Danielle Aitchison was one of the standout Kiwi performers at the recent World Para Athletics Championships winning a silver medal. Steve Landells finds out more about how the Hamilton-based teenage sprinter overcame multiple obstacles to climb the medal dais.
Coping with the huge inconvenience of injury, oppressive heat and her first overseas international competition would have crushed the spirit of many athletes – but not Danielle Aitchison.
Showing great maturity not to mention resilience, the 18-year-old greenhorn managed to successfully overcome such drawbacks to claim a brilliant T36 200m silver medal in an Oceania record time followed by fourth in the 100m at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai earlier this month.
Born with cerebral palsy and hearing loss, it was some performance from the Waikato teenager, who moves on to next year’s Tokyo Paralympics with growing confidence.
“I am amazed to be given the opportunity (to compete at the Para World Athletics Championships) because I’ve only been involved in athletics a short amount of time,” she says. “To finish second and fourth (at the World Para Athletics Championships) is a really great achievement.”
First introduced to the sport at the 2017 Halberg Disability Games her rise under the guidance of coach Alan McDonald has been little short of meteoric. At the New Zealand Track & Field Championships in Christchurch in March she blitzed to victory in the 100m (14.44) 200m (29.49) and long jump (3.90m) in PB’s (note, for record purposes the New Zealand Track & Field Championships is an unratified meet for Para athletes) but the step up to competing at the World Para Athletics Championships was daunting for the teenager, who was raised on a dairy farm in Patetonga.
“This was my first international championship, it was the first time travelling overseas without my mum (Tracy) and I felt anxious about that,” she explains. “But I had a meeting with High Performance Sport New Zealand and I spoke to a mental skills coach, who was good to talk to about the travelling and still being able to have a good racing mindset.
“My Athlete Life Advisor with High Performance Sport NZ was also really good to talk to. She listened to any concerns I had. Like what to do during my downtime.”
Beat the heat
Feeling better prepared at the prospect of competing at her first international championships thanks to HPSNZ – Danielle also knew she faced the prospect of competing in extreme heat and high humidity in Dubai.
Not typically an athlete who enjoys running in the heat, the Waikato University Bachelor of Social Sciences student, practised during the winter months by running with several layers of clothing and a week in the heat chamber at Wintec riding an exercise bike for 30 minutes each day, unquestionably helped her prepare for life competing in the United Arab Emirates.
“The heat felt normal by the time I got to Dubai and it actually felt worse during the training camp in Darwin,” she says.
Yet perhaps the biggest challenge Danielle faced on her road to Dubai and during the championships was injury. Shin splints restricted her preparations for the two months leading into the pre-camp in Darwin.
While in Australia she trained only twice and it was a similar story in Dubai as her legs would feel sore after massages but worse after running.
Danielle, however, was adamant she wanted to compete in Dubai. Her mum, and number one supporter, had travelled to watch her daughter compete and she had also forged a closer bond to her team-mates during pre-camp and the course of the event.
To not compete was not an option.
“I wasn’t too nervous for the 200m heats because I was the fastest (had the fastest PB) in the heat,” she explains. “This made me feel better. I didn’t need to run so hard in the heat because I knew I had the final later that night.”
Preserving some energy she won the heat in 30.52 before going on to enjoy the race of her life in the final. The young Kiwi, who has had two cochlear implants fitted to aid her hearing, ran a mature race to stop the clock in an Oceania record time 29.86, behind China’s Yiting Shi, who blitzed to gold in a world record 28.21.
Crossing the line in silver an elated Danielle recalls: “That was the greatest moment (of my life). Everybody said I had such a smile on my face and that I looked really happy. It was amazing to know I’d crossed the line in silver. I was over the moon.”
“After the race my mum was in tears. She was more nervous than me, and couldn’t breathe.”
Returning for the 100m – in what is her secondary event – Danielle produced an outstanding display in the heat to place second in an Oceania record of 14.46 just 0.01 behind Shi, the heat winner. However, the final proved a bridge too far as she placed fourth in 14.60 – 0.22 shy of the medal dais.
“The 100m race was probably my worst race of the four (I raced in Dubai),” she explains. “Maybe I tried a little too hard and stumbled out of the blocks, which really annoyed me. But I’m still really happy with how I performed. I’ve never had four races within a week of each other, I normally only race two at the most in a week.”
Danielle’s top-quality performances in Dubai was also justification for her coach, Alan McDonald’s training philosophy which preaches “less is more” and “quality over quantity” as part of her training load.
Taking an end-of-season break with a road trip, Danielle can now reflect on a sensational season in which she has emerged as a world-class talent with designs on the medal dais at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. And the most exciting element for the sprinter, is she insists there is so much more to deliver.
“I would have been happier if I hadn’t had the injury as I felt I could have done so much more on the track and achieved more,” she adds. It’s is only my first international championship, I have so much more to give. But I’m really happy considering the circumstances. I’m super stoked with silver.”