Curtis McGrath had 20,000 extra good reasons to celebrate on Friday after overcoming a shaky first day of competition to successfully defend his men’s KL2 Paralympic gold medal.

His victory continued an incredible streak which has seen him unbeaten in international competition since before the Rio Paralympics, and sets him up for a tilt at an historic double-gold in Tokyo.

Overnight the Australian government announced that Paralympic medalists will receive the same financial rewards as their Olympic colleagues, and McGrath will be one of the first to reap the benefits.

As a soldier who has already sacrificed both his legs in the line of duty for his country, and who has since provided inspiration for not just other athletes, but also people with disabilities from all sections of the community, he is long overdue a decent payday.

It’s a dilemma facing Paralympic athletes all over the world, and McGrath is grateful for the initiative. But he said more still needs to be done.

“We just want an equal playing field, we want equal opportunities, and that’s what the Paralympics are all about,” he said.

“If everyone, even corporate Australia, can get out there and sponsor a Paralympic athlete, not just myself, not just a gold medalist, but someone who is working every day, and doing the same amount of work, the same amount of effort as an Olympian, as an NRL (rugby league) player or an AFL (Australian rules football) player, and getting the rewards they deserve.

“I’m really grateful that the Government stepped forward and came to the table, we’re just looking for a little bit more for our Paralympic team because in six months we’ve got another Games ahead.”

We just want an equal playing field, we want equal opportunities

McGrath’s performance on Friday could not have been more different to Thursday, when he nearly raced out of his lane in his kayak race, and then crashed his Va’a into the finish line buoy in his second event.

He avoided disqualification in both races, but it served as a serious wake-up call after a fortnight where he admitted he had been distracted by the events unfolding in Afghanistan, the country where he lost both his legs in an explosion in 2012.

But he said the mistakes were more likely because of a lack of racing during the prolonged Covid lockdown which has kept Australian athletes from travelling overseas.

“Yesterday was a bit of an error on my part,” McGrath said.

“I’m grateful I had the opportunity to blow out the cobwebs yesterday and rectify the faults from yesterday.

“The biggest distraction for me has been not being able to compete, not being able to put the pressure on myself and put the pressure on everyone else.”

McGrath was still feeling his way in paracanoe when he won gold in Rio, only four years after the Afghanistan explosion and not much more than 12 months after he had to change boats because of a change to the Paralympic programme.

After initially spending more time in the water then on top of it, he progressed to 2016 world champion, inaugural Paralympic gold medalist, and now two-time Games champion.

The biggest distraction for me has been not being able to compete

“In Rio it was all so new to me, the high performance of it all, the level of competition, the competitiveness of everyone, it’s really great to have that,” McGrath reflected.

“Now I’m more experienced, a little bit older, I’ve had an extra year to work on things, I felt really comfortable. Yes the nerves get up, but that means it means something to me. I’m super happy with my performance, and going back-to-back I confirmed to myself I can come to the biggest event like this and perform.”

“I went to Rio with a similar feeling, that some people don’t get to represent their country and race for gold, and I wanted to go to Rio and do that. It’s the same sort of feeling here, and I’m thankful I get to stand on the top of the podium.”

McGrath has also been enjoying competing in a time zone very similar to Australia, which means family and friends have been able to share his journey this week without shivering in the middle of the night.

“My phone has been running pretty hot, everyone is up in Australia and watching, it’s a great feeling to have that support base back home,” he said.

“It would have been lovely to have the stands full, but for Australia I think it’s really cool that we have that one hour time difference and the coverage has been much better.”

It’s guaranteed most of Australia will be tuned in on Saturday, when 33-year-old McGrath launches his assault on the men’s VL3 final, the first time the event has been contested in the Paralympics.

If he wins he will become the first paracanoe athlete to win two gold medals at a single Games.

And, of course, there will be 20,000 other good reasons to cheer.

Pics by Dezso Vekassy

Tokyo Paralympic men KL2 medalists

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