Latter-day Saints in the Paralympics, days 6 & 7: Gold in swimming, plus updates in goalball, track and shot put

With a gold medal around her neck, New Zealand swimmer Tupou Neiufi wiped her eyes as the tears kept coming during the medal ceremony for her first race in Tokyo. She’s one of a dozen athletes connected to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints competing in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. 

During days six and seven of competition, Team USA’s goalball team is head to the semifinals, plus updates in track and shot put. 

Swimming 

Tupou Neiufi of New Zealand prepares to swim in the women's 100-meter backstroke S8 final, swimming at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo Friday, Aug. 27, 2021.
Tupou Neiufi of New Zealand prepares to swim in the women’s 100-meter backstroke S8 final, swimming at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. Credit: Lose Neiufi via The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Twenty-year-old Tupou Neiufi of New Zealand won gold in the 100-meter backstroke S8 (for physical impairments) on Friday, Aug. 27, with a time of 1:16.84. Of South Auckland, she led during both pool lengths of the race and was emotional as she realized she had won gold. 

It’s the second Paralympics for Neiufi. She was initially an alternate for the New Zealand team headed to the Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2016. After a teammate’s injury, she joined the team and swam in three races. She was seventh in the 100-meter backstroke S9 (for physical impairments) and also competed in the 50-meter freestyle S9 and 100-meter freestyle S9. At the 2019 world championships in London, she was the silver medalist in the 100-meter backstroke S8 and eighth in the 50-meter freestyle S8.

When Neifu was 2 years old, she was involved in a hit-and-run accident that resulted in brain bruising and left-side paralysis. She had to relearn how to sit, walk and use her arms. She first tried netball and then swimming to help her after the accident. She began swimming at 10 years old and competing at 11. 

In Tokyo, she’s also scheduled to compete in the 50-meter freestyle S8 on Wednesday, Sept. 1

Goalball 

USA's Daryl Walker, right, prepares to throw during USA's semifinal match against Ukraine at the Makuhari Messe during the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021.
USA’s Daryl Walker, right, prepares to throw during USA’s semifinal match against Ukraine at the Makuhari Messe during the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. Credit: screenshot via nbcolympics.com

Team USA, including Daryl Walker, is headed to the semifinals after winning 5-4 in a comeback that resulted in overtime against the team from the Ukraine on Tuesday, Aug. 30. Walker played 10 minutes during the game, which is comprised of two 12-minute halves. 

It was 3-1 after the first half and 4-4 after the second before going into overtime. 

They will play the team from China on Thursday, Sept. 2. The winning team will play the winner of the semifinal match between Lithuania and Brazil for the gold and silver medals on Friday, Sept. 3. 

USA finished the preliminary round on Monday, Aug. 30, with a 3-13 loss to Lithuania. USA was third among the five teams in Group A, winning against Brazil and Algeria, and losing to Japan and Lithuania. The top four teams from the two groups moved on to the quarterfinals.

Walker, 39, who hails from Florida and trains in Indiana, has albinoism that affects his eyesight and is legally blind. He was part of the team that won silver in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

Goalball, a game designed for the visually challenged, is played on a court about the size of a volleyball court with textured lines and a ball that’s about the size of a basketball with bells and holes in it. There are goals at each end of the court that span the 9-meter, or 29.5-foot, width of the court. 

Each team is allowed three players on the court and all players wear darkened visors, or eye shades, to equalize visual ability as they defend their goal that is 1.3 meters, or 1.4 yards, tall and throw the ball to score points. 

The sport made its debut in the Paralympic Games in 1975 and is one of two sports at the Paralympics that doesn’t have an Olympic counterpart. 

