Kia ora koutou, nga mihi nui o te po. Good evening, greetings to you all.
I specifically acknowledge: Honourable Nicky Wagner, Minister for Disability Issues; Selwyn Maister and Fiona Allan, Board Chair and CEO, respectively, of Paralympics New Zealand; Ben Lucas, Paralympics New Zealand Chef De Mission; and Alex Baumann, CEO of High Performance Sport NZ - tēnā koutou katoa.
Thank you for inviting me along this evening, it’s great to be here. The last time I was with you was when Janine and I attended last year’s Road to Rio event. The Rio 2016 Paralympics were more than a year away. Today, with only 50 days to go – we are truly on the road to Rio.
The athletes Janine and I met last year were hopeful they would gain selection to compete in Rio. The emphasis then was on training and meeting the qualifying standards. Hope is being replaced by certainty. There’s something new to strive for – world-class competition, personal best performances and medals.
Para-sport is growing rapidly worldwide. A combination of strong leadership, commanding performances and compelling competitions have encouraged greater participation and larger spectator numbers both here and overseas.
This increased appeal was evident after London 2012, when the British Daily Mirror echoed the thoughts of many by saying “The Olympics were glorious, and the Paralympics even better”. New Zealand’s performance at those games was outstanding and the support received at home revealed a new appreciation for para-sport.
The Paralympic Games, like the Olympic Games, is one of the most competitive multi-sport competitions in the world. They are the pinnacle of para-sport. Para-Athletes who are selected to represent our country at the Paralympic Games are amongst the fittest, strongest and quickest athletes in the world.
Like their non-para counterparts, para-athletes have to prepare to participate in their sporting code at an elite level. And as Paralympics New Zealand informs us, the difference between an elite Paralympic Athlete and an elite Olympic Athlete is very small. Both train and compete with the same level of dedication.
The 2016 Paralympics squad will feature experienced athletes, who have demonstrated their ability at an international level. Some are Paralympians already. Some are debuting in Rio.
Our oldest para-competitor, and debuting at Rio, is sailor Chris Sharpe (born 1958). Chris will turn 58 three days before the Paralympics open. Our youngest, and also making his Paralympics debut this year, is William Stedman. Our youngest ever Paralympian – Paralympian 179 - Nikita Howarth, from the Paralympics in London 2012 is also back.
There are at least nine (9) individuals who are ranked number one in the world, some in more than one event, and at least a further 18 inside the top-10. We have current world-champions, current world record holders and a team comprising para-athletes who in the elite category of sport are in the frame for top performances and are in medal contention. In the cauldron of competition, adrenaline surges and the seeming impossible get done!
Para-athletes are, rightfully, being acknowledged alongside their non-para sporting peers. I think it is superb that people have stopped noticing the differences and started appreciating the similarities. People are noticing the same passion, the same quest to win, the same drama of competition and the incredible talent, skill and athleticism required to be a champion – para athlete or non-para athlete.
As much as the Rio Paralympics will give individuals the chance at glory, I think it’s also important for the New Zealand team to gel, as a team – New Zealand’s team. Athletes like Michael Johnson, Cameron Leslie, Sophie Pascoe, Kate Horan, Rebecca Dubber and Mary Fisher bring a wealth of experience to the team. Their familiarity with the demands of top level competition will be invaluable as our individual competitors and the team overall plan, prepare and compete in Rio.
The Paralympic debutantes, like Caitlin Dore and Liam Malone, who are just starting out on their international athletic careers, will also give energy to the team.
What’s also exciting is that thanks to New Zealand on Air, TVNZ and Attitude; the 4 and a half million or so people in Stadium New Zealand will be able to see your progress onscreen. The coverage available on free to air for the first time is a fantastic development. It should be a great boost for the profile of para-sport in this country.
Achievement doesn’t happen in a vacuum and for every para-sport success on the public stage there’s a large cast of supporters behind the scenes - funding agencies and sponsors, coaches, officials, friends and family and many other support people. I would like to acknowledge that contribution to the team.
My final remarks are for the athletes. All of you have been selected on the basis of ability and the results you are capable of achieving. Each of you sets off for Rio 2016 with a picture in your head of what success looks like, whether that’s a medal, a top 8 placing or a personal best.
An American author, by the name of Zig Ziglar, made a comment that I think applies to you our para-athletes when he said: “You were born to win, but to be a winner you must plan to win, prepare to win and expect to win”.
Rio 2016 is where the months of training, commitment and perseverance come to fruition and what you have pictured in your minds become reality. I’m looking forward to seeing what you achieve during the Rio 2016 Paralympics and on behalf of all New Zealanders, I wish you the very best in your competitions.
Kia ora huihui tātou katoa