A 2-time Paralympic Gold Medallist, 24 year old Anna Grimaldi is no stranger to working hard to achieve her goals. Born without her right hand, Anna started her athletic career 8 years ago with the aim of one day proudly representing her home country of New Zealand on the world stage. Now a world renowned long jump champion, Anna shares her triumphs, hardships and journey to winning gold!
Athletics tends to be one of those sports that you start right out of the womb! How did your athlete journey come to fruition?
I was born missing my right hand and I've always been pretty sporty growing up. Sports was something I’ve always been most confident in and it felt like having one hand didn’t matter. I played a lot of netball, basketball and volleyball growing up and I just felt the least judged when playing these sports. I hadn’t really heard of the Paralympic Games until the London games in 2012 and I didn’t really know much about Paralympic New Zealand either. I randomly received an email thanking me for expressing interest in an athletic camp and my parents thought it was too good of an opportunity to pass up so they guided me along and I went. I was able to try out a bunch of different athletic sports and long jump just really stuck out to me.
I think I went to the camp because I really wanted to represent my country and I was quite lucky because I got jumpy genes and my dad's extra long legs! At the time, I wasn’t super passionate about athletics but I knew it was a pathway to the Paralympics and representing my country. I even met my current coach at the camp and it’s crazy to think it's already been 8 years!
I understand there are multiple different classifications and category requirements to participant in the Paralympic Games, did this impact how you chose your specialised event?
For me, I can only do the 100 metres, 200 metres and 400 metres sprint, javelin and long jump. These are events that the committee and experts have concluded that having one hand is considered an impairment for. So for anything over 400 metres they have decided that having one hand is not an impairment.
I knew I could never do Javelin, my arms are the size of noodles so that was already out. So when I first started I did all the running events and in Rio I even came 4th in the 100m sprint which was a real shock. However, after Rio I broke my foot so it wasn’t ideal for me to participate in the sprint races anymore. It wasn’t until my first world championships in 2015 when I won bronze that I was really going to start focusing on being a long jumper. I think long jump is a great balance between being elegant and quite powerful and grunty.
What are some of your favourite parts of participating in the professional Paralympic circuit?
I think the Paralympic community is super different to the Olympic community. Everyone has such unique stories and everyone’s been through difficult times and have had to overcome obstacles. The support may not be at the same level as the Olympians for some countries but we’re pretty lucky here in New Zealand and Australia, I think it's pretty even.
You always hear incredible stories about people participating in the Paralympic Games but when you go overseas, watch them compete, have a conversation with them and watch them do things that seem so impossible, it’s such a full circle moment! I personally don’t really have a crazy story, I had a pretty normal upbringing but many people I get to be up there with have just survived unbelieved odds and come from the craziest places from all over the world, its really incredible that they are still here and able to do amazing things.
You are such an inspiration for so many young people and athletes now! Who inspired you when you were growing up and starting your athletic journey?
I think growing up in New Zealand a lot of girls looked up to the Silver Fern netball players and the boys looked up to the All Black rugby players. It’s such a cliché but for me it was definitely true. I loved watching the Silver Ferns play and I secretly wanted to be one when I grew up! However, I was never good enough at netball and undoubtedly a one-handed Silver Fern would definitely make the news! But ultimately, I just loved how strong and powerful they were on the court and how much it meant to them to wear the Silver Fern.
I think Australia and New Zealand have some pretty amazing sporting people to look up to and I just grew up admiring all of them. Especially the likes of Valerie Adams and Sophie Pascoe, who have both had such amazing career achievements. Given that New Zealand is so small, our most notable athletes often just shopped at the same supermarkets as me or ate at the same restaurants, so it really feels like you are quite literally walking in their footsteps.
Many athletic careers are riddled with speed bumps and injuries, have you had to overcome many hurdles along the way?
The first thing I think of is definitely when I broke my foot. When you first start out in a sport you tend to just keep getting better and better and that was definitely the case for me all the way to the Rio Games. It was kind of a strange time because I’d never thought about winning before and I wasn’t the best on paper so I struggled a bit with that. I think I turned that into not resting or recovering properly and just went go, go, go for everything so that I could prove I was the person to beat and that I could win again. I ended up getting a stress fracture in my foot and it happened to be the one I do the take off with in my long jump. It took 8-9 months to properly diagnose and I went to the World Championships with my foot broken and it kind of fell apart when I was there. I came fourth by 1 cm and missed out on the gold by roughly 5 cm even though it was well under my personal best.
