Paralympics: Sophie Pascoe reveals COVID lockdown struggles nearly drove her to quit Tokyo dream

Kiwi para-swimming star Sophie Pascoe came close to giving away the sport during 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on her ability to prepare for the upcoming Tokyo Paralympics.

Pascoe headlines New Zealand's five-strong swimming team for the Games - beginning on August 24 - joined by Cameron Leslie, Jesse Reynolds, Nikita Howarth and Tupou Neiufi.

But Pascoe has told Newshub that very nearly wasn't the case, revealing she was in a "dark place" during New Zealand's first COVID-19 lockdown last March.

"It's definitely been a challenge over the past year, I'm not going to lie," she says. "COVID took me into a pretty dark place, the postponement of the Games and through a grieving process really."

Unable to train for 12 weeks during the first lockdown, with facilities such as pools and gyms shutting their doors, Pascoe was forced to consider whether the rescheduled Tokyo Games were an achievable target.

"Lockdown really made me re-evaluate the Games in general and me as a person - 12 weeks out of the pool, obviously I had a lot of thinking time," Pascoe continues.

"It just made you realise what's important, and first and foremost is your family and friends, and we really gathered around as all-supporters to get me through a tough time.

"To then come out of that, into the training preparations for Tokyo, it has been a different preparation. 

"Obviously it hasn't been smooth sailing. It has been ups and downs, with lockdowns throughout the country and then obviously the world circumstances, with not being able to travel.

"It's not been the perfect lead up into a Paralympic Games, but everybody is in the same boat and we have to remember that."

Says coach Roly Crichton: "[It was] really, really hard. That dark place is hard to come out of and I'd say that we're not quite out of there yet. 

"[It's] really neat for her to get balance. We were in a situation where it was probably 70-80 percent to be the best in the world, now it would be under 50 percent that. 

"That's going to be quite hard to cope with this new world coming on, and I would hope she'd be able to switch that off a little bit and balance her life through the week with that. 

"There was about a month ago, I was in a situation, so I gave her a call. On Saturday, we had a coffee and I said 'do you want to go?'

"That was my one question, 'do you want to go to Tokyo?' So when Soph said yes, we had to put a plan in place, but we have to follow up and be able to hit those targets on the way. 

"I know what it takes, and whether she can cope with that is another thing or whether she'd like to cope with that. It's very, very difficult time, but she knows she's got to do it, if she wants to be the best, but whether she can is yet to be seen."

Pascoe has emerged out the other side and will spearhead the New Zealand charge for Paralympic medals in the pool. To date, Pascoe is New Zealand's most decorated para-athlete, with nine golds, and six silvers across Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro.

And with more medals on the cards in Tokyo, Pascoe says her perspective and support network are pushing her forward to further cement herself as a modern-day Paralympics legend.

"I'm going into my fourth campaign as a different athlete and as a different person. I'm 28-years-old, I'm a mature athlete now, I have the knowledge, I have the experience of knowing what it takes to get there.

"But definitely, first and foremost now is balancing the training with my mental wellbeing, so a lot of it isn't actually done in the water for a long period of time now. It's quality over quantity, and being fresh out of the water and balancing that mental health."

Time out of the water also made Pascoe to do what any athlete dreads - pondering what happens after she's swum her last race. 

Despite that fear, she asserts she's more than confident with her plan.

"When something's taken away from you, it does make you realise what's important. 

"I never really had that idea of what to do next - post swimming - or what if swimming was taken away from me? What else do I have to bring?

"Those were really tough questions to go through as an athlete, but also as a person, but it's using that time to evaluate where you're at in your programme. For me, it took me right back to I need to think about the transition, post-swimming.

"For me now, it's really exciting that I have a bit of a plan in how to transition. I'm not saying that Tokyo is my last Games, I'm saying that if I was to be in a position again where swimming is taken away, I've got something else to work on behind the scenes or to still bring Sophie into people's lives."

"There were definitely times of question, but the hope for Tokyo hadn't gone - it was just how I was going to get there."

Leslie is another returning face, also competing at his fourth Games in Tokyo. Leslie has won three gold medals in the pool for New Zealand, coming in the 150m individual medley in 2008, 2012 and 2016. 

Away from the pool, Leslie has also represented New Zealand in wheelchair rugby, and intends to continue his cross-code heroics if selected.

Howarth will turn out for her third Games, after making history as New Zealand's youngest Paralympian at London 2012, aged 13. Howarth won gold and bronze medals at Rio five years ago.

Neiufi will compete at her second Games and is a serious medal contender, currently ranked second in the world over 100m backstroke S8, after winning silver at the 2019 para-swimming world championships in London. 

Reynolds will also make his second Paralympics appearance after Rio and is currently ranked sixth in the world over 100m backstroke S9. 

The Tokyo Paralympics are scheduled between August 24-September 5.