Posted on Friday 11th June, 2021

The Paralympic Games are defined by the Para athletes that compete and inspire those around them. Defined by the core values of the Paralympic Movement – determination, equality, inspiration, and courage – we have seen some absolutely incredible Paralympians competing at the Paralympic Games since their inception in 1960. But who are the most famous Paralympians? 

Becoming a famous Paralympian is often defined by success and becomes as much a question of ‘who is the most successful Paralympian’, however becoming a famous Paralympian is not simply about success at the Paralympic Games.  

Paralympians are seen as an inspiration to disabled and able-bodied athletes alike, and many of the world’s most famous Paralympians are those that inspire others around them. 

In this post, we want to take a close look at some of the world’s most famous Paralympians, including those who have retired from the sport and those still competing today. We also wanted to take a closer look at some of New Zealand’s most famous Paralympians as we countdown to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games starting on the 24th August 2021. 

Most successful Paralympians 

When we talk about the most famous Paralympians, we first want to take a look at the most successful Paralympians of all time. These Paralympians are the ones who have excelled in their discipline, whether at the summer or winter Paralympic Games. 

The top five most successful Paralympians of all time are now all retired from their respective sports, however, their legacy continues to inspire athletes around the world still today. Here are the five most successful Paralympians of all time: 

  1. Trischa Zorn – Para swimming 

With a total of 55 individual medals at the Paralympic Games, including 41 gold medals, Trischa Zorn from the United States is the most successful Paralympian of all time by some distance. The American Para swimmer is blind since birth. She was born with aniridia and was classified legally blind. Later she received two artificial iris implants that improved her vision to 20/150. In 2012, Zorn was inducted into the International Paralympic Committee Hall of Fame. 

  1. Ragnhild Myklebust – Para biathlon, Para cross-country skiing, Para ice sledge 

With 27 medals, including 22 golds, Ragnhild Myklebust is the second most successful Paralympian of all time. Competing across a number of disciplines in the winter Paralympics, Myklebust did not start competing in the Paralympics until she was in her 40s. A Norwegian Nordic skite, Myklebust won medals in short, middle and long-distance cross-country skiing, as well as biathlon, and ice sledge racing. She is a polio survivor and the most successful winter Paralympian of all time. 

  1. Beatrice Hess – Para swimming 

Beatrice Hess is a Paralympic swimmer from France who is considered one of the best swimmers in the world. She has won 25 Paralympic medals, including 20 golds and sits third on the all-time list of Paralympic medal winners. Hess competed in the Paralympics between 1984 and 2004, competing in the S5 classification. She has cerebral palsy. At the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games, she broke nine world records. 

  1. Reinhild Moeller – Para alpine skiing and Para athletics 

Reinhild Moeller is one of the most interesting entrants in the top 10 most successful Paralympians of all time having competed successfully in both the summer and winter Paralympic Games. Moeller has won a total of 23 Paralympic medals, including 19 golds across a number of disciplines. Moeller was most successful at the winter Paralympic Games, picking up 19 of her medals in women’s slalom, giant slalom, super-g and downhill events. She competed in the 100m, 200m and 400m at the summer Paralympic Games in 1984 and 1988, collecting three gold medals and one silver. Moeller lost half of her left leg in a farm accident when she was just three years old and was the first athlete with a disability to receive a $1 million sponsorship contract. 

  1. Michael Edgson – Para swimming 

Michael Edgson is the final member of the top five most successful Paralympians of all time, having won a total of 21 medals including 18 golds. Edgson competed in three Paralympic Games between 1984 and 1992, winning medals in all but one of the events in which he competed individually. As a visually-impaired athlete, Para swimmer Edgson competed in the B3 classification. During his career, Edgson set nine world records. He is the most decorated Paralympic athlete in Canadian history. 

Other famous Paralympians 

Whilst the top five most successful Paralympians of all time are definitely some of the most famous, there are lots of other famous Paralympians who are famous as much for their ability to inspire, their approach to their sport and their passion for Para sport as they are for their success in their chosen discipline. Some of the most famous Paralympians include: 

  • Tanni Grey-Thompson (GB) 
  • Natalie Du Toit (South Africa) 
  • Chantal Petitclerc (Canada) 
  • Dave Roberts (GB) 
  • Natalia Partyka (Poland) 

Famous Paralympians who may compete at Tokyo 2020 

Whilst all of the top five most successful Paralympians of all time have all retired from their respective sports, there are still plenty of successful Para athletes still competing and aiming to break those long-standing records.  

Here are some of the most famous Paralympians expected to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games: 

  1. Sarah Storey – Para swimming and Para cycling 

Dame Sarah Storey is the most successful female British Paralympian of all time with a total of 14 gold medals across swimming and cycling. She is currently 13th in the list of all-time most successful Paralympians with a total of 25 medals and has her eyes set on qualifying for Tokyo 2020. Born without a functioning left hand, Storey began her Paralympic career as a Para swimmer, winning two golds, three silvers and a bronze in Barcelona in 1992. She continued swimming in the next three Paralympic Games before switching to Para cycling in 2005, reputedly because of a persisting ear infection. 

