Flying the flag for New Zealand’s Paralympic team in Tokyo was Will Stedman. Nine years after he first imagined competing, the Cantabrian has secured a suite of medals across two Games. Fellow Port Hills Athletic Club runner, Louie Howell, discovers what propels him.
As a kid, William Stedman played a lot of sports: cricket, football, canoe polo. At that, I stop him: “Hang on a second – canoe what-now?”
“Canoe polo! You know? It was quite big at our school. You play it in kayaks, in teams, and score through suspended goals. The good guys could carry the ball on the ends of their paddles…” Sensing my bewilderment, Will trails off.
It’s not surprising that the sporty youngster went on to have a distinguished athletic career. Will has to his name a plethora of international track and field titles, including four Paralympic medals – two of which he won when he was just 16 years old.
Schoolyard sports or not, Will’s success is the result of his remarkable perseverance, self-assurance – and a wee bit of luck.
All his life Will has had ataxic cerebral palsy (CP), which impairs his motor skills. Though he admits he’s lucky – some people with CP can’t walk, have regular seizures, and struggle with cognitive tasks – his movement is still significantly affected. When he runs, his arms and legs tense up. When we meet, the first thing I notice is his splay-legged limp.
Will never let CP hold him back. Aside from team sports, young Will skied, hiked and ran cross-country. But for all his activities, he never connected his disability with professional sport – not, that is, until fate placed him and his family in London during the Paralympic Games in August 2012. Here were athletes with his disability competing at the highest level. The Stedmans tried to get tickets but the games were booked out, so Will watched “tons” of events on TV. By the end his mind was made up; at the next Games, he was going to be one of the competitors.
Will threw himself wholeheartedly into athletics – what he considered to be “the main Olympic sport”. Initially, he trained for long-distance but, after attending a para-athletics development camp, he decided he preferred jumping and shorter track events. “Long jump’s my favourite,” he reveals. “I like the 400m too but, well, it hurts – a lot.”
In 2014, Will joined Port Hills Athletic Club and began to train with the middle-distance squad. Upon hearing of Will’s Paralympic ambitions, the squad’s manager put him in contact with coach, George Edwards, who remains Will’s coach today.
George was, allegedly, somewhat sceptical upon meeting Will. For all his dedication, Will was a beginner with little experience and aspirations of international glory. But George took him on and, throughout 2015, Will proved himself something special with impressive performances in Queensland, Cairns and Doha. Slowly, it became clear that Will’s Paralympic dream was something more tangible.
Still, he might never have qualified if not for an unexpected development.
“My classification changed,” he says. “For cerebral palsy, the classes range from T38 to T35, with T35 being most impaired. At first I was T38. Some of those guys could run 10.5 for 100m” – and 10.5 seconds is quick, whether or not you’re able-bodied. In this category, the competition for 15-year-old Will was simply too strong.
But, following his performance in Queensland, his class was reconsidered. Will was moved from T38 to T36. Now, racing against those whose ability was more similar to his, the qualifying times and lengths were suddenly achievable. In due course, Will met them. Four years after he first imagined it, he was going to the Paralympic Games.
Leading up to Rio, Will thought he had “an outside chance”. He’d seen his competitors’ times and knew, on a good day, that he was in contention for a medal. But he couldn’t be certain of anything and his nerves were ablaze. All this work, all these years, for three jumps and a few minutes on the track – such a small amount of time, in which so much could go wrong.
Of course, it didn’t. Will performed exceptionally, placing third in both the 400m and 800m events. He has continued to perform exceptionally. In 2017, he placed second in the 800m at the World Para Athletics Championships. In 2019, he placed third in 400m at the same event. In 2021, he attended his second Games, picking up his first Olympic silver in the long jump and a third bronze in the 400m.
That’s not to say there haven’t been setbacks; when I ask, he rattles off a list of injuries that would fill the page. In fact he’s injured now, with a stress fracture in his back, for which he has to take 12 weeks off running.
Will got engaged in July to Annika, whom he met at Middleton Grange School, so he has plenty with which to occupy himself in the coming months, including studying part-time towards an engineering degree at the University of Canterbury.
For Will, it doesn’t matter what physical state you’re in – sport is all about the mental game. Being such a high-profile athlete from such a young age has taught him that. Will’s Christian religion has been especially helpful in this respect, and something he’s turned to more in recent years. “Sport can be pretty consuming. It helps to remind myself that what I do… I do for my faith. It takes me out of that tight spot.”
So, what does the future hold for William Stedman? More canoe polo? “I’m definitely aiming for Paris, in 2024,” he says. “Beyond that… I haven’t really thought about it… anything’s possible, I suppose.”
For someone of Will’s focus and talent, that’s undoubtedly true.