Dan Ninham
Special to Indian Country Today

Among the thousands of athletes at the closing ceremony of the Paralympics Games in Tokyo, at least seven Indigenous medalists stood on the podium representing not just their countries but their tribal nations.

New Zealand once again led the way with Indigenous athletes, with three Native athletes winning medals in the Paralympics to add to the 21 Indigenous athletes who medaled in the Tokyo Olympics.

The United States and Australia were close behind with two each, including Team USA’s Cheri Madsen, who at age 44 brought home silver and bronze in track and field events in her fourth Paralympics.

The total number of Indigenous athletes who participated in the Paralympics this year is not known, since many countries don’t collect or report that information. The Paralympics 2020, delayed a year by the pandemic, was held in Tokyo this year from Aug. 24-Sept. 5 after the Olympic games had concluded.

Here’s a look at the Indigenous athletes from around the world who medaled at the Tokyo Paralympics.

Cheri Madsen, United States, silver and bronze

Cheri Madsen, a member of the Omaha Nation of Nebraska, left the Tokyo Paralympics Games last week on a 16-hour travel day with flight stops at San Francisco and Denver before arriving at the Omaha airport. There was a 14-hour time difference.

She was greeted with cheers.

“It was a long day,” Madsen told Indian Country Today. “All my family coming to the airport was a big surprise; I wasn’t expecting it at all. The local news station was there for an interview. It was so awesome to see my family after 15 days of being gone. I really missed them.”

Team USA Indigenous athlete Cheri Madsen, center, was greeted by cheering family and friends when she returned home to Omaha, Nebraska with her two medals from the Tokyo Paralympic Games. The games ran Aug. 24-Sept. 5, 2021. Madsen, a citizen of the Omaha Nation of Nebraska, has won 10 medals in four Paralympics. (Photo courtesy of Cheri Madsen)

She returned home with her 10th career medal, having earned a silver medal in the 400-meter T54 race (for athletes who use a wheelchair) and a bronze medal in the 100-meter T54 race.

“I’m back,” she said. “Feels good to be home.”

Madsen, who turns 45 later this month, finished the 100-meter final in 16.33 seconds, behind only Zhaoquian Zhou of China, at 15.90 seconds, and Finland's Amanda Kotaja, at 15.93.

She finished the 400-meter final in 53.91 seconds behind Switzerland's Manuela Schaer in 53.59.

“It feels really good,” she said of her Tokyo performances. “I’ve worked really hard. Winning this medal, to me this will mean that every Paralympics I’ve ever been to I’ve medaled. I’m very happy that I was able to pull that off.”

It was her fourth Paralympics, having started at age 19 in 1996 as Cheri Becerra at the Atlanta Paralympics, where she medaled in all four of her races.

She said the Tokyo Paralympics were her last, although she has said that in the past. She took a 13-year break at age 24 to start a family but returned to sports in time to compete in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janiero.

Madsen has used a wheelchair since she was sickened by an unknown virus when she was three years old. She started wheelchair racing in 1994 and made her Paralympic debut in Atlanta two years later.

In Atlanta, she won silver medals in the 100-meter and 200-meter races, and bronze in the 400-meter and 800-meter races. She also earned bronze in an Olympic exhibition 800-meter race that year.

Her first Paralympic golds came at the Sydney 2000 Games in the 100-meter and 400-meter races, and silver in the 200-meter race.

She returned to international competition in 2013 to honor the memory of her father and brother, who died in 2007 in a car accident.

She’s now faster than ever, according to Alex Azzi of NBC Sports. 

“Madsen is faster now than she was in 1996,” Azzi said in a story about the athlete. “Her bronze-medal winning time today (16.33) is 0.41 seconds faster than her silver-medal winning time 25 years ago in Atlanta.”

Kaleo Kanahele Maclay, United States, gold

Kaleo Kanahele Maclay, ethnic Hawaiian, is sitting on top of the world since returning home to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

On the final day of the Tokyo Paralympics, she and other members of Team USA's sitting volleyball team won the gold medal, defeating China 3-1 with scores of 25-12, 25-20, 22-25, and 25-19.

Maclay was named the Tokyo Paralympic Games Sitting Volleyball Best Setter.

Kaleo Kanahele Maclay, who is ethnic Hawaiian, grew emotional on the podium at the Tokyo Paralympics after winning a gold medal as a member of Team USA's sitting volleyball team. She was also named the Tokyo Paralympic Games Sitting Volleyball Best Setter. (Photo courtesy USA Volleyball)

She has been on the Team USA sitting volleyball roster since she was 14, which is why she uses that number on her jersey. She also uses her maiden name on the jersey – in her Hawaiian language it means, “the voice of the heavens.”

She talks about training for the Paralympics in a video, “The Heart of the Golden Squad.”

Over the years, she has helped Team USA capture silver medals in three World Para Volleyball Championships in 2010, 2014 and 2018; gold in the 2019 Parapan American Games; and gold in the 2019 World ParaVolley World Super 6, where she was chosen most valuable player and best setter.

