Mary Fisher celebrates her gold medal at the Women's 100m Backstroke - S11 Final at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. (Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images)

Paralympian Mary Fisher on balancing sport and political activism

World champion para-swimmer, post-grad student and activist Mary Fisher doesn’t ever seem to stop moving. Alex Braae rang her up to find out why. 

I interviewed Mary Fisher during the last election campaign. It was a winter night in Wellington, and a few dozen people had turned up to one of the Central Library’s meeting rooms to grill candidates about what they were going to do about disability issues. She set the tone for the forum, speaking before the Q and A about the difficulties she had faced in school as her sight began to desert her.

The interview we did last year was brief. I just needed to get a few radio soundbites, and it was clear Mary Fisher had a lot more to say. So when we both had a bit more time to talk, I got in touch again to see what she was up to now. The conversation started with a question about disability issues she’s working to address.

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Mary Fisher: Coming up to the last election, it was really interesting following the Access Matters campaign, which is trying to get cross-party support for new access legislation. There’s currently a motley collection of old legislation, which is there to provide a very basic level of access, but by no means does it help the whole of the disabled population, which in New Zealand is 24%. We’re looking at getting people’s stories out – their direct access needs.

For me personally, a recent example was roadworks signage at head height, and there was nothing at ground level my cane could pick up. So updated health and safety laws would mean there was something on the ground for my or another blind person’s head picked it up. It’s about collecting stories to disseminate so people realise how broad an issue this is.

I saw on Twitter that you went along to the Ōtaki Summer Camp for activists. Are their other issues you’re passionate about as well?

Well being a swimmer, I really enjoy swimming in places that aren’t the pool, even though it doesn’t happen all that often. I’m a supporter of the freshwater rescue plan, which has seven steps to enable the recovery of New Zealand’s waterways. For so many things, across both the access and water issues, having a proactive and early intervention approach is so much cheaper and easier for everyone, than if you’re cleaning everything up afterwards. Or if you’ve got a lake that can’t survive as an ecosystem, or a person that’s had so many bad interactions with society because of access needs that haven’t been picked up on early, or wasn’t supported – both of those systems would be better off with an early intervention and caring approach to society.

And just today, [we presented] a petition to Parliament about the Hit and Run campaign. We were just there to say these villagers, people who work in the Defence Force, the New Zealand public, deserve to have an open and transparent inquiry. It’s interesting for me to have gone away representing New Zealand, and you’re a tiny athlete governed by these big sports structures, and you hear all these great things about New Zealand. And then you find out things like that in high levels of Defence Force or government organisations, something’s gone really wrong, and it has to be made right. We can learn from the past.

I’ve always felt ‘career’ is a weird word for politics and activism but is this something you could see yourself pursuing as a life’s work?

I think I could envision myself helping out on research with different projects, or trying to be a voice for communities who might not otherwise get attention to their issue.

There’s always controversy when athletes put opinions out there, does that worry you?

Sometimes I feel a bit conflicted and weird, because sportspeople in New Zealand, their opinions are given higher value than other members of the public. It was really interesting when I came back from London suddenly people wanted to know my opinion on all sorts of things that I did have opinions on before, but nobody was really interested in it, so that was a big learning curve. I feel like athletes – and everyone – should be able to participate in aspects of politics they feel strongly about, or issues that they have lived experience in and can contribute positively to. 

What about issues within New Zealand sports, are there things you think need to be addressed?

That’s a tricky one. Even though I’ve been a little cog somewhere in the sport system for quite a while, sports aren’t necessarily one of my major interests. So when I’m doing a quiz and people say Mary, you can do the sports questions, but I’m actually really terrible. I don’t really have the bug of keeping up with every single sports result.

But I think the big things is equality of men’s and women’s sport, and para and Olympic sport, and just that kids are given equal opportunities no matter how and where they grow up. At the moment there are some Council programmes which are looking to involve athletes in decile one to three schools, and I think that’s a great initiative. It’s bringing people who have worked really hard at something and help them make it happen. We’ve all grown up with different types of privilege and different circumstances, but to succeed in sport you have to overcome challenges, so it’s nice to bring that back to schools.

