Posted on Monday 3rd May, 2021

Paralympian #164 Cameron Leslie and Para athletes Hayden Barton-Cootes, Cody Everson, Robert Hewitt, Tainafi Lefono, Gareth Lynch, Gavin Rolton and Mike Todd have been selected by Paralympics New Zealand (PNZ) to the New Zealand Paralympic Team heading to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games which begin on 24 August. The announcement was made in Cambridge today at the conclusion of the team’s recent training camp and marks the second group of Para athletes to be announced to the New Zealand Paralympic Team. 

Paralympian #164 Cameron Leslie was a Paralympic gold medallist and world record holder at Beijing 2008, London 2012 and again at Rio 2016 in Para swimming. He is also one of the most successful high pointer players throughout the world in Wheelchair rugby. Leslie will be competing at his fourth straight Paralympic Games in Tokyo and will be looking to continue his outstanding performances this time in both Para swimming and Wheelchair rugby. He will be the first NZ Paralympian since the Seoul 1988 Paralympic Games to have competed at a Paralympic Games in more than one Para sport. At the Seoul 1988 Paralympic Games Paralympian #58 Janette Cordery competed in both Para athletics and Para swimming winning a bronze medal. Leslie has a quadruple limb deficiency. 

Para athlete Hayden Barton-Cootes has been involved with the Wheel Blacks since 2015, where he made his debut against Australia. Barton-Cootes has had the opportunity to play in the Australian and Japanese domestic competitions gaining valuable experience. He also plays Wheelchair basketball for the Auckland team and sees this as an opportunity to complement his Wheelchair rugby. Barton-Cootes has a spinal cord injury. 

Para athlete Cody Everson is currently the Captain of the Wheel Blacks and is a highly competitive person. After a rugby injury at the age of 15 he met Paralympian #111 Sholto Taylor while at the Burwood Spinal Unit, a long-time member of the Wheel Blacks. Taylor encouraged Everson to watch the Wheel Blacks in action, giving the boy who wanted to be an All Black a new dream to work towards. Everson has a spinal cord injury. 

Para athlete Robert Hewitt has played rugby all of his life however following an accident in 2009 his focussed moved to Wheelchair rugby. He has been involved with the Wheel Blacks since 2010 and made his international debut in 2012 in South Africa. Hewitt loves being involved in Wheelchair rugby as it is a team sport with like-minded individuals all striving to achieve the same goal. Hewitt has a spinal cord injury. 

Para athlete Tainafi Lefono is a long-time Wheel Black team member since a rugby injury in 2007. Outside of his sporting commitments he is a Physiotherapist currently working in the community as a neuro physiotherapist. Throughout Lefono’s time with the Wheel Blacks he has had the opportunity to travel to many countries to compete and last year became a dad for the first time. Lefono has a spinal cord injury. 

Para athlete Gareth Lynch had an accident six years ago while diving into a swimming pool that resulted in a spinal cord injury. He has always played sport and has loved competing in a team environment again with the Wheel Blacks. In a short period of time Lynch has developed outstanding skills through his drive and commitment. Lynch has a spinal cord injury. 

Para athlete Gavin Rolton started playing Wheelchair rugby in 2007 following a diving accident in 2005. He was selected to the Wheel Blacks for the first time in 2009 he has been a member of the team since. Rolton has captained the team from 2013-2021 and continues to be one of the top players in the world for his point class (0.5). Rolton has a spinal cord injury. 

Para athlete Mike Todd was born with Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) disease which is a neurological condition that effects all limbs. He was introduced to Wheelchair rugby in 2008, representing Canterbury ever since and he made his Wheel Blacks debut against Australia in 2015.? Todd has also been heavily involved with the administration of Canterbury Wheelchair Rugby. Todd has CMT causing muscle degeneration.   

Para athlete Hayden Barton-Cootes said, “It is going to be an incredible experience in Tokyo with many of us making our Paralympic debut together as part of the Wheel Blacks. We have an amazing whanau culture, and we will be drawing on that as we take on the best Wheelchair rugby teams in the world. We are looking forward to making our friends and whanau back in New Zealand proud of us while representing the silver fern.” 

Paralympian #164 Cameron Leslie said, “It is a huge honour to be selected to represent New Zealand in both Para swimming and Wheelchair rugby. It is something I have aimed for over several campaigns but never been fortunate enough to realise this goal. It’ll be awesome to see the Kiwi public celebrate Wheelchair rugby at the Paralympic Games once again; we know Kiwis love their rugby.” 

Paula Tesoriero (Chef de Mission, NZ Paralympic Team) said, “We are thrilled to welcome the Wheel Blacks to the NZ Paralympic Team and see the return of a team Para sport for New Zealand at the Paralympic Games. Their enthusiasm and passion will really add to our team environment in Tokyo.” 

Fiona Allan (Chief Executive, PNZ) said, “It is fantastic to announce our second group of Para athletes selected to represent New Zealand at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games today. The 8 Para athletes who make up our Wheelchair rugby team – the Wheel Blacks – have satisfied PNZ Selectors that they have met the selection criteria for Tokyo 2020 Paralympics through previous performances and their ongoing commitment to training here in New Zealand.” 

She continues, “The Wheel Blacks that will include 7 Paralympians making their Paralympic debut in Tokyo will be looking to continue the legacy of committed and competitive New Zealand’s Wheelchair rugby teams, and through their performances both on and off the court drive social change.” 

On Thursday evening the 8 team pool draw took place for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games with the Wheel Blacks representing New Zealand in pool B alongside United States, runners-up at the Rio 2016 Paralympics, Britain and Canada.

Nick Heyworth (President, NZ Wheelchair Rugby) said, “After a wait of over 13 years since NZ Wheelchair Rugby last attended the Paralympic Games, I speak on behalf of all the players, officials and volunteers of our sport by wishing the athletes and support staff all the very best for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.” 

The New Zealand Paralympic Team has featured the Wheel Blacks at three Paralympic Games in Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008. With the team winning three medals including a gold medal at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games. 

The addition of the Wheelchair rugby team takes the New Zealand Paralympic Team to 13 selected Para athletes to date, with selections pending for up to up to another 6 Para sports over the coming months. The eventual team is expected to include up to 45 Para athletes in total. In mid-April, Paralympians Cameron Leslie, Nikita Howarth, Tupou Neiufi, Sophie Pascoe and Jesse Reynolds were selected to Tokyo 2020 in Para swimming. 

The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games will be held from Tuesday 24 August to Sunday 5 September 2021 and will include 22 Para sports on the event schedule and up to 4,400 Paralympians competing. The Paralympic Games is the largest event worldwide for driving social change and inclusion.

Para athletes selected to the New Zealand Paralympic Team are: 

Paralympian/Para athlete Resides  Classification Impairment (Disability) Coach  
Cameron Leslie Whangarei 3.0 P Quadruple limb deficiency Greg Mitchell 
Hayden Barton-Cootes Auckland  3.0 P Spinal cord injury Greg Mitchell 
Cody Everson Christchurch 1.0 P Spinal cord injury Greg Mitchell 
Robert Hewitt Hamilton 2.0 P Spinal cord injury Greg Mitchell 
Tainafi Lefono Auckland 2.0 P Spinal cord injury Greg Mitchell 
Gareth Lynch Auckland 1.0 1(1) Spinal cord injury Greg Mitchell 
Gavin Rolton  Wellington 0.5 P Spinal cord injury Greg Mitchell 
Mike Todd  Christchurch 2.0 P Muscle degeneration Greg Mitchell 

Photo credit: Getty Images