Posted on Friday 17th April, 2020

There are people who have an exceptional ability to focus on the task at hand — and then there are extraordinary people like Paralympian Emma Foy, for whom there is no option. To say she is driven to succeed is an understatement.

“I think I’ve always just wanted to reach my potential and I’m not satisfied unless I can do that and know that I am the best that I can be,” says the top Para cyclist, who won silver and bronze medals at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games with sighted pilot Laura Thompson.

“I think part of it is to do with the fact that, at some points in my life, I was excluded to some degree from doing things, whether it’d be explicitly or through lack of opportunity, or lack of accessibility. I have such a big drive to want to be the best, and to show people what I can do.”

Emma, 30, was born with oculocutaneous albinism, a group of conditions affecting her hair, skin and eyes. Her visual acuity is limited and she is exceptionally sensitive to light. “When I’m out riding, if it’s bright, I can’t really see much at all,” she explains.

Growing up in Dargaville with a close-knit, active family, she was a naturally sporty kid with a special interest in athletics and karate. She didn’t discover Para cycling until 2013, but quickly impressed, earning a spot in Paralympics New Zealand’s high performance programme and a fast track to the velodrome.

“My involvement in Para sport has given me a lot of confidence,” says Emma. “Previous to 2013, I would hide the fact that I can’t see. I sometimes use a magnifying glass to read, and I would try and not do that in public, or not around people that I’m not really comfortable with. I don’t care about that anymore. My general level of confidence in myself and who I am has grown. So I’m really grateful for that.”

At the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, Emma will compete with her new pilot and staunch supporter, Hannah van Kampen. In 2019 the pair were crowned world champions in the BV1 road race at the UCI Para Cycling Road World Championships, and in the 3km individual pursuit at the UCI Para Cycling Track World Championship.

Hannah controls the gears and steering of their tandem bike while Emma needs to be alert and responsive to any changes. The pedals are connected via a timing chain and the tandem runs fastest when both riders are in sync and riding at the same intensity.

“Emma is very driven and very motivated,” says Hannah, 26, who grew up in Hawkes Bay. “We’re very even in what we can do, so we are able to almost fight against each other in training and it lifts both of us, which is really exciting. I need to be on top of my game, always, to be working with her.”

They have developed a strong friendship in addition to their winning working relationship. “Sometimes we’ll go out for lunch together, or maybe go watch a movie,” says Emma. “We’re both away from our families, in terms of distance, so it’s really nice that we have that support as well.”

Together, Emma and Hannah are aiming for their best-ever performance at Tokyo 2020.

“We don’t want to just go, we want to gold medal in the 3K Pursuit and we want to do that in a time that’s faster than any females have gone before,” says Emma. “We’ve broken the tandem BV1 world record recently, so we know we’re capable of it.”

Coach and staunch supporter Damian Wiseman says Emma is an exceptional competitor who regularly outperforms able-bodied athletes. Her laser-like focus means she considers how everything she does affects her training, and she is always seeking to tweak and improve.

“I think Emma is one of those athletes who makes it possible to change the perceptions of Para athletes in the broader community,” says Damian. “I think the challenge is for the broader community and the public to actually be able to see just what she is bringing.”

For her part, Emma is passionate about shattering misconceptions of what disabled people are capable of achieving.

“I think what I can contribute personally is my ability to lead by example and maybe influence people’s attitudes towards disabled people; to show them a really positive image of a disabled person who can do things really well.”

Know more about Paralympian #194 Emma Foy.

Know more about Paralympian #209 Hannah van Kampen.

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