Track and field

United States' Taylor Talbot, second from right, competes in her heat of the T13 women's 100-meters during the 2020 Paralympics at the National Stadium in Tokyo, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2021.
United States’ Taylor Talbot, second from right, competes in her heat of the T13 women’s 100-meters during the 2020 Paralympics at the National Stadium in Tokyo, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2021. Credit: screenshot via nbcolympics.com

USA sprinter Taylor Talbot ran the 100-meter T13 (for visual impairments) race in 13.33 seconds in her first Paralympic Games. The BYU–Idaho student was fifth overall in her heat and was 17th overall. The first two in each of the three heats, plus the two with the next fastest times among the 18 runners, advanced to the finals. 

Talbot, 20, of Oregon, has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition, and is legally blind. When the Paralympic track and field team was announced, she was the final name on the roster. The next day, she was told that there was a calculation error and that she wasn’t on the team. She was later named as an alternate and then given a direct invite to come to Tokyo. 

She is also competing in the 400-meter T13 race on Thursday, Sept. 2. 

New Zealand's Todd Hodgetts celebrates during the men's shot put F20 athletics final during the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021.
New Zealand’s Todd Hodgetts celebrates during the men’s shot put F20 athletics final during the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. Credit: screenshot via nbcolympics.com

In shot put, Australia’s Todd Hodgetts was one of three of the eight throwers who were disqualified for reportedly failing to meet call room timings, according to posts on Hodgetts’ Facebook page. They were allowed to compete under protest. He placed seventh among the eight competitors in the F20 division (for intellectual impairments) with a throw of 15.48 meters, or about 50.78 feet, during the competition in light rain on Thursday, Aug. 31. On the results report, the three athletes are listed as DNS, or did not start.  They are allowed six throws of the 16-pound spherical metal shot put and use the best of the six throws. 

Hodgetts, 33, of Melbourne, Australia, won gold in the shot put F20 division at the 2012 London Paralympic Games — and set a world record. In 2016 at the Rio Games, he won bronze. Nicknamed “The Hulk,” Hodgetts was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was 8 years old. 

He’s “in good spirits and said in typical Todd fashion, he left nothing out there in the trying conditions,” according to a post on his Facebook page. In a separate post noted that “he will be back.”   

Athletics Australia tweeted that it has filed a protest about his DNS listing. 

Read more of Church News’ coverage of athletes connected to the Church competing in the Paralympics

Upcoming competitions

Joining Neiufi in the 50-meter S8 freestyle is Lourdes Alejandra Aybar Diaz of the Dominican Republic on Wednesday, Sept. 1. Also, the preliminary round of sitting volleyball continues as Canada, including Payden Vair, faces Japan on Wednesday. 

On Thursday, Sept. 2, is the goalball semifinals as USA, including Walker, plays China. At Olympic Stadium, USA’s Talbot is scheduled to compete in the 400-meter T13 race and David Blair, of Eagle Mountain, Utah, will throw in the discus F64 (lower limb deficiency).

On social 

Sprinter Jason Smyth shared a photo of his gold medal he won in the 100-meter T13 (for visual impairments) and reflected on his Olympic journey. 

“Its been some journey and it feels good!!!!!!” he wrote

Runner Margarita Faundez of Chile shared her gratitude for being at the Paralympics. While she said it wasn’t one of her best times, being able to run the 1,500 meter, T11 (for visual impairments), meant that she overcame many obstacles, including multiple health challenges related to a hip injury, to run and race again. She also thanked those who have supported her. 

“I cried today to feel so loved, that’s my most golden award. I’m tenth at @tokyo2020 and still among the best in the world,” she wrote.  

Wheelchair fencer Shelby Jensen shared photos of her and her teammates on the Paralympic logo as she prepared to head back to Utah. She shared her gratitude for her parents, coaches and others who supported her and plans to prepare to compete in the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris, France.

After her race, Neiufi shared her gratitude for those who have supported her. “I can barely process any words to describe how I feel right now, but thank you,” she wrote on Instagram. 

Looking toward the discus competition on Thursday, Blair shared a photo from the Olympic Village with his coach. 

“Thanks for all your support I can feel it all the way across the Pacific Ocean!” he wrote.