As a young child, I suffered regular bouts of bronchial pneumonia and, to help overcome the problem, my doctor recommended I try athletics. On his advice, I went to my local club and I surprised myself by quickly impressing in a local competition – setting an Otago seven shot put record at age seven.
Athletics never cured my bronchial pneumonia – that mysteriously disappeared after I gave birth to the first of my two sons – but the sport has been a constant in my life ever since. I later went on to win regional competitions and a national senior title in the hammer.
My coaching story started by accident. I got a call from the mother of a young athlete who wanted me to help her son in the shot put and discus. Up until that point, I had never thought about coaching.
I think, perhaps, my willingness to coach emerged from my upbringing because my family always liked to help people. As teenagers, my brother and I always had people staying at our home in Mosgiel. My parents would always cook double the amount of food because we never knew how many people would turn up at our house after rugby on a Saturday.
Just like my coaching career, my introduction to para-athletics also began by accident.
During the late ‘90s, a leg amputee in Mosgiel used sport to aid his rehab and I helped coach him in shot put and discus. It was a steep learning curve for me, but I enjoyed the challenge.
Then, back in 2006, a coach in Invercargill asked me if I would work with Jess Hamill – an athlete with cerebral palsy – who later won a Commonwealth Games silver medal and shot put bronze at the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
Because of the success of my relationship with Jess and the work I was doing with the New Zealand Academy of Sport, they asked me to offer some direction with their para-programme. This is where my interest and passion began in terms of the talent identification programme and putting a proper structure in place for the athletes.
From 2011, I started working more closely with Athletics New Zealand to implement a para-programme although, unfortunately, the following year the budget was entirely cut after New Zealand failed to win an athletics medal at the London Paralympics Games.
Yet I was determined not to give in.
I’d seen how hard Jess worked and the obstacles she overcame. I knew these athletes worked incredibly hard and that we too should be working harder to ensure they have an equal opportunity to compete and perform.
I had faith in the talent I’d helped put in place with the help of Hadleigh Pierson [the former Talent ID manager at Paralympics NZ] and we were close to a breakthrough.
For the next 14 months, I worked as a volunteer on the programme. I was determined to do whatever we could to make the system a success. I was not only coaching, but identifying the talent and developing the athletes.
In the events I was not suited to coach, I would find the best coaches for the athletes. I worked closely with the secondary schools and also on classification [the means by which para-athletes are categorised]with Paralympics NZ.
It was a huge challenge, particularly financially. We organised fundraising events, and worked hard to identify grants to allow people to fund athletes to attend major events and locate the specialist equipment they needed.
We received a little funding in 2014 and 2015, which was when I started my full-time role as Athletics NZ High Performance Para-Athlete Manager/Head Coach.
However, as a result of the success of the team at the 2015 IPC World Athletics Champs, in 2016 we received a sizeable increase in the countdown to Rio.
In many ways, coaching a para-athlete is exactly the same as coaching an able-bodied athlete. Yet it is necessary to adapt your approach for para-athletes to allow them to achieve their best performance. You often have to think outside the square. It pushes you out of your comfort zone and this has made me a better coach.
The nucleus of an exciting squad started to come together at the 2015 New Zealand Track & Field Championships. I was confident and optimistic we could perform well at the Rio Paralympics.
The whole experience in Rio was very emotional – from Anna Grimaldi winning long jump gold on the first night to leg amputee sprinter Liam Malone’s amazing accomplishments – it was a real rollercoaster.
I cried with joy at some point each day and to come away with nine gold medals is more than I could ever have asked.”
My favourite memory is... Leading the New Zealand athletics team, which brought home two medals at the Beijing Olympics and seeing the young para-athletes achieve their goals and dreams at the IPC World Champs in 2015 and Rio Paralympics in 2016.
My favourite place to visit is... Central Otago for time out, but I also enjoy training and competing in Australia.
My favourite athlete is... Sir Mark Todd. How many athletes can say they have competed with distinction at eight Olympics and won six Olympic medals?
As told to Steve Landells