  1. Heinz Frei – Para athletics, Para cycling, Para cross-country skiing 

At the age of 63, it seems unlikely that we will see Heinz Frei at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, however you can never say never. At the age of 58, Frei competed in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in men’s H3 time trial race, road race and mixed team relay as well as the T54 marathon. The last of his Paralympic medals came at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, where he picked up a gold medal in the H2 time trial and a bronze in the H1-4 team relay. Frei is currently 11th on the all-time list of Paralympians with a total of 34 medals including 15 golds. 

  1. Daniel Dias – Para swimming 

Daniel Dias confirmed his status as Brazil’s most decorated Paralympian ever with four gold, three silver and two bronze medals at his home Paralympic Games, in Rio de Janeiro. The Para swimmer has already won a staggering 24 medals over three Paralympic Games and is hoping to add more at Tokyo 2020 later this year. Dias is currently 14th on the list of all-time most successful Paralympians with his total of 24 medals including 14 golds. Born in 1988, Dias was inspired to take up Para swimming after seeing fellow Brazilian Clodoaldo Silva at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games. When he retires, he wants to encourage youngsters with an impairment to take up Para swimming. 

  1. Lee Pearson – Para equestrian 

Lee Pearson is an 11-times Paralympic gold medallist having represented British para-equestrianism in Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016. Over the course of his career, he has won 30 gold medals at European, World and Paralympic level.  Pearson was knighted in the 2017 New Years Honours list for services to equestrianism. He currently sits at 34th in the all-time list of the most successful Paralympians with a total of 14 medals including 11 golds. At the age of 47, he still hopes to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. 

  1. Ihar Boki – Para swimming 

Ihar Boki is a visually impaired Belarusian Para swimmer who competed in the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Paralympics, winning 11 gold medals, 1 silver and 1 bronze, placing him 35th in the all-time list of the most successful Paralympians of all time. At only 26 years old, Boki will have his eyes on Tokyo 2020, and an opportunity to add to his already impressive medal collection. His performance at Rio 2016, where he won six gold medals including two world records in 100m butterfly and 100m backstroke, meant he left as the most decorated Paralympian across all sports. 

Top 5 NZ Paralympians of all time 

Finally, we wanted to take a look at New Zealand’s most famous Paralympians and the five most successful NZ Paralympians of all time: 

  1. Sophie Pascoe – Para swimming – 15 Paralympic medals 

Sophie Pascoe is New Zealand’s most decorated Paralympian with 15 Paralympic medals to her name. At Rio 2016, Pascoe took home five medals, including three golds in backstroke, butterfly and the individual medley. She also collected a further two silver medals, both in freestyle. In taking home the 200m individual medley gold, Pascoe also set a new world record. Tokyo 2020 will provide Pascoe with the opportunity to add more medals to her collection, having already been named in the squad for the delayed Paralympic Games in 2021. Here is a list of Pascoe’s medals to date: 

  • Beijing 2008 Gold  Women’s 100m Backstroke S10,  
  • Beijing 2008 Gold Women’s 100m Breaststroke SB9,  
  • Beijing 2008 Gold  Women’s 200m Individual Medley SM10,  
  • Beijing 2008 Silver  Women’s 100m Butterfly S10,  
  • London 2012 Gold  S10 Women’s 100m Freestyle,  
  • London 2012 Gold  S10 Women’s 100m Butterfly,  
  • London 2012 Gold  SM10 Women’s 200m IM,  
  • London 2012 Silver  S10 Women’s 100m Backstroke,  
  • London 2012 Silver  SB9 Women’s 100m Breaststroke,  
  • London 2012 Silver  S10 Women’s 50m Freestyle,  
  • Rio 2016 Gold  Women’s 200m Individual Medley SM10 (World record),  
  • Rio 2016 Gold  Women’s 100m Backstroke S10,  
  • Rio 2016 Gold  Women’s 100m Butterfly S10,  
  • Rio 2016 Silver  Women’s 50m Freestyle S10,  
  • Rio 2016 Silver  Women’s 100m Freestyle S10 
  1. Eve Rimmer – Para archery, Para athletics, Para swimming – 14 Paralympic medals 

Eve Rimmer’s record of 14 medals stood from 1980 and was only broken 36 years later at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games by Sophie Pascoe. Rimmer was part of the first New Zealand team to take part in the Paralympic Games in Tel Aviv 1968. She was the only female Para athlete to be named on the team and she was also the first New Zealander to win a Paralympic medal. Rimmer would go on to compete in four successive Paralympic Games, collecting 14 medals including eight golds. Here is a list of Rimmer’s medals: 