Starting at 16, she was on the team that earned a silver medal at the London 2012 Paralympic games and its first gold in Brazil in 2016 – ending the People’s Republic of China’s unbeaten streak.

“I was so proud of all the work we had put in as a team to get to that gold medal match, and that match was a beautiful performance and a true example of all of the work and dedication we had put in as a team,” Maclay told the International Paralympic Committee on April 10, 2021.

Holly Robinson, New Zealand, gold

New Zealand Paralympic javelin thrower Holly Robinson saved her best throw for last.

Robinson, who is of Ngāi Tahu descent, went into the event as the reigning world record-holder, but records don’t always show up in international competition for elite athletes. Gold medals have been elusive to the world record-holder.

New Zealand Paralympic javelin thrower Holly Robinson, who is of Ngāi Tahu descent, won gold at the Tokyo Paralympics, which ran Aug. 24-Sept. 5, 2021. (Photo courtesy New Zealand Paralympics)

And leading up to the last throw at the Tokyo Paralympics, Britain’s Hollie Arnold led the field. Arnold won the 2016 Rio Paralympics and 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, and the 2013 and 2017 world championships. Robinson won bronze and Arnold gold at the 2015 world championships.

Robinson, who was in third place behind Arnold and Dutchwoman Noelle Roorda, needed a do-or-not place throw with her sixth and final attempt. So the composed Dunedin athlete uncorked a winner in the rain, taking gold in the thrilling javelin final (F46 designation) with a clutch 40.99-meter throw.

Once she knew she had secured the gold, she ran to embrace her coach Raylene Bates.

The 26-year-old Robinson has had her share of other memorable moments as a Paralympian. She captivated the world as she went thank officials after her event for their efforts to make the Paralympics run smoothly. Other New Zealand Paralympians followed her gesture.

She was rewarded with the The Visa Award – Paralympics, which recognizes “uplifting moments” from the Tokyo games outside of play that “represent the very best of humanity and display qualities of inclusion, courage and friendship,” according to the International Paralympics Committee. She won the fan vote outright.

“I’m unbelievably stoked to announce that thanks to all your voting I have won #TheVisaAward based on my moment of gratitude towards the officials at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games,” Robinson recently posted on her Facebook page.

“Winning this award means I now get to donate $50,000 USD to a charity of my choice which I know will make a huge difference … I’m so proud to have been part of such an incredible team.”

She added, “And a huge thank you to everyone involved in Tokyo 2020. You guys put on an amazing Games and we athletes are truly thankful that we got our chance to shine on the big stage.”

Lisa Adams, New Zealand, gold

Last month, Lisa Adams watcher her sister, Valerie Adams, secure a bronze medal in shot put at the Tokyo Olympics.

On Aug. 28, it was her turn. Thirty-year-old Lisa Adams stood atop the podium after winning a gold medal in the women’s shot put at the Tokyo Paralympics, shattering the Paralympics record with two throws of 15.12 meters.

The sisters, of Tongan descent, worked together to get there. Lisa Adams, who has cerebral palsy, is trained by her two-time Olympic champion Valerie. She started competing in 2018 at the age of 28 and became the shot put (F37) world champion and world record-holder the following year.

Lisa Adams, Team New Zealand. In February 2018, Lisa Adams became the first woman in the world to play Physical Disability Rugby League (PDRL) nines on the world stage, at the Rugby League Commonwealth Championships with the New Zealand men's squad. They finished second and she was also selected to be the New Zealand flag bearer. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images via Paralympics New Zealand)

She won a gold medal at the 2019 World Para Athletics World Championships in Dubai, and entered the Tokyo Paralympics as the odds-on favorite to win. Her opening throw of 14.36 meters was the first of four new Paralympic records.

She was the only thrower to go beyond 14 meters. All six of her throws went farther than silver medalist Mi Na of China, whose best effort was 13.69 meters.

According to her Paralympics profile and on a video profile, Adams played netball and basketball when she was growing up, and played rugby with the Waikite women's able-bodied team in 2017.

In 2018 she became the first woman to play with the New Zealand men's national team at the Physical Disability Rugby League Commonwealth Championship.

Tupou Neiufi, New Zealand, gold

Tupou Neiufi was overwhelmed with emotion when she received her gold medal after winning the 100-meter backstroke (S8) finals at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.

She led the race from start to finish with a time of 1:16.84, which was 1.47 seconds ahead of the next place.

Hopes were high for Neiufi after her second-place performance in the same event at the world championships two years ago. But even she seemed surprised by the manner of her victory.

Tupou Neiufi, Team New Zealand. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images via Paralympics New Zealand)

She defeated silver medalist Kateryna Denysenko of Ukraine and 24-time Paralympic medalist Jessica Long of Team USA, who took bronze. Long gave her a congratulatory hug in the pool.

Neiufi, who is of Tongan descent, was just two years old when she was hit by a speeding car, resulting in left-sided hemiplegia, meaning she has paralysis on the left side of her body.

