November 2022, Articles

It takes a team

The Kiwi team of three Shooting Para Sport athletes has just finished competing at the 2022 World Championships in Al Ain, UAE.

To get to UAE though has meant a huge amount of work, not only from the shooting para athletes themselves but from the all-important Athlete Performance Support team and Performance Life Coaches who have had their backs as they built up to the World Championships and look towards Paris 2024.

For two of the three team members – Natalie Brunzel and Neelam O’Neill – it was a chance to get back onto the world stage after being denied the opportunity to compete at Tokyo 2020 due to COVID-19 overseas travel barriers affecting the pair’s ability to qualify.

The third team member, veteran Shooting Para Sport competitor, team lead and coach Michael Johnson was looking to build on his gold and two bronze medals across Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Paralympic Games.

Team lead, competitor and coach Michael provides the context for the significance of competing at the World Championships for himself and his fellow team members, Neelam and Natalie.

“Quite simply no one traveled overseas in 2020 which unfortunately meant Neelam and Natalie didn’t have the opportunity to win their slots through internationally recognised pre-qualifying events,” explains Michael.

“I was fortunate to have qualified for Tokyo 2020 and for this year’s World Championships, but we had to get creative to be able to ensure Natalie and Neelam qualified.

“With limited or no ability to travel overseas, we had to make a qualifying opportunity happen here In New Zealand.  To that end, New Zealand held its first ever international WSPS Grand Prix in July this year where Natalie and Neelam were able to qualify to go to the World Championships.”

Michael is the first to give a big thumbs up to the massive support from the trio’s Performance team while in New Zealand which ensured they were well prepared for the competition and also the challenges of international travel for para athletes.

Like Michael, Performance Psychologist Rod Corban wears multiple hats in his role with Shooting Para Sport.  He has been Michael’s sport psychologist since 2006, provides psychology support for Natalie, stepped into the role of team manager for the World Championships and provides essential support to Michael on the arduous flights to and from UAE.

“A key focus has been providing the build up support for Michael and Natalie and then to be on the ground in UAE for all three team members,” says Rod.

“With Michael the focus has been on reinforcing long standing work-ons to help him steer his thoughts and feelings into positive outcomes, regardless of his results.  For Natalie it has been more about educating and helping her on the psychology of performance.

“There is no magic bullet.  Rather it’s a case of helping the athletes navigate a big competition, how to manage emotions and expectations, focus on what they can control and, most importantly, helping them have fun and enjoy the experience.”

Rod’s role also extends to the practical aspects of travelling and competing for a para athlete.  He is a lifter, shifter and helper.

“Michael needs someone to get his gear, get his food – practical things that will ease the challenges he faces.  Natalie, on the other hand, has been seeking practical advice, for example, on the challenges of being a female athlete in UAE.  It might sound simple but she wanted to know if she would be able to wear shorts on the shooting range and, if not, what she should wear to be culturally aware but also ensure she was comfortable.”

Nutrition is another critical support function for the athletes and HPSNZ Performance Nutritionist Rebecca Cooke has been working with all three athletes to ensure they were not only nutritionally at their peak heading into the World Championships but they have options for competition days which can be challenging.

“At the World Championships, athletes don’t know what time of day they will be competing so an important part of the nutrition preparation has been to provide Michael, Natalie and Neelam with multiple scenarios.  For example, if they are competing early in the morning, or mid afternoon or early evening their nutrition plan will differ,” says Rebecca.

“Travelling also imposes some nutritional challenges.  Travel schedules, length of flights and stopovers all have an impact on nutritional wellbeing.  Michael and Neelam were both flying non-stop which removed the problem of stopovers however meant 19 hours in an aircraft.  Electrolyte support and a good intake of fluids is critical but also we need to manage the amount of fluids.  Plane food can be less than ideal for high performance athletes so we advised on the type of snacks for the team to take on flights to supplement the in-flight meals.

“Our primary goal was to have the athletes arrive in good shape and not be on the back foot.

“Medication management can also be tricky so getting that right is critical to ensuring they arrived In UAE in a positive physical and mental condition.”

The third key support element for the team comes from their respective HPSNZ Performance Life Coaches.

Hannah McLean has been working with Neelam for five years and says her role is to support Neelam with a wellbeing plan that creates a solid foundation for performance. Developing her career, identity outside sport, and time and energy management skills have been a key part of this.

“I have a post-World Championships debrief already set up with Neelam so we can unpack the whole experience and set a framework off the range to help her achieve her goal of going to Paris,” says Hannah.

While very new to her role as a HPSNZ Performance Life Coach, Nicola Lewis-Clifford says she has thoroughly enjoyed immersing herself into the world of Shooting Para Sport and observing some of the demands experienced by these athletes, on and off the range.

“It has clearly highlighted some adversity that this sport and athletes face day to day and when competing on the world stage,” says Nicola.

“With Natalie, we have been working on managing energy and organising time efficiently, planning for the future post-World Championships and instigating processes, always with the goal of Paris in her sights.”

As the Update newsletter was published, results from the World Championships were:

  • Neelam:  PBs in both events; 12th in both Mixed Air Rifle Prone and Women’s 10m Air Pistol
  • Natalie:  39th Mixed 10 Air Rifle
  • Michael: 17th Mixed 10m Air Rifle Standing; 27th Mixed 50m Rifle Prone; 38th Mixed 10m Air Rifle Prone
Neelam O'Neill | Natalie Brunzel Credit: Paralympics NZ