Not dis­abled, but sim­ply ath­letes


The overwhelming re­cep­tion Mary Fisher re­ceived when she was named Welling­ton Sportswoman of the Year the other day was yet more ac­knowl­edge­ment of the progress dis­abled sport has made in New Zealand.

Fisher, 21, beat a high-cal­i­bre field. Other fi­nal­ists were hockey star Anita Punt, swim­mer/ surf life­saver Samantha Lee and bare­foot wa­ter- skier Ge­or­gia Groen. That’s not to men­tion Cen­tral Pulse net­ballers such as Ka­t­rina Grant and the crick­eters, led by Sophie Devine.

De­spite the strong op­po­si­tion, Fisher, who has been blind since birth, won clearly. She brought home five medals from the 2013 world cham­pi­onships and set four world records dur­ing the year.

It was em­pha­sised to me in 2012 just how much dis­abled ath­letes are part of the sports land­scape now.

At the 2012 Can­ter­bury sports awards, the supreme award was to go to ei­ther Sports­man win­ner Richie McCaw or Sportswoman win­ner Sophie Pas­coe.

Now they do love the All Black cap­tain in Can­ter­bury, but when dis­abled swim­mer Pas­coe (who won three golds and three sil­vers at the 2012 Lon­don Par­a­lympics) was an­nounced as the win­ner, there was overwhelming sup­port from the au­di­ence of 700.

The suc­cesses of Pas­coe and Fisher in gen­eral sports awards con­firm that leading dis­abled ath­letes are re­garded sim­ply as sports­men and women these days.

The change in per­cep­tion has ac­tu­ally been fairly quick.

New Zealand first sent a team to the Par­a­lympics in 1968, in Tel Aviv. Eve Rim­mer was the only woman named in the team of 15, and she was the only team mem­ber who won a medal.

In fact, Rim­mer won a gold, two sil­vers and a bronze in sports as di­verse as the javelin and freestyle swim­ming. Team­mates called her ‘‘ the Peter Snell of the Par­a­lympics’’.

Rim­mer had a long and bril­liant ca­reer and was a pioneer for dis­abled sport in New Zealand. She passed the ba­ton on to archer Neroli Fairhall who, when she went to Bris­bane in 1982, be­came the first dis­abled ath­lete to com­pete at a Com­mon­wealth Games.

Fairhall went fur­ther, and won the gold medal in the women’s four-day dou­ble FITA event, cre­at­ing world head­lines.

In 1984, the Can­ter­bury archer be­came the first dis­abled ath­lete to com­pete at an Olympics.

Jenny New­stead broke more ground in 1992.

The dis­abled swim­mer from Dunedin won four golds and a sil­ver at the Barcelona Par­a­lympics that year and earned a Sportswoman nom­i­na­tion in the Hal­berg Awards.

There was some gnash­ing of teeth among the judges be­cause it was a par­tic­u­larly strong year and five fi­nal­ists were named – New­stead, Su­san Devoy ( squash), Bar­bara Ken­dall (board­sail­ing), Lor­raine Moller ( ath­let­ics) and An­nelise Coberger (ski­ing). Coberger won the vote.

Dis­abled sport is surely ready now for the fi­nal step.

The Hal­berg Trust has re­cently been re­named the Hal­berg Disability Sport Foun­da­tion. It was once called the Mur­ray Hal­berg Trust for Crip­pled Chil­dren.

That sounds in­cred­i­bly un-PC now, but was per­fectly laud­able when it was set up in the 1960s. Things evolve as our aware­ness grows.

The Hal­berg foun­da­tion over­sees the an­nual sports awards. It’s time its award for dis­abled sports­peo­ple was aban­doned.

As Pas­coe and Fisher have shown, dis­abled ath­letes now be­long in gen­eral sports cat­e­gories. They shouldn’t be shunted off into a spe­cial sec­tion of their own.

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