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.