After over a frantic hour of racing, the difference between gold and silver came down to less than a second in yesterday’s Paralympic debut for the Women’s PTWC class and Australia’s Lauren Parker who left nothing in the tank in one of the most dramatic finishes of the Games.
The 32-year-old from Newcastle claimed the most gallant of all silver medals in a debut to behold in a sprint finish that will live in the hearts of every Australian.
Parker, a former elite triathlete in her own right, who only made her Para triathlon debut in January 2018 after a horrific training accident left her a paraplegic, led the women’s PTWC triathlon until all but the dramatic final wheel push.
After a superb swim and handcycle, it all came down to the race chair, overtaken in the last few metres by the USA’s never-say-die Kendall Gretsch at Odaiba Marine Park.
There were emotional scenes on the site and in every Australian loungeroom as yelled collectively:
“Go.. Loz...Go !!”
To the ultra-competitive perfectionist in Parker, being overtaken with literally the final second of the race, the silver medal, was almost unbearable.
To the Lauren Parker who had acquired paraplegia after that training accident in 2017, the idea of reaching the podium at the Paralympic Games may have seemed like an achievement of which she could feel immensely proud.
“This time four years ago I was laying in hospital bed thinking my life was over,” Parker said after the race, in which she was pipped by Gretsch by 0.01 of a second after more than an hour of racing.
“I had amazing support around me and, if it wasn’t for that support, I wouldn’t have overcome that life-changing injury. I’ve overcome many surgeries and many obstacles over the last four years. I definitely never would have dreamed of representing my country four years later.”
Parker led for almost the entire race except the last moment. She said she had become stuck behind another competitor she was trying to lap around a corner and lost a few decisive seconds.
“I just put my head down and went for it,” she said. “I’m happy with the effort that I put in. I’m proud of my effort.”
But there was no use trying to pretend. Parker came in as the World Champion and favourite. For her and her coach, handler and mentor Brad Fernley, it was gold or broke.
“I’m not holding anything back – we came here for a gold medal and we didn’t get the gold medal,” Fernley said.
“We both feel like we kind of failed. But there are so many messages and phone calls coming in now saying ‘Great job’ and I think when we really think about it, the American who won it, she’s a great athlete, she’s been in it for a long time and, to get pipped on the post, yes it’s a great shame, but we’ve still got a Paralympic silver medal and you can’t complain too much about that.
Of her link with Fernley, Parker said: “I wouldn’t be here without my best friend and training partner, Brad Fernley. He’s been with me for 14 years, all throughout my career.
“He stuck by me ever since I had my accident every single day. Every single training session, he’s been there. I wouldn’t be here racing for my country at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo without him.”
Fernley’s pride in Parker is obvious. In trying to process the outcome of the race on Sunday, he recounted an interaction at the Paralympic Village with Brazilian Para-triathlete Jessica Ferreira, who had suffered severe burns in a sauna while trying to acclimatize for the Tokyo Games. It required seven of Ferreira’s toes to be amputated, several operations and skin grafts.
“Jessica said ‘Lauren, because of what you’ve done, what you’ve done for the sport, I’m here today because of you’,” he said. “It came from the heart. The four of us – Lauren and me, Jessica and her handler – we all had tears in our eyes.
“Then, straight after that, the Mexican girl came over and said ‘Lauren, bless you for what you do, how you’ve picked up this sport’. That touches us. If this is the reason Lauren had her accident … Lauren’s doing a lot for so many people and the sport.”
And Parker stayed on course long after the last competitor crossed the line – waiting for each and every one of her competitors to finish the race, a girl who has touched so many people around the world – waking up this morning preparing to fly to the US on Thursday to race in the 70.3 IRONMAN events and already talking to Fernley about the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.
Tokyo, as much as it hurt yesterday, will further ignite the fire in an Australian girl who is destined for greatness both on and off the race course.
Para triathlon Women's PTWC Podium
Gold: Kendall Gretsch (USA)
Silver: Lauren Parker (AUS)
Bronze: Eva Maria Moral Pedrero (ESP)