KEIRA STEPHENS: ‘I kept checking my bags to make sure my medals were there’

AS soon as Hervey Bay’s Paralympic hero Keira Stephens touched down in Sydney after her return flight from #Tokyo2020, she quickly checked to make sure her medals were still safely tucked inside her bags.

Hervey Bay’s Keira Stephens after winning her first bronze medal at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. PHOTO: Delly Carr.

Keira added two extra important items to her luggage after bagging a pair of bronze medals at her first ever Paralympic Games.

“I checked my bag so many times to make sure my medals were in a nice safe place for the flight and as soon as I landed, I checked they were still in my bag,” she said.

“The medals are gorgeous and reflect so much hard work. I’m extremely grateful for them.”

The 18-year-old former Xavier Catholic College student is busy quarantining in Sydney due to strict international travel conditions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Keira told Good News Fraser Coast she was looking forward to seeing her loved ones and to celebrating her success with them when she eventually gets home.

“I definitely miss them a lot and we have been FaceTiming every day but I know how important quarantining is so I can [help] keep everyone in Australia safe.”

Despite not being able to show-off her medals just yet, Keira said quarantining was providing a much-needed break.

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THE SMILE SAYS IT ALL: Keira Stephens celebrates her podium finish at the 2020 Paralympics. PHOTO: Delly Carr.

“It’s so nice to just relax and have some time to myself after a very busy couple of months leading into Tokyo.

“I really enjoy gym, so I hired an exercise bike and some weights to keep moving and keep me fit.

“Not having to set an alarm for 5am every morning has got to be the highlight!”

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But it was those early morning swims, gym sessions and spinning classes that helped fly the Fraser Coast’s flag high at the Paralympics.

Keira won her first bronze medal on 26 August in the Women’s 100m breaststroke SB9 category. She followed up her impressive individual performance with another third-place finish in the Women’s 4x100m medley relay a week later.

“It has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl to compete at the Paralympics. I have trained so hard and winning that bronze medal in my breaststroke whilst swimming a personal best reflected that. Everything suddenly felt worth it,” she said.

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In preparation for the Paralympics, Keira trained nine swim sessions a week. Add another three gym sessions and three spin classes to the mix and you know what is takes for a natural talent to reach the highest level.

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Keira Stephens’ dream come true moment at the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. PHOTO: Delly Carr.

After years of training in swimming pools across the Fraser Coast, Keira said walking onto the pool deck for her first event as a Paralympian was “amazing but very daunting.”

“When I first stepped up on the starting block everything went silent and I was like wow, I’m about to race against the best athletes in the world.”

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Going into the Paralympics, Keira was ranked third in the world in her breaststroke category – only behind Dutch duo Chantalle Zijderveld and Lisa Kruger who, as it turned out, picked up gold and silver in Tokyo respectively.

“They are just incredible athletes who I respect so much. With that in mind, I knew for these Games my best shot at a medal was bronze, but only if I could swim a personal best,” explained Keira.

Valuable lessons

Keira learnt important lessons about handling pressure and expectation at her first international meet in London in 2019.

Aged just 16, she narrowly missed out on a podium finish.

“After that experience I promised myself I would never focus on medals or what I would place, as I learnt this was something I could not control.

“I promised myself I would focus on the race and what I needed to do to swim a personal best time to put myself in the best position for a medal.

“I definitely felt more comfortable at the Tokyo Paralympics and I trusted the hard work I had put into my lead up and knew I had done everything I possibly could to give myself the best chance to swim a good race when I stepped up on those blocks for my breaststroke.” 

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With a strong turn at the 50m mark in the in 100m breaststroke final, Keira said she knew she had to push through all the pain for the whole of the second lap to win the bronze.

“When I touched, I quickly looked to my left to see I had finished third. I was over the moon and I could not stop smiling. I don’t think I even felt puffed or tired as I was so happy.

“I kept checking the scoreboard to see a new personal best time and the number three next to my name.

“I felt so relieved and so proud.”

Keira said winning her second bronze in the medley relay was an honour.

“We supported each other and really motivated each other to swim well for the team,” said Keira.

Going for gold

Looking back on her first Paralympic experience, Keira said she would have loved to have had her family cheering her on in the stands.

“But I know how hard I am going to work [so that when the next Paralympics come around] they can be there watching me hopefully swim for gold!”

Keira commended the organisers for putting on a great event in Tokyo and keeping competitors safe.

“We honestly can’t thank Japan and all the volunteers enough.”

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