She wasn’t expected to be able to walk again, according to nzherald.co.nz. She started swimming at age 8 and quickly showed her ability in the pool.

Neiufi told Mark Geenty of nzstuff she is also passionate about inspiring kids with disabilities to try para-sports, particularly those in the Pasifika community.

“It’s the second Paralympics for Neiufi,” according to Christine Rappleye of the Church News. “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.”

Amanda Reid, Australia, gold

Australia's Amanda Reid broke her own world record to win a gold medal in track cycling at the Tokyo Paralympics.

“As an Indigenous athlete, to represent my people back home, and on our team there’s three of us, I'm hoping that I can encourage more Aboriginal disabled athletes to get more into sport,” she told Indian Country Today.

Reid, 24, Guring-gai and Wemba Wemba, is a three-time Paralympian, switching her sport from swimming to cycling for the Rio Games in 2016. She represented Australia at the London Games in 2012 as a finalist in the 100-meter breaststroke.

Indigenous athlete Amanda Reid of Australia broke her own world record to win a gold medal in track cycling at the Tokyo Paralympics, which ran from Aug. 24-Sept. 5, 2021. Reid, Guring-gai and Wemba Wemba, is a three-time Paralympian. (Photo courtesy of Australia Paralympics)

In Rio, she won silver in the Velodrome event and followed that by riding a world-record time at the 2019 Para-cycling World Championships.

"I was hoping for a world record but I was a bit everywhere on the track,” she told SBS News. “A bit like a zig-zag on the track and that's because of my cerebral palsy, so that can be very interesting when you ride.”

Reid became just the fifth Indigenous Australian, and the first in 13 years, to reach the Paralympic podium after an astonishing win at the Izu Velodrome, where she destroyed her own world record to take gold in the women’s C1-C3 500-meter time trial, according to Julian Linden of the Daily Telegraph.

The most recent Aboriginal to win Paralympic gold for Australia was swimmer Ben Austin, who won the last of his three gold medals at Beijing in 2008.

Reid thinks her success may provide increased opportunities for Indigenous champions.

“It means everything to me to be a proud Guring-gai and Wemba-Wemba woman and to represent my people back home, seeing there is only three of us on the team this time along with Samantha Schmidt and Ruby Storm,” she told reporter Mike Hytner.

Dutch rider Alyda Norbruis won silver in 39.002, while China’s Qian Wangwei came in third with a time of 41.403. Qian also broke the world record for the C1 class.

Ruby Storm, Australia, silver and bronze

Ruby Storm is one of the youngest Paralympians at age 17. She gained valuable experience at a younger age and is one of the promising Paralympians in Team Australia swimming.

She competed in five events at the Tokyo Paralympics and brought home two medals — silver in the mixed 4x100-meter freestyle relay (S14) and bronze in the women’s 100-meter butterfly (S14).

Australian Indigenous athlete Ruby Storm brought home two medals from the Tokyo Paralympics, silver in the mixed 4x100-meter freestyle relay and bronze in the women’s 100-meter butterfly. Storm, 17, of the Wiradjuri tribe, was one of the youngest athlete to compete at the Paralympics, which ran Aug. 24-Sept. 5, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Australia Paralympics)

She also came in seventh in two other S14 competitions in Tokyo — the women's 200-meter individual medley and the women’s 200-meter freestyle — and eighth place in the women’s 100-meter backstroke (S14).

"I was so proud to pull on the green and gold at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics and represent not only Australia, but also the Wiradjuri tribe,” Storm told Indian Country Today in a statement. “It’s such an honour, and I hope I can inspire more Indigenous Australians to get involved in Para-sports and follow their passion.”

Storm competed in the first leg of the 2019 World Para Swimming World Series and claimed a silver medal in the 200-meter freestyle, as noted in her profile page with Australia Swimming.

She was selected on the world para champ team in 2019 and won a bronze in the mixed 4x100-meter freestyle relay (S14).

On the podium
At least seven Indigenous athletes won medals at the Tokyo Paralympics, held Aug. 24-Sept. 5 in Japan. The exact number of Indigenous athletes who medaled at the games is not known, since many countries do not track that information.

United States
· Cheri Madsen, Omaha Nation of Nebraska, silver medal, 400 meters; bronze medal, 100 meters (multi-medal winner over four Paralympics) (T54 classification)
· Kaleo Kanahele Maclay, ethnic Hawaiian, gold medal, sitting volleyball team (multi-medal winner since 2012)

New Zealand
· Holly Robinson, Māori, gold medal, javelin (F46)
· Lisa Adams, Tongan, gold medal, shotput (F37)
· Tupou Neiufi, Tongan, gold medal, 100-meter backstroke (S9)

Australia
· Amanda Reid, Guring-gai and Wemba Wemba, gold medal, track cycling (multi-medal winner since 2016) (C1)
· Ruby Storm, Indigenous Australian, silver medal, mixed 4x100 freestyle relay swimming; bronze medal, women’s 100m butterfly (SM14)

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