It was a difficult time mentally because I would continuously ask myself whether that was good enough to win in Rio. After coming home. it was properly diagnosed and as it was the end of the season and I was able to rest my foot but it simply wasn’t getting better. We ended up pushing through and not resorting to surgery to fix it. It took roughly 2 years before I was back jumping and another 6 months before I actually felt confident enough to compete. There was a lot of doubt from other people and I think I wasn’t meant to come back from it. I was just super lucky that I had people around me that didn’t want to believe it and were willing to scrape me off the floor and show me the light at the end of the tunnel.
Looking back now it was probably the turning point in my career and I was able to get better, get up and work towards challenging the world record in my event!
It's often said that it takes a village to raise a child! How have you found your support system and how do they impact your progress?
At the start, my family was a huge support, even financially, I was still at school so I didn't have the means or knowledge to sign up to a club or travel overseas for competitions. They were incredibly helpful and supportive of me throughout this journey. My friends as well, they’ve always made the effort to come out and support me. I’ve also got an amazing training group. Today for example, I’d usually be training and it's just one of those days where I don’t want to go out and just knowing there's people there that are going to be doing the same thing as me is super inspiring and helps keep me motivated.
I was also super lucky in the beginning to get into the high performance sports system here in New Zealand. We have an awesome group of people that make up the team! They really feel more like family at this point and together we’ve been able to trailblaze through. I couldn’t pick anybody else to be on my team and they are all amazing! I just really just hit the jackpot by meeting all these lovely people.
So what's next for Anna Grimaldi? What are your upcoming goals and aspirations?
The next Paralympic Games in Paris is only in 3 years from now which makes the decision to stay on a lot easier. Next year and the year after that we’ve got the World Championships which is great because usually they are two years apart. It's great to have the goal every year instead of every 2 or 4 years.
When I first left school I studied Quantity Surveying so sort of like a construction crossed accountant and last year when the games were postponed I did construction management, so long term I would be interested in working in that particular field. I think I perform the best when I’ve got other things on so my brain isn’t just constantly thinking about long jump. But currently I’ll definitely be working towards Paris 2024 and just continue enjoying my sport! The world record is only 10cm away so I’m really driven to prove myself as one of the best one-armed long jumpers there's been.
Do you have any tips for aspiring athletes or people with disability wanting to try something new?
I was always quite confident on the field but when I wasn’t I was always scared and nervous that people were going to judge me. I hid my lack of hand really often and when I met people they’d be like ‘’oh gosh I didn’t even realise’’ and that was because I was really good at hiding it and I really didn’t want people to know. I think lots of people are like that and it's things like the Paralympic Games, that shows people you aren’t alone.
When I was younger I genuinely hadn't properly met someone with a disability till I was about16 years old. That was really tough because it made me feel like I was the only person in my situation. So to get that exposure out there and basically the entire Paralympic movement is all about making people feel more confident and comfortable with themselves. Sport is such an awesome way to show you how capable you really are and allows you to work on your abilities.
So take or make those opportunities happen for you. If you take an opportunity and it doesn't work out you are in no worse position than you would’ve been beforehand so go for it! I could’ve easily said no to that camp and I wouldn’t be here now and doing what I love.
Someone you were surprised to have interact with you on social media
Lydia Ko, the professional golfer! She was such an idol growing up and I was so surprised!
Favourite TV show right now
I just finished MAID and Sex Education on Netflix and they were both really good! Two very different shows but both very good.
Top place you would recommend for people to visit in New Zealand
Central Otago is one of my favourite places. I live in Otago and the centre of the island is Central Otago. Every year my family goes to a beautiful little old town called Clyde in Central Otago. It's so peaceful and has the most beautiful places to swim and eat. It's just such a nice place to have a holiday.
Something you do everyday that brings you joy
I really like talking so just connecting with people and having conversations with my partner, my friends or even ringing up my family for a chat brings me joy.
I love pasta! I think it's so versatile! But I also love a good Thai green curry! We cook it quite a bit at home but I love having it at a restaurant (I think it's always better at a restaurant 😉) It’s probably one of my favourite things.
One word that simply describes you
You can find Anna on Instagram @annakategrimaldi