprised that I got great times and a world record. Maybe a forced break is what I actually needed.
HOW IMPORTANT IS MENTAL HEALTH TO YOU WHEN YOU’RE COMPETING AT AN INTERNATIONAL LEVEL?
That’s the make or break in sport. Anyone can be physically ready to go, but it’s who has got that 100% mental strength on game day that will win it for them. I have a great support team around me who give me reassurance, which is what I need to hear.
IS THERE A PARTICULAR DIET YOU FOLLOW WHILE PREPARING FOR THE GAMES?
I have two nutritionists; Auckland based and Christchurch based. They make sure my BMI is on target. But I know the basics, I’m a real believer in if you’re a happy athlete then you’ll train well. I have a bit of a sweet tooth; if I want chocolate or ice cream then I believe it won’t harm my particular diet for my racing.
WHEN THE GAMES ARE OVER, WHAT WILL YOU DO TO UNWIND WHEN YOU’RE BACK HOME?
There won’t be much downtime; I get straight into my ambassador role with Westpac. I’m off on a nationwide tour to talk to high school students about the importance of physical and mental wellbeing as they head out into the big wide world, so I’m really looking forward to that. Then I’m taking a break in November and heading over to America for some time out and actually see some of the world that you tend to miss out on. Even though I’ve travelled to all these places, I don’t get to see much of it other than the hotel pool.
YOU’RE INTERESTED IN FASHION AND HAVE WORN SOME BEAUTIFUL GOWNS AT THE HALBERG AWARDS. WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE DESIGNERS?
There’s a list! I love Prada, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, high-end couture-wear. It’s nice to appreciate local designers too. Everyone here is so different, which I love. I’m a big fan of WORLD, Zambesi and I just bought a coat from Pearl. The biggest reason why I love fashion is because I live in my Speedos and Nikes, so it’s nice to dress up and feel glamorous.
FINALLY, WHAT’S ON THE HORIZON FOR YOU AFTER THE RIO GAMES?
I want to go to the Commonwealth Games, that’s another two years away, so we’ll be back in the pool training. Outside of swimming, I want to pick up a real estate course. Those are my two main focuses.
Interview & words by Emily Triggs