Lakeisha Patterson didn’t want to create any excuses ahead of her Tokyo Paralympics campaign. But the gold-medal hero admits there were moments leading into the Games when she doubted she'd be able to swim at all.
While all athletes have faced different challenges ahead of the Olympic and Paralympic Games due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UQ Bachelor of Communication student has battled ongoing health complications, which significantly impacted her preparation.
She has also navigated a change in classification in 2019, which shifted her focus towards freestyle events.
Her goal was to swim in both the S9 100 metres and 400 metres freestyle, and possibly the relays. Despite adhering to the selection criteria, the 22-year-old missed out on selection in the 100 metres, which left her with just the 400 metres – her pet event.
“At times during the Games preparation period, I doubted whether I could push through, or be ready in time to compete,” Patterson told Contact from hotel quarantine in Sydney after returning from Tokyo.
“Fortunately, I have an incredible team surrounding me. My coach helped me through the tough times and adapted the training program to my needs to ensure I could still achieve my goals, without pushing myself to breaking point.
“Talking with my sports psychologist was also beneficial in developing strategies so I could push through, regardless of how I was feeling.
“Behind the blocks, I reminded myself that I don't have to feel good to swim good, and I had given 110 per cent to get to this position. I wasn't going to let anything stand in my way – which made me feel calm, positive, and ready to go.
“This is why I didn't tell many people before the Games what I was actually facing behind closed doors. I didn't want others to talk about it or circulate it in the media, distract myself from the goal at hand, nor create excuses.”
No excuses were needed, and the millions watching on television around the world saw no inkling of ill health as Patterson (pictured) produced one of her gutsiest performances ever to hold off a fierce challenge from Hungarian rival Zsofia Konkoly.
Konkoly briefly took the lead in the last lap, but Patterson stormed home to win the S9 400 metres freestyle final by just .08 of a second, defending her 400 metres Paralympic title from Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
“I realised it was going to be a tough race – it's the final of the Paralympic Games with eight of the best swimmers in the world – but I didn't expect it to be such a nail-biting finish,” Patterson said.
“Konkoly definitely pushed me all the way, especially the last 50 metres. I fell back on the reassurance of the training I had done and focused on closing out the last 15 metres strongly.
“It was a massive relief, and pure elation, that the hard work and struggles over the past few years were all worth it.”
Patterson’s one race at the Tokyo Paralympics was a significantly lighter load than her 2016 Rio campaign, at which she competed in 16 races and brought home two gold medals, three silvers and a bronze.
However, Patterson admitted that focusing on just one race at Tokyo meant more pressure to perform.
“I was disappointed to only be racing in one event, but [the 400 metres freestyle] is my main and favourite event, and I was able to focus on what I had to do and prove that I could do well,” Patterson said.
“To even be standing behind the starting blocks at Tokyo was a massive achievement considering the lead up I'd had, so to come away with a gold medal was phenomenal and hard to articulate into words.”
“It just makes the success that little bit sweeter. This gold medal doesn’t just represent all my hard work; but an accumulation of the sheer grit, determination and resilience required to continue through adversity. It was equally earned by my massive support team, family, and coaches.”
Image: Adam Pretty/Getty Images
Patterson’s family – especially her mum, Sherryn – play a key role in the swim star’s success. However, the COVID-19 pandemic meant Sherryn was unable to cheer on her daughter in Tokyo.
While Patterson said it would have been special to have her family in the stands, she knew they were cheering her on from afar.
“It was tough not having my family there, as they weren’t able to be in Rio either. We had been saving since 2016 for them to be able to come and witness the Paralympic Games in Tokyo,” Patterson said.
“That wasn't to be, but I knew everyone back home was sending so much love, encouragement and support, which I am very humbled by.
“I’m currently still in quarantine, and I can’t wait to get home and give everyone a big squeeze and continue the celebrations in person.”
Swimming above her class in the women's S5 100 metres freestyle, Diploma in Science student Rachael Watson (pictured) continued Australia’s gold-medal streak in the pool, breaking the S4 class Paralympic record with a time of 1:35.27.
It was a shock result for Watson, who admitted she didn’t expect to defend the gold medal she'd won in the same event at the Rio Paralympics in 2016.
“Training during a pandemic meant time away from the pool, due to pool closures, and there was so much uncertainty around if the Games would actually happen,” Watson said.
“I didn't realise straight away that I had won, but once it set in, I was a blubbering mess. I was so overwhelmed, but so incredibly proud of my support team who helped make this moment happen.”
As Watson fought back tears after the race, she delivered a heartfelt message to her family back home, who were unable to attend.
“My family had saved up for years to be able to come and watch me compete in Tokyo,” she said.
“After winning, I felt quite emotional and really wished they were able to be there in the crowd.”
But knowing my family and friends were watching from home in Australia and overseas meant a lot to me.”
After returning to Brisbane, Watson is now turning her attention back to her Diploma in Science studies, which she is completing with the aim to gain entry into a Master of Occupational Therapy at UQ in the future.
However, she also has her sights set on the Portugal World Championships in 2022.
“I'll be trying to qualify for the Portugal World Championships and I'd love to keep swimming until the Paris Paralympics in 2024, which isn't that far away.”
Image: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
In total, three UQ representatives competed at the Tokyo Paralympic Games.
Australia won 80 medals at the Games – including 21 gold, 29 silver and 30 bronze – finishing eighth on the overall medal tally.
Patterson said it was a remarkable achievement, particularly given the adversity that many athletes had to overcome during the past two years.
“I believe the tough times have really united us all as a nation,” she said.
“Paralympians and people with disabilities, in general, are used to being able to adapt to any circumstance, and I believe the Paralympics were a fantastic testament to that.”
“Despite the countless challenges set before us, our audacity to smash down those barriers and show the world we can overcome anything proved how physically and mentally strong we are.”
The Australian Government acknowledged these efforts and remarkable achievements during the Games when it was announced that Australian Paralympic medal winners would receive the same financial reward as Olympians.
Watson said the announcement was extremely unexpected and very overwhelming.
“The Olympics have a much bigger budget than the Paralympics, and we are extremely grateful for this support.”