How Sophie Pascoe turned steely determination to gold

11:06 am on 14 September 2016

As her hand hit the end of the pool this morning to claim silver, Sophie Pascoe became New Zealand's most decorated Paralympian of all time - and one of the country's greatest ever athletes.

A Paralympic veteran at just 23 years old, Pascoe has now won 15 medals at three Games, including 9 gold medals.

Sophie Pascoe has become New Zealand's most successful Paralympic athlete.

Sophie Pascoe has won more Paralympic medals than any other athlete. Photo: Photosport

Today's silver medal nudged her ahead of New Zealand's previous greatest Paralympian Eve Rimmer, a track and field superstar who picked up 14 medals in javelin, discus, shotput, pentathlon and archery between 1968 and 1980.

Rimmer's haul also included a cameo silver medal in swimming in 1968, in the women's 50-metre freestyle.

All of Pascoe's medals have come in the pool, where she has trounced her competition in multiple disciplines, across multiple distances.

QEII Swim Club vice-president Sian Ruth first met Pascoe over a decade ago, when her own daughter joined the club, and was struck by the young swimmer's focus and determination.

"That's always been there.

"She has taken what could have been a horrific situation and has used it and turned it into a plus."

That "horrific situation" is the loss of Pascoe's left leg in a lawn mower accident when she was two - something Pascoe now describes as "the best thing that ever happened to me".

It's made her a household name in New Zealand, but swimming did not come easily to Pascoe at first.

She found group lessons at school hard, and it was not until a Halberg Trust grant allowed her family to pay for one-on-one lessons that her runaway ability became obvious.

That year's school swimming sports, at age seven, were a turning point, Pascoe wrote on her website.

"I [beat] my good friend who had two legs and that's when I thought to myself, I have a talent here."

Not long afterwards, she met Roly Crichton, who became her coach when she was just eight and has trained her ever since.

Sophie Pascoe with her long-time coach, Roly Crichton.

Sophie Pascoe with her long-time coach, Roly Crichton. Photo: Photosport NZ

Paralympic Chef de Mission Ben Lucas credits that relationship as a large part of Pascoe's success.

"Roly doesn't pull any punches. He's worked Sophie hard and Sophie likes hard work."

The two respect each other "immensely", Mr Lucas says.

"Because they've been together for such a long time, they know each other so well - and they've got such a good thing going."

Like Sian Ruth, Mr Lucas talks of Pascoe's "steely determination".

"Sophie Pascoe is a name that everyone knows - and she's earned that."

That recognition - and seemingly universal affection - is down to Pascoe herself as much as her achievements, Mr Lucas says.

"She's always just herself - what you see is what you get with Sophie."

Sophie Pascoe during the Womens 200m Individual Medley SM10 Swimming at the Rio Paralympics. 11 September 2016

Pascoe celebrates yet another gold medal in the pool. Photo: Photosport

What you see is a magnificent grin splitting her face every time she lifts her head from the water to see her name, first, again and again.

On Sunday there were also tears, as emotion overcame her on the podium while receiving her first gold medal of the Rio Games.

Sian Ruth agrees that Pascoe's willingness to wear her heart on her sleeve is part of what has endeared her to the New Zealand public.

"She is a very down-to-earth person and a very kind and caring person - and I think that reflects through."

Of course, there's also the satisfaction of watching a New Zealander smash through record after record.

And with years of swimming ahead of her, Rio might not even be the culmination of Sophie Pascoe's achievements, Ben Lucas says.

"She's been so dominant for such a long period of time.

"As an athlete in her own right, she's certainly one of the greatest that we've had."

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