Lauren Parker brushed aside the devastation of being pipped for gold in a dramatic women's PTWC paratriathlon race in Tokyo on Sunday to thank those who helped her overcome a life-changing injury four years ago and vow to continue inspiring others.
Parker delivered the Hunter region their first medal of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics and Australia's first ever medal in women's paratriathlon wheelchair (PTWC) racing when she crossed the finish line one second behind winner Kendall Gretsch from the United States.
It was a heart-breaking end after the Newcastle 32-year-old had established a strong early lead in the race, which comprised a 750-metre swim, 20-kilometre cycle and 5km run.
Parker was out of the water in 11 minutes and 47 seconds, 1:42 clear of her nearest rival. Gretsch, who has a different classification of physical impairment to the Novocastrian, started four minutes and four seconds later than Parker in a second wave of the race.
The American, who is also a Winter Paralympics gold medallist, chipped away at the Australia's lead and caught her in the finishing straight to win in one hour, six minutes and 25 seconds. Parker claimed silver in 1:06.26.
The pair were light years ahead of the rest of the field. Eva Maria Moral Pedrero, of Spain, finished with the bronze medal in 1:14.59. Parker's compatriot Emily Tapp had to withdraw from the race after crashing during the cycle leg.
While her devastation on the finish line was clear, the resilient Parker still had a smile on her face when interviewed shortly after the race by Channel 7.
"I didn't know where Kendall was," Parker said. "I knew she was coming. I knew she was coming fast and I just had my head down and was going for it.
"But I got stuck at one of the U-turns behind someone on that last lap, which is unfortunate. That was a few seconds that I lost. But I put in everything I could.
"I just put my head down and went for it and I'm happy with the effort that I put in and I'm proud of my effort."
"I wouldn't be here without my best friend and training partner Brad Fernley," Parker said.
"He's been with me for 14 years, helping me with my career. He's stuck by me ever since I had my accident. Every single day and every single training session, he's been there, and I wouldn't be here racing for my country at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo without him.
"This time four years ago, I was laying in that hospital bed thinking my life was over. 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 but I never would've dreamed of representing my country four years later."
Parker has been eyeing gold in Toyko since a bronze medal performance at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast just over 12 months after her accident. By September 2019, she was a paratriathlon world champion.
Next on the agenda is longer 70.3 ironman racing in the United States but Parker was quick to say she already had her sights on the 2024 Paris, 2028 Los Angeles and 2032 Brisbane Paralympic Games.
She also wants to keep inspiring others.
"I came to get the gold, that was my goal," Parker said after the medal ceremony.
"It was great competition out there and Kendall is a great athlete, so I'm super proud of my achievements and next time it will be a different colour.
"I'm so happy that I can inspire others. That's what I want to do. If I had to have my accident for a reason and, if I'm achieving all I'm achieving, then I'm so happy that I can be an inspiration to others."
Fernley, also speaking to Channel 7 post-race, said they were "absolutely heart-broken" by the sprint finish but had no doubt Parker would bounce back even stronger.
"Second is still a great feat for what Lauren's gone through in three-and-a-half years," Fernley said.
"She's had six spine operations, two wrist operations and got out of hospital two-and-a-half months ago. She keeps getting knocked down but keeps getting back up."
Parker's regular race handler Dave Robertson watched on through a group zoom of friends and family who could not be in Japan due to the coronavirus crisis.
"It's sad we weren't all able to be there in the stands screaming for her, but everyone was screaming the house down for her here and we're all just so proud," Robertson said.
"I watched that post-race interview and she was just so humble. Obviously, it would've been absolutely gut-wrenching to have gone through what she's gone through and I'm sure those emotions with catch up with her later.
"But, like so many of the Paralympic athletes, she has an awareness of the power of that moment to be interviewed. I've met kids along the way who are in chairs and Lauren is their idol. They want to be like Lauren. They've just seen her win a medal. They don't care what colour it is. She's won a medal at a Paralympics and she's who they want to be. She gives hope and something to chase for kids in chairs, which is an amazing thing."
Proud mother Anne told Channel 7 that sport had "saved" Parker.
"She may not have won today but she's won the race in everybody's heart," Anne said. "She couldn't have done any more. She left it all out there. They're all winners. To get to that level and to get to Toyko is amazing."
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