Rising para-athlete Anna Grimaldi has made a medal-laden start to her fledgling athletics career. Steve Landells profiles the gifted 17-year-old long jumper to find out more.
Anna Grimaldi shares a surname with the historic Royal Family of Monaco and the teenage Dunedinite is showing the credentials to one day become a part of New Zealand athletics royalty after enjoying a meteoric start to her career.
Reluctantly taking up the sport just 14 months ago, Anna has already secured a slew of national sprint and long jump titles and is currently officially ranked number five in the world long jump rankings for the F47 classification.
‘It has been pretty crazy,” says Anna of her brief but hugely successful time in the sport. “If you had asked me two years ago if I’d been expecting to go to the (IPC) World Championships and possibly the Paralympics, I would have said, ‘no way.’ It has been an insane year and I would never have thought I could have achieved so much in such a short space of time. It is unbelievable.”
Born without a right hand her parents never viewed Anna’s disability as a bar to independence. Her dad made sure she could catch a ball from a young age. She was one of only a few five-year-olds at her school who could tie her own shoelaces and played netball and basketball for the school team.
“It was never an issue,” Anna explains of her disability. “It is just the small things that other people can do that for me are a bit of a struggle.”
She first revealed a glimpse of her athletics talent in June last year when gaining a mark for “excellence” at a school duathlon (bike-run) but never acted on her potential until she received an email out of the blue from Paralympics NZ Talent ID manager Hadleigh Pierson which read ‘thank you for expressing an interest in attending a talent ID camp.’
Anna was shocked. “I emailed back to say, ‘I didn’t express an interest’ but Hadleigh replied to say ‘don’t worry, just come along anyway.’
“To be honest, I was a little bit reluctant to go along,” admits Anna, who never did find out quite why she received the initial email from Hadleigh. “I hadn’t done much athletics before and I thought I would be useless.”
On top of that she discovered it was not going to be a long-distance camp – the area of the sport she thought she was best suited to - but sprints and long jump.
“I didn’t see myself as a sprinter because I’m quite lean and scrawny,” she recalls.
Coaxed into attending the Dunedin-based camp in October last year through a combination of the persuasive tongue of her parents and Athletics NZ High Performance Para-Athlete Manager Raylene Bates it proved an inspired decision - even if she was thrown in the deep end by having to run a 400m time trial.
“I’d never run a 400m in my life,” she admits. “I sprinted the first 200m and completely lost it over the final 200m and came across the line jogging.”
She adds that despite her tactical miscalculation, Raylene was still encouraged by the time and a 4m plus long jump also offered a hint of her potential. Curious to find out more, Anna hooked up with a coach, Brent Ward, and started training two times per week.
Within just two months of the Talent ID Camp she competed at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Hamilton and produced a stellar performance landing four gold medals – 100m, 200m, 400m and long jump – to serve notice of her rich potential.
“It definitely made me so much more motivated to keep going and I got para-athlete of the meet, which was the coolest thing.”
Coached by Ward - whom she describes as “so encouraging” - and part of a strong training group which includes former World Junior 400m representative Andrew Whyte and former Oceania 400m hurdles champion Dan O’Shea, Anna has continued to flourish.
Earlier this year she competed at Queensland Championships leaping a huge PB of 4.84m and earning her international classification. Meanwhile, at the New Zealand Track & Field Championships in Wellington she grabbed a quartet of gold medals on a ‘perfect weekend’ securing PB’s in the 100m, 200m, and 400m and equalling her long jump best.
Yet as good as her breakthrough summer had been, the 17-year-old, who has just finished her final exams at Bayfield High School, knew to improve she needed to work much harder.
This winter she stepped up her training from two days to six days a week. She has started gym work for the first time in an effort to improve her strength, “I was very weak” she admits. Her speed has developed under Ward’s tutelage and she has improved both her balance and stability after working diligently on a number of exercises given to her by physiotherapist Helen Littleworth.
The early signs this winter have been hugely encouraging. In only her second competition of the summer she smashed through 5m for the first time in her career with a wind-aided 5.02m and also recorded an official PB of 4.96m in Dunedin – a performance which unofficially elevates her to fourth on the world rankings for 2014.
“I was super surprised to get over 5m for the first time, it was so cool,” admits Anna, who is set to start a national certificate in quantity surveying at Otago Polytechnic in February. “I hadn’t trained in about two weeks because of sickness and I had exams so I had been studying. I even told my mum and dad not to watch because I thought it was going to be awful.”
In the New Year she will target the New Zealand Track & Field Championships in Wellington as well as Australian Championships in Brisbane but her main goal for 2015 will be qualification in her principle event - the long jump - at the IPC World Championships in Doha next October.
“If I qualify, I’m currently ranked in the top five this year so I’d love to finish top five but it is real hard to predict how the other athletes will perform so all I can hope for is a good performance on the day. That would be amazing,” she adds.
Which begs one final question; why does she feel she is best suited to the long jump?
“I feel from playing netball I’ve always had good jumping ability and the (world) rankings indicate that’s the event I’m best at,” she admits. “I find the technical side of long jump makes it the hardest event but the most satisfying to get right. I do enjoy it, although it is probably my favourite because I’ve had the most success at it.”
Long may it continue.
Footnote: Anna continued her amazing rise in the sport over the weekend at the Secondary Schools championships with wins in her classification in the 100m, 200m, 400m and Long Jump, all in excess of the schools Para-Athlete championship records and extending her long jump personal best to 5.05m.