Wednesday, April 17, 2024

My First Paralympics as a Dad – Halberg Winner Cameron Leslie on Family, Finding a Path & Earning the Fern

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i’ve always been in awe of Cameron Leslie. One of New Zealand’s most prolific – and successful – athletes, Cameron has always had an admirable ability to succeed in whatever he decided to put his mind to. Most of New Zealand knows him as a gold-medal-winning para swimmer and Wheel Black – I knew him as the guy in journalism school who’d bring incredible stories into the newsroom as he began to make his mark in the sporting world.

Now, with a choka trophy cabinet including a prestigious Halberg Award, presented to him at a glittering ceremony in Auckland last month, the proud dad, husband and advocate for sport for everyone is turning his attention to the 2024 Paris Paralympics where, all going well, he’ll be representing Aotearoa in both swimming and wheelchair rugby.

Cam’s also a brand guardian with our pals at Toyota, and here he chats through how he’s preparing for this year’s Paralympic Games, following his withdrawal from Tokyo’s games due to the imminent arrival of his second child.

Capsule x Toyota

Kia ora Cam! What’s coming up in the sporting calendar for you on the road to Paris?

At the moment, a wheelchair rugby tournament this month – this is a big one as the team looks to qualify for the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games. New Zealand Championships are in April in Napier and this is part of my qualification for Paris 2024 as a Para swimmer. 

Paris 2024 is the big goal right now. It’ll be my first as a dad so will be cool to see the kids cheering me on – they have had lots of practice so far working on their “Go, Daddy, Go!”. Obviously for me I have two focuses with swimming and wheelchair rugby, swimming I’ve already met all the criteria so am in a good place to start targeting particular races and tightening up processes and tactics for them. For rugby we are yet to qualify, but that’s just the process – the current World Champs (Australia) are in the same boat as us. 

What does it mean to you when you pull on that Silver Fern?

Ah, I love it. There’s something satisfying about competing for your country and doing your bit to help the storyline for the next generation. When I started, Para swimming was still developing and having Kiwi role models wasn’t really a thing. Now days, we have Para athletes across multiple sports who are role models for the next generation to encourage and pave the way. I think coming from a smaller town helps me be appreciative too – like the amount of people who are genuinely stoked for me and have followed my sporting journey with pride and then told me about it means a lot.

What’s the hardest challenge you’ve had to overcome in your sport career?

Oh, geez, that’s a tough one. Probably people believing in me. Sounds deep but it probably is. At the start of my career there were a lot of things different to today – I had body image challenges, society’s view of disability was different, getting coaches was difficult, and finding my way onto a pathway wasn’t straight forward unless you had already proven yourself. I guess I was searching for the right daily training environment and support to have that breakthrough performance – once I found that, I really settled into it and we started to grow a support network around me to become a better athlete.

Congratulations on your amazing Halberg win – what an honour! How did you feel when your name was announced, and what does this mean to you (and your family!)

I was very surprised to say the least. It’s an honour to sit alongside previous winners of the award, the likes of Dame Sophie Pascoe are a legend within Para swimming so it’s amazing to be joining her and others as Halberg winners. When I think back to growing up as a Para athlete we really are in a great place for athletes to look up to – all of the nominees within the Para athlete of the Year have done some cool things so credit to them for that. 

For my family, I’m still dad to my kids and they promptly told me once I got home that the trophy “isn’t that big” – referring to the size of it. However, once they picked it up and felt how heavy it was they then changed their minds. I think though for my family it’s humbling. Never did anyone think this is where my career in sport would take me and we’re grateful to have reached the heights that I have. It’s definitely a team effort and I really do appreciate the support I get from my family, friends, coaches, teammates, support staff, and Toyota NZ.

What made you know you wanted to be a professional athlete?

It just sort of happened. I’ve always loved the water and I found out during my teenage years how competitive I was – courtesy of being a sore loser and learning how to work on that part of myself. Once I started to do everything I could to win, it just started happening.

Do you have a mantra, or a piece of advice, that you live life by, or one that motivates you to keep going?

I love doing stuff, getting stuff done, going places. I’m not someone to sit back and let life drift by. I’ve always had a real simple two words which I’d say to myself if I was feeling lazy, “do it”, because logically I knew I needed to and I was just being lazy by not doing it or getting it done (and most of time I knew it would help the big picture, just at that point in time I wasn’t vibing it).

New Zealand (obviously!) loves our sport – do you feel that support when you’re competing?

100 per cent can feel the Kiwi support. The amount of messages which get sent through is humbling. I try and reply to most but sometimes in competition you get stuck in your “athlete bubble” as I call it, which isn’t a bad thing but it just is what it is.

When you’re not competing, where would we find you?

Probably on a “treasure hunt”, being peer pressured onto the trampoline, or moving cattle with my three kids. We live on 10ha so there’s plenty to do outside and the kids love to get amongst it but we have to have fun while doing it. 

What does a perfect day look like to you?

Big fan of the beach so I’m going to go with a day at Matapouri beach followed by fish and chips on the Ngunguru estuary on the drive home.

What’s the one thing that makes you happiest – and the one thing that annoys you the most!

I think this is something I should be working with the sports psych on! I think my life in general. I have an awesome sport/work/life/family balance going on, but that often means I’m burning the candle at all different angles – which makes for a full life with lots of. Ultimately, I feel bad when I’m not giving something 100 per cent so when the balancing of my life isn’t well-balanced then I get annoyed. 

You’re a Toyota Brand Guardian – first of all, what a title! What does this entail for you?

Thanks, firstly it means working with great people who have a unique view of the world and of how Toyota will be part of it going forward. I’ll be part of the Paralympics New Zealand Schools Programme where Para athletes go into schools and look to open people’s eyes of what is possible for athletes with a disability – and in-turn educate the future generation about disability. Hopefully it has a lasting impact on these youngsters that they take with them through life and focus on what people can achieve or do rather than what someone isn’t able to. Of course, it also entails getting rid of my old vehicle (make and brand not important haha) and driving a Toyota Highlander – of which all seven seats will be getting used as my family continues to grow!

This story has been produced with the support of our partner Toyota. Every click, like, share and comment supports Capsule’s work and our commitment to keeping our content free. Thank you for supporting independent, female-owned media!

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