Tokyo Paralympics: Sarah Storey aims to become Britain’s most successful Paralympian

Sarah Storey
Sarah Storey has 14 Paralympic golds, eight silvers and three bronzes, as well as 23 cycling World Championship titles
Venue: Tokyo, Japan Dates: 24 August-5 September Time in Tokyo: BST +8
Coverage: Follow on Radio 5 Live and on the BBC Sport website

In the 29 years since she made her Paralympic debut, Sarah Storey has been there, done that and got the medal collection to show for it.

With 14 Paralympic golds to her name already, the first five from swimming before her switch to cycling, she is Britain’s most successful female Paralympian – yet more history beckons.

Win her three events at the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Games – the C5 individual pursuit, C5 time trial and C4-5 road race – and she will surpass swimmer Mike Kenny’s record of 16 titles, making her the nation’s outright most successful Paralympic athlete.

Not bad for someone who, after joining her first swimming club at the tender age of 10, was told she had “started training too late to be any good at anything”.

“I think [the record] would just be something where I don’t know if I would quite believe it. I’m just focusing on each race, one at a time,” Storey, 43, told BBC Sport.

“To make eight Games is a huge honour and to be in with a chance of this target is another huge opportunity. I’m excited to see if I can try and do it.”

But it will be a very different scenario in which Storey, who made her Paralympic debut in Barcelona in 1992, will be trying to make that history.

The global Covid-19 pandemic has meant training has been very different in the 18-month lead up to the Games, but Storey remains as “confident as anyone could be” of retaining her titles from Rio.

Restrictions mean spectators are not permitted at the Tokyo Paralympics – which start on 24 August – so there will be no trip to Japan for Storey’s children, eight-year-old Louisa and three-year-old Charlie.

Louisa and Charlie, as well as their dad and Storey’s husband, Barney, are almost a constant presence at her races, in non-pandemic times at least. But Tokyo will be different, and that’s something of which Storey is all too aware.

“It’s the first Games my parents haven’t been to, so it’s not a thing to be taken lightly,” she said.

“It is a huge undertaking to do this by yourself, when you’re used to having that support around, but I’ve got big mental strength, I’m going to be calling on that every day no doubt, I’m expecting it to be tough.

“I’m prepared, the kids have been preparing me, they’ve been drawing me things and we’ve been talking about it, they know I’ll be away for 22 days. Whether they can picture what 22 days looks like, I’m not sure.

“It’s going to be hard, but it’s just the way it is and I can’t change it.”

In the near three decades since Storey made her Games debut, the Paralympic movement has grown “immensely”. She did not know of their existence until two years before the Barcelona 1992 Games but says children now have “role models to aspire to”.

“The breadth of the opportunities available are far greater and it’s obviously for me a really proud time to have been part of that journey and to have been able to contribute and stay relevant for such a long time. As the world moves on and the Games get bigger, that obviously brings different pressures and different focus,” she said.

“To still be there and still considered one of the people that makes waves at the Games in terms of performances, I still have to pinch myself that people are talking about me in that way.”

And it looks like she’ll be talked about for some time to come, because Storey has no plans to call it a day. The opportunity to get to the Paris Paralympics in 2024, she says, would be “huge”.

“I love training, I’m a bit of a training animal, I’ve always loved challenging myself,” she said.

“But I also love the response that my kids have now. Both Louisa and Charlie really love being absorbed in training and competition, they love being involved in supporting that and to feel helpful.

“Seeing their enjoyment is a huge motivating factor for me. That is probably why it’s so hard to leave them behind because I don’t get to share this experience with them in quite the same way.

“Charlie’s never been to a Paralympic Games and he’s really keen to find out what it’s about. He might not be four yet but he’s very clued up, so I’ve got so much motivation to keep going beyond these Games and to make sure that I still try and find the best version of Sarah Storey.”

Sarah Storey and her children
Sarah Storey and her children

‘I knew she was something special’

BBC Paralympic reporter and former Para-swimmer Rachael Latham

When I first met Sarah, she was 21-years-old and had already won five Paralympic gold medals. I was only nine, but I knew she was something special.

She coached and mentored me for six years and I quickly learned there are two sides to Sarah. She is assertive and fierce, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise, as you don’t become the most decorated British female Paralympic athlete of all time without such attributes. However, outside of competition, she has a softer side too. She is exceptionally loyal, supportive and caring to those closest to her. This behaviour was most likely learned from her family, who have always been her support bubble.

It goes without saying that she has had a huge impact on the Paralympic movement; not only because her achievements have grown the profile of