It’s hard to comprehend the meteoric athletics journey undertaken by long-jumping golden girl Anna Grimaldi.
The 19-year-old Kiwi’s dramatic last-round leap to snatch a gold medal in the T47 long jump in Rio de Janeiro provided one of the highlights of an unforgettable Paralympic Games for New Zealand last year.
Yet although her masterful performance appeared to be that of a seasoned athlete, the teenager’s rise to the podium began only in October 2013, after attending a Paralympic Talent Identification camp in her native Dunedin.
“I received a random email saying, ‘Thank you for expressing an interest in the programme,’ and could I fill out an online form,’” Anna tells Woman’s Day.
“I thought, ‘I have never expressed an interest and I’m not sure why they emailed me.’ At first, I wasn’t too keen to attend because I thought I’d be terrible, but my parents said it would be really good for me and encouraged me to go along.”
She reluctantly agreed, going on to impress in a 400m time trial. So began a ride that has turned her life upside down in the past three years.
Anna was born without a right hand, and her parents Tony and Di were always determined their eldest daughter should grow up independently. She learned how to catch a ball from a young age and could tie the shoelaces of her classmates after swimming at age five.
“They always made sure that if I faced a challenge, they would give me the skills to meet that challenge,” recalls Anna. “When you’re younger, you don’t necessarily want to have to do things a different way, but looking back, I’m so happy they gave me such a great start in life.”
Anna was also lucky she grew up with an “awesome bunch of friends” and apart from the occasional “comment or stare”, she was never bullied because of her disability.
Naturally athletic, Anna excelled in sport, playing basketball and netball for the school team, and later revealing a talent for running during a school duathlon.
But it was only following her appearance at the Paralympic Talent ID camp, after which she was taken under the wing of coach Brent Ward, that her future began to take shape.
Although Anna started out as a sprinter, it was when she switched to the long jump that she found her true calling. Regularly training for the first time in her life was initially far from glamorous, although just two months after taking up the sport, she won four gold medals at the 2013 New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships.
Her world had changed.
“I went out each Saturday and got a personal best, which was great,” she smiles.
Over time, athletics became hugely important as training and competition became more intense.
Already established on the national scene last year, Anna further revealed her rich potential by excelling on the international stage when she picked up a long-jump bronze at the IPC Athletics World Championships in Doha, Qatar.
Anna describes winning a medal as an “amazing experience” and one that further cemented her desire to commit to athletics.
“Up until then, I was really unsure if this was the path I wanted to go down, but from that point on, I knew I wanted to go to Rio and perform at my best,” she says.
It's not fair!
Now, due to the demands of a training schedule that involves between eight and nine sessions, six days a week, partying with friends is seldom an option. There are other drawbacks to her athletic commitments as well.
“My family has a house in Clyde and my parents go there with my 13-year-old sister Abby probably every other weekend in the summer,” tells Anna. “It really sucks not being able to go with them. I lead quite a different lifestyle.”
Yet there are many benefits to being an international athlete. She has forged great friendships for life and been given the chance to travel the world with her sport. “I am very lucky,” she admits.
Anna has already returned to training in pursuit of her next big goal – to compete at the 2017 IPC Athletics World Championships in London in July.
So how does it feel to be called Anna Grimaldi, Paralympic gold medallist?
“It is still so weird,” she admits. “It hasn’t sunk in yet. My dad’s birthday was during the Games and he joked that he wanted the gold medal for his birthday. The first thing he said after I won was, ‘You listened to me!’ but it is even ridiculous to think he was joking about that.”
With many years left to compete, this girl looks set for a glittering future in sport – and the journey so far has made her “a better Anna”, she says.
“What the past three years has taught me is I can do anything,” she smiles. “In the past, I was the only person holding me back. It has been so positive.”