“I really saw women struggle with that, it was a common, common theme.”
When 172 Australian athletes enter Rio’s Maracanã stadium on September 7 to kick-off the Paralympic games, half of them will be women.
The fifty-fifty split for the Aussies is no mean feat and is something the International Paralympic Committee wants to see across the board.
“The IPC is doing an amazing job to get more women participating,” says Kate McLoughlin, the Australian Paralympic Chef de Mission.
“Countries that wouldn’t normally focus on getting girls involved are doing it because there’s incentives to get more women involved.”
Even McLoughlin’s appointment as Chef represents a win for gender equality in sport.
She and Olympic counterpart Kitty Chiller are the first women ever to head up an Australian Paralympic or Olympic team.
McLoughlin believes the move sends a strong message.
“You don’t just have to participate in sport but you can actually be a leader…I think traditionally leadership positions have been held by men, it’s been a bit of a boy’s club. To have both of us in the one games is monumental.”
McLoughlin says while she and Chiller were simply the strongest candidates for the job - the pair held the deputy positions at London 2012 - their appointment in 2016 marks a definite shift.
“I think in the past there could have been women who were the best people, but they just weren’t getting that gig.”
While Aussie sporting culture may be changing, McLoughlin believes female Paralympians face an unexpected hurdle when competing in elite sport, a battle with body image.
“Women in general do drop out from sport as they get into their teenage years and a lot of that’s to do with body image,” she says.
“When you consider a sixteen-year-old girl, who’s able bodied, drops out…what about an athlete with a disability, who’s in a chair or who’s an amputee.”
Paralympic co-captain, Daniela Di Toro agrees, citing young female athletes she saw grapple with their changing shape - particularly at an age when many of their peers were more concerned with relating to members of the opposite sex.
“Growing up for women it’s not cool to be a strong independent, feisty, muscly driven female. I really saw women struggle with that and it was a common, common theme.”
The former wheelchair tennis number one is heading to her sixth games.
Despite a stellar career and winning 23 major singles titles, Di Toro admits even she wasn’t immune.
“I’ve never felt great about my own body image and if I’d checked into that I’d just be doing nothing and sitting eating piles of bread.”
Di Toro says she was lucky to have resolved the matter by the time she was 19.
“I realised if I measured what I did against what anyone else thought, I’d just never get anything done…and once I stopped doing that I could just reach for what felt good for me, each and every day.”
Both Di Toro and McLoughlin hope the increased exposure to the Paralympic games will help address some of these issues.
“I think the fact that Paralympic sport will be broadcast on a commercial network this time, fourteen hours a day, it’s going to showcase some great athletes,” says McLoughlin.
“We have so many para-athletes who are women and that can only help. Young women with disabilities who are thinking: ‘You know what, the sky’s the limit, if these girls can do it why can’t I?’”
For Di Toro the games are a watershed moment for the Aussies.
“Australian television networks actually appreciate that there’s a product there, an incredible product and it’s bigger than just inspiring people. It’s actually watching people perform incredible feats of excellence.”
Those people will include 172 Australians, all of whom Di Toro believes could win a place on the podium.
“The team we have coming away, each and every person, genuinely has a shot at a medal and that’s exceptional.”
So who are the women to watch at the 2016 Rio Paralympics?
Ellie Cole and the youngest member of the team, Tiffany Thomas-Kane, will be hoping to make a splash in the pool.
Cole was the golden girl of 2012, picking up 6 medals including 4 golds in London.
While Thomas-Kane smashed the world record for 50m breaststroke (SB6) at the Australian swimming championships in Adelaide last month.
She also claimed top spot for the 100m breaststroke and 200m individual medley.
On the track, Isis Holt is the current world champion and world record holder in 100m and 200m T35 events and seems a safe bet for a top three finish.
Wheelchair racer Angie Ballard has picked up medals in the last three Paralympic games, including two silvers and a bronze in London.
She’ll be hoping to go one better in Rio.
The 2016 Games will also feature paracanoe for the first time.
Amanda Reynolds is the current world champion and will be going for Gold at the Lagoa stadium.
And finally Melissa Tapper, not content with heading to one games will be the first Australian to compete in two, making both the Paralympic and Olympic table tennis teams.
She narrowly missed out on bronze, four years ago.
But what about Di Toro?
She retired from tennis after the London games and this time will be joining Tapper competing in table tennis.
— SBS News (@SBSNews) March 30, 2016
She’s less bullish about her own medal chances.
“Only if everyone else gets sick. Most of the girls have been learning for fifteen to twenty years, to me this is a really rookie games. I’m just using it as an opportunity to learn from all the top girls. My plan is to be pretty competitive by Tokyo.”
However, McLoughlin wasn’t so quick to write her off.
“The fact that she’s actually qualified is brilliant given she’s only been competing in the sport for a year - she’s such a champion and someone who doesn’t like losing, so I wouldn’t rule anything out.”
The Paralympics take place between September 7 - 18.