Profile: Mary Fisher

When training is at its toughest for leading New Zealand para-swimmer Mary Fisher and every stroke feels like “swimming upstream in Vegemite” it would be tempting to stop and say no more.

But as an experienced high performance athlete and World and Paralympic gold medallist, quitting is not option for Mary. Highly motivated and possessing all the characteristics you would expect of a world champion, the visually impaired swim ace has become a master at her craft and skilled at being able to navigate through the “dark moments” in training.

Thankfully, even though she performs in a brutally demanding individual sport, she is not an athlete performing in isolation. Led by her swim coach, Jon Shaw, she is supported by an extensive team of High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ) staff on hand to guide her through those tough times in an effort to ensure she is able to perform to the peak of her powers at the Rio Paralympic Games.

“As an elite athlete you want to be pushing the boundaries to the absolute limit because you know everyone else in the world is doing the same thing,” explains Mary. “You reach a point of exhaustion but you need to push past that to be the best athlete you can be. This is where your mind must control your body.”

Mary has a series of methods to overcome what often initially appears to be the “physically impossible.” If she feels her body is “giving out” or her “technique slipping” she tries to focus on Rio and the goals that are driving her such as setting a PB or making the team.

It is far from easy. Training can be grindingly tough for the now Auckland-based swimmer. Rising at 6.30am each day she will head off to AUT Millennium for a gruelling two-hour swim session, followed by a short rest and then up to 90 minutes of gym work. She then returns home for lunch, before later hitting the pool again for a further two hours of hard slog in the water.

There is little respite. The body is frequently sore each morning. Rising from “a warm, cuddly bed” on a “dark and cold” morning requires iron-discipline. The snooze button is never used. It is one alarm call and then up and out of the door.

Thankfully, even though she performs in a brutally demanding individual sport she is part of a hugely supportive team at HPSNZ, who at every turn offer their total support both on and off the water. It is a critical part of her success.

“All the HPSNZ staff have lots of experience talking to a range of athletes from many different sports,” says Mary. “They know what works for different people and they have both the sensitivity and knowledge to communicate this to the athletes.”

Reassuring words from a HPSNZ provider after the toughest of sessions when the body is screaming out to stop can act as a huge “morale booster.”

As a visually impaired athlete Mary can’t see the video analysis of her own performance, and so she draws on the expertise of her HPSNZ biomechanist Jodi Cosser and her coach, Jon Shaw, to look through the video and offer feedback and advice.

And even out of the water, HPSNZ staff provide much appreciated support for Mary.

“At first when I moved up here I felt quite isolated,” she says. “As I can’t legally drive it is tricky for me to get around. As a high performance sport athlete I am in a small circle of people but the high performance staff were very good at helping me look at avenues for managing day to day logistics and even different hobbies. They have been really generous in helping me adjust to being in a new place.    

“They helped introduce me to a handful of people that play the Mbira, a Zimbabwean instrument (thumb piano) that I play. It has been cool to meet a new group of people and to do something which is completely removed from swimming.”

Whether it is in or out of the water, Mary fully acknowledges the critical role and \ tireless work HPSNZ staff have contributed on her road to Rio.

“Seeing the effort and determination everyone in the HPSNZ team put into their job - whether it is recording a race or offering nutritional advice - and that everyone is working hard towards the same goal is one of the best things about being a high performance sport athlete.

“With the support they have given me, the confidence and the right mindset, I know I can achieve better results, which I couldn’t have achieved by myself.” she adds.