Tupou Neiufi appeared in complete command as she earned New Zealand’s first gold medal of the Paralympics tonight.
But there was one thing the 20-year-old couldn’t control.
“When I touched the wall, I was just absolutely shocked,” Neiufi told 1 News. “And then I saw the cameras and I was like, ‘Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry’.
“Obviously, the tears got the best of me.”
The overwhelming emotion of the moment was certainly clear to see after Neiufi had produced a stunning swim to win the S8 100m backstroke final at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.
The South Auckland swimmer, who as a two-year-old suffered debilitating injuries after being hit by a car, led from start to finish tonight, stopping the clock in a time of 1:16.84 to take gold by 1.47 seconds.
Hopes were high for Neiufi after her second-place performance in the same event at the world championships two years ago. But even she seemed surprised by the manner of her victory.
Neiufi burst into tears after taking off her goggles and seeing what she had achieved, roared on in the stands by a small but vocal Kiwi contingent led by a delighted Sophie Pascoe.
“As soon as I touched the wall, I had no idea what was going on, I was so confused,” Neiufi said. “And then I heard my teammates cheering and I was like, ‘Oh, I probably should look up [at the big screen]’.
“By the time I looked up I was so shocked – and it still feels surreal, this moment.”
Pascoe – fresh off winning silver in the pool last night – was jumping for joy before Neiufi had even touched the wall, such was her young teammate’s dominance.
Neiufi edged clear of the field about 25m into the race and never looked back, leading at the turn by 0.81 seconds.
She only extended that advantage in the final 50m and cruised home comfortably ahead of Ukrainian Kateryna Denysenko, with 24-time Paralympic medallist Jessica Long taking bronze.
“Once I saw [my teammates] it just hit me,” Neiufi said. “I was so proud to be their teammate and to have them there cheering for me.
“I just feel so honoured to be able to do this, not only for myself but my family, my friends, my supporters and everyone who’s helped me along the way.”
The triumph completed a remarkable journey for Neiufi, who after her accident was not expected to be able to walk as a child.
She was left with paralysis in the left side of her body and suffered a traumatic brain injury, but quickly defied the dire prognosis before taking up swimming aged eight.
Neiufi went on to represent New Zealand as a 15-year-old at the Rio Games five years ago, where she finished seventh after initially being omitted from the team.
And now, having left Otahuhu College early to focus solely on swimming, she is a Paralympic gold medallist – although the celebrations will be on hold until she swims in the S8 50m freestyle on Wednesday.
“It will probably take a while before it settles in,” Neiufi said. “I know I’ll definitely be going to the food hall and picking something out, but I still have the 50 free next week so I won’t be celebrating too much.”
Wheel Blacks playing for seventh
The Wheel Blacks will face Denmark for seventh place at the Paralympics after suffering their third consecutive defeat in wheelchair rugby pool play.
Having lost 63-35 to the United States and 60-37 to Great Britain, the Wheel Blacks were more competitive against Canada, who also came into the clash with an 0-2 record, but their three-point quarter-time deficit gradually increased to eight at halftime, nine after three quarters and eventually resulted in a 51-36 defeat.
Denmark will likely be favoured to claim seventh, having beaten Australia in pool play and only narrowly missing out on a semifinal spot on points differential.
The 7/8 classification match, which will be the Wheel Blacks’ final match of the Paralympics, gets underway at 2.30pm.
Tuimaseve finishes ninth
Paralympics debutant Ben Tuimaseve was unable to factor in the men’s F37 shot put final, finishing ninth at Tokyo Stadium tonight.
Tuimaseve’s second attempt was his strongest, recording a distance of 13.31m, but that was not enough to prevent him from being eliminated when the nine-man field narrowed to eight after three rounds.
Tuimaseve fell short of his personal best of 13.65m and finished 1.14m outside of the medal places, as Russian Albert Khinchagov (15.78m) easily took gold.
Kiwi cyclists miss medals
Kiwi duo Nicole Murray and Anna Taylor have missed out on the medals in the women’s C4-5 500m time trial at the Izu Velodrome tonight.
Murray finished sixth in the 11-woman final while Taylor was eighth, with the pair both briefly occupying podium positions before being pushed down the leaderboard by subsequent riders.
The final three cyclists each broke the world record to take the medals, led by defending champion Kadeena Cox of Great Britain, who completed her two laps in a time of 34.433 seconds.
Murray stopped the clock at 37.657s, more than two seconds off the bronze-medal position, while Taylor came home in a time of 38.713s.
Both women were close to claiming a medal in their individual pursuit events on Wednesday, with Murray finishing fourth in the C5 classification and Taylor taking fifth in the C4.
But the pair still have two more chances to reach the podium in Tokyo, now set to take to the road for the time trial on Tuesday and the road race on Thursday.
ICYMI: Pascoe claims 'unexpected' medal
New Zealand’s greatest Paralympian Sophie Pascoe, who claimed her 16th medal last night in Tokyo, says her latest achievement was “unexpected”.
Pascoe took out silver in the women’s SB8 100m breaststroke, with Ireland’s Ellen Keane narrowly beating the 28-year-old Kiwi to take gold.
While Pascoe was disappointed not to win her first event of the Games, she revealed after the race that she wasn’t even planning on competing in the 100m breaststroke and that it was a “last minute entry”.
Despite breaststroke not being her preferred event, she still claimed silver and only lost out to Keane by 0.39 seconds.
She competes in four more events this Games, the first of which will come in the S9 100m backstroke on Monday.
How the day unfolded:
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