Paralympics delay just a bump in the road for NZ chef de mission

The woman responsible for making sure the Tokyo Paralympics run as smoothly as possible for the New Zealand team says the disappointment of the Games being postponed until 2021 is tempered by the knowledge that the Games will be better than ever when they're held next year. Paula Tesoriero is a past Paralympic cycling gold medalist, a world record holder and the current Disability Rights Commissioner. In October 2019, she was appointed chef de mission for New Zealand's Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Team, returning to the world of high-performance sport, this time without her bike.
Paula standing in a foyer wearing a cycling top

Paula Tesoriero says winning medals at the Beijing Paralympics is a memory she will treasure forever and she is looking forward to helping a new generation of athletes achieve their dreams

At the Beijing Games in 2008, Paula achieved the ultimate in claiming a world record on her way to winning a gold medal in the women’s 500m time trial. This was followed up by two bronze medals in the individual pursuit and road time trial.  

“For me, winning my medals in Beijing, nothing will ever surpass that memory. Being able to experience the competition closer to home, makes participating and competing in Asia really special,” she says.

“I always encourage athletes and families to take time to understand the country before they get there. Performing in Asia offers such a rich opportunity to learn about a culture, a language, the food, and the history.” 

Twelve years on from Beijing and Paula will lead the New Zealand Paralympic Team into the Tokyo Paralympic Games. 

As Chef de Mission, she has three key responsibilities: creating an environment for athletes to perform at their very best;  meeting with partners, sponsors, government agencies and diplomats; and as the team spokesperson for the media. 

It’s a big role, though Paula sees it aligning perfectly with her role as Disabilities Rights Commissioner. 

“It enables me to talk about inclusion and the power of sport as a way of promoting diversity and equity in sport.” 

To get a better understanding of the task ahead, Paula and a small Paralympic New Zealand (PNZ) group went to Tokyo in February 2020. 

“It was my first visit to Japan, and I loved surpassed my expectation; incredible city, beautiful greenery, plants and trees...there was a nice calmness about the city. There is a huge amount of pride building around hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games.” 

While the COVID crisis was growing around the globe, Paula and the PNZ group remained focussed, visiting venues, meeting with the Games organizers and New Zealand Embassy staff, then returning to New Zealand to share their observations and experiences with athletes and support staff. 

Then....New Zealand would go into alert level 4 and not long after that came the decision to postpone the Games.

“While I was really disappointed it didn’t go ahead, it was balanced with knowing it was absolutely the right decision to make.

“My first thought was what do we need to do to make sure our athletes can get through this.” 

Paula standing on the Great Wall holding her medals

Paula: "Performing in Asia offers such a rich opportunity to learn about a culture, a language, the food, and the history.” 

PNZ and High Performance Sport New Zealand stepped in with support for the athletes, setting up training equipment at home and online access to sport nutritionists, psychologists and coaches.

“I often wondered how I would have reacted myself with the postponement, as an athlete. When you have done all that training, you know when you are going to peak, your life plans almost go on hold when competing at that level. So, the ramifications can be quite significant.”  

With the new date set, everyone from athletes through to support staff will be re-setting their plans. 

On the upside, it provides Games organisers extra time to build on the legacy of the Games, to improve accessibility and grow awareness of diversity and equity within Japanese society. 

PNZ will work with International Paralympic Committee and their Japanese counterparts to assist in this work. 

For Tokyo, change is already happening. Hotels are now required to provide accessible rooms, access is being improved on transport systems and a nationwide schools programme is teaching students about inclusivity and diversity. 

While COVID has disrupted the pans of the New Zealand athletes, Paula notes it's not as though they're on their own.

“Every country going to these Paralympic Games have had to deal with the postponement, difficulties with training and the effect of the pandemic in their own countries.

“It will make these Paralympic Games even more special, the huge global effort that everyone has gone through to get there.” 

Leading the New Zealand team into the Tokyo Stadium on 24 August 2021, Paula will be fully committed to making sure our athletes get the most out of their time in Japan, that the hard work and the sacrifices of the past years are rewarded with their best performances.

The Foundation wishes the New Zealand Paralympic Team all the best for their Tokyo 2020 Paralympic campaign and is proud to partner them in several initiatives associated with the Paralympic Games.