  • Tel Aviv 1968 Gold  Para athletics Women’s Javelin C,  
  • Tel Aviv 1968 Silver  Para athletics Women’s Shot Put C,  
  • Tel Aviv 1968 Silver  Para swimming Women’s 50m Freestyle Class 4 C,  
  • Tel Aviv 1968 Bronze  Women’s Discus C,  
  • Heidelberg 1972 Gold  Women’s Pentathlon 3,   
  • Heidelberg 1972 Gold  Women’s shot put 3,  
  • Heidelberg 1972 Silver  Women’s Discus 3,   
  • Toronto 1976 Gold  Women’s Discus 3,  
  • Toronto 1976 Gold  Women’s Javelin 3,  
  • Toronto 1976 Gold  Women’s Pentathlon 3,   
  • Toronto 1976 Silver Women’s Javelin 3,   
  • Arnhem 1980 Gold  Women’s Shot Put 3, 
  • Arnhem 1980 Gold  Women’s Shot Put 3,  
  • Arnhem 1980 Silver  Para archery Women’s Advanced Metric Round P 
  1. Jenny Newstead – Para swimming – 10 Paralympic Medals 

Jenny Newstead MBE, takes her place on the list of most successful NZ Paralympians, despite only competing in two Paralympic Games – Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996. Her record from both of these Games was exceptional, collecting five medals in Barcelona and a further five in Atlanta. Out of her total of 10 Paralympic medals, Newstead picked up seven golds which included four out of the five medals she won in Barcelona. Newstead was forced to retire from the sport in 1997, after two shoulder replacements and a head injury, however in 2016 she came out of retirement and became a coach at the Dunedin Gymnastic Academy. Here is a list of Newstead’s medals: 

  • Barcelona 1992 Gold  Women’s 100m Freestyle S5,  
  • Barcelona 1992 Gold  Women’s 200m Individual Medley SM5,  
  • Barcelona 1992 Gold  Women’s 50m Backstroke S5,  
  • Barcelona 1992 Gold  Women’s 50m Freestyle S5,  
  • Barcelona 1992 Silver  Women’s 100m Breaststroke SB4,  
  • Atlanta 1996 Gold  Women’s 100m Backstroke S6,  
  • Atlanta 1996 Gold  Women’s 100m Breaststroke SB4,  
  • Atlanta 1996 Gold  Women’s 200m Freestyle S6,   
  • Atlanta 1996 Silver  Women’s 200m Individual Medley SM5,  
  • Atlanta 1996 Bronze  Women’s 100m Freestyle S6,  
  1. Patricia Hill – Para athletics – 8 Paralympic Medals 

Patricia ‘Trish’ Hill was inspired to take up Para sport by a fellow New Zealand Hall of Famer, Eve Rimmer. Following a visit to Rimmer and an opportunity to try on one of her Paralympic medals, Hill was inspired to take up competitive Para sport and never looked back. Hill was selected for three consecutive Paralympic Games from 1980 to 1988 and won an impressive tally of eight medals including two golds. Her most successful event was the Slalom 2 which combines speed and agility. Following her retirement, Hill has worked tirelessly with Paralympics New Zealand to raise funds to give other Para athletes a chance to achieve their dreams. Here is a list of Hill’s medals: 

  • Arnhem 1980 Gold  Women’s Slalom 2,  
  • Arnhem 1980 Silver  Women’s 200m 2,  
  • Arnhem 1980 Bronze  Women’s 400m 2,  
  • New York & Stoke Mandeville 1984 Gold  Women’s Slalom 2,  
  • New York & Stoke Mandeville 1984 Silver  Women’s Marathon 2,  
  • New York & Stoke Mandeville 1984 Silver  Women’s Pentathlon 2,  
  • Seoul 1988 Bronze  Women’s Marathon 2,  
  • Seoul 1988 Bronze  Women’s Slalom 3 
  1. Peter Martin – Para athletics – 7 Paralympic Medals 

Peter Martin is the only male athlete to make it into the top five most successful NZ Paralympians of all time, however his record across the four Games he competed in is outstanding, collecting a total of seven Paralympic medals including four golds. To this day, Martin remains the current Men’s Javelin F52 and Pentathlon P52/53 world record holder. Since retiring, Martin has been involved in a variety of Para sports including coaching the Wheel Blacks and participating in Wheelchair tennis. In 2017, Peter was presented with a PNZ Order of Merit for his outstanding contribution to the disability sport sector. Below is a list of Martin’s medals: 

  • Atlanta 1996 Gold  Men’s Shot Put F52,  
  • Atlanta 1996 Silver  Men’s Javelin F52,  
  • Atlanta 2000 Gold  Men’s Shot Put F53,  
  • Sydney 2000 Bronze  Men’s Pentathlon P53,  
  • Athens 2004 Gold  Men’s Shot Put F52,  
  • Athens 2004 Gold  Men’s Shot Put F52,  
  • Athens 2004 Bronze  Men’s Discus F52 

Other notable NZ Paralympians: 

  • Neroli Fairhall – the first Para athlete to compete at both a Paralympic and Olympic Games 
  • Patrick Cooper – New Zealand’s most decorated winter Paralympian collecting six Paralympic Medals in Para alpine skiing