So in terms of swimming, what is coming up for you?

The big thing is the Pan-Pacific champs in Cairns – it’s the big pinnacle competition for para-swimmers. A handful of us have Commonwealth Games events as well – I don’t. For me I just really need to make a decision on whether this is something I want to do long term.

Why were your classifications excluded from the Commonwealth Games?

So the host country gets to choose which specific events are included, so obviously they’re going to go with ones where they’ve got a significant number of athletes, or really strong athletes. It makes sense to not have every single paralympic event included, because it would be a massive programme, but I would like to see it extended. I’m pretty gutted. It was a reality I was aware about for a while, and I’m looking forward to supporting the others. 

You say you’ve got a decision to make – what is influencing your thinking on it?

I’ve had this summer to take a bit of a break, after our pinnacle competition which last year was in December. I had this amazing couple of weeks in the South Island where I walked the Kepler track with some friends, then did a tiki tour down through Wanaka, and then to Stewart Island, which was so incredible. It was wonderful to have the freedom to do that, compared to between London (2012) and Rio (2016) when I was just fully training. It’s been good for me, since Rio I’ve found the right balance. I set a World Record last year with slightly less time in the water, and just being smarter with not only swimming training, but how I was planning and living my life. I’m still training at the moment but just over the next couple of months seeing how those different areas of my life will move and balance each other out.

Is it too early to say about Tokyo in 2020?

Yeah, I’m still in that decision making phase, and just enjoying training at the moment. You can be totally mentally and physically prepared and train 100% in those areas, but to do well at a Paralympic Games you have to have this third component, the spirit of really wanting to win and do better than you ever have before. After two big Paralympic campaigns, I’m just not sure that’s 100% at the moment. That’s the main decision for me.

You say you’re enjoying training. Have there been times you really haven’t enjoyed swimming?

Totally. I think all elite athletes have those times when it feels very undulating. That might just be an internal thing, for me sometimes it’s been the squad, or things outside the water definitely have an impact. Like anyone, parts of your life that are unrelated to other parts of your life can suddenly have an impact. But I’m really finding living in Wellington is great for being able to access other things, and getting around independently. I felt a bit stuck on the North Shore while training for Rio. It’s wonderful to be back in Wellington, and be around friends and family and arts and activities and theatres, it’s cool.   

Mary Fisher playing a reconstructed organ in Iceland (Photo/ Facebook)

You sound like you’re kind of a renaissance woman of New Zealand sport.

Yeah, I was talking to one of the other Paralympians recently, and both of us since Rio have been training and racing consistently, but it feels like we only see other athletes when we’re at the gym or doing our sport. And before Rio it was the complete opposite, any human you interact with is in the sports arena. And now we have our home lives, and she works with animals, and I’ve got a bit of stuff with uni, and disability issues, other campaigns, and other hobbies like music, so we live very diverse lives compared to when we’re preparing for Rio.

Do para-sport events work better when they’re completely their own thing, or should they be part of events like the Olympics?

I think the system now, when Paralympics directly follow the Olympics, is good. People are becoming more aware they’re totally parallel, and the athletes do the same amount of work, and the rewards and funding and media attention is totally as deserved between Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

We love these sort of stats in New Zealand – this country won the per-capita medal tally at the last Paralympics. There was a big funding boost for Paralympics NZ afterwards; have you seen the effects of that?

Sometimes as an athlete, you see the direct funding if you’re in a high performance because you get support for certain things. I’m hoping it’s now more accessible to other people. Since London I’ve been lucky enough to have my needs met because I’ve performed to the standard they require. But before London it was really difficult to have a balance of doing enough training, and having the funds to support you to grow as an athlete. So I haven’t seen too many changes personally, but I think as an organisation, and as the social capital of Paralympic sport becomes more widely accepted, that funding is helping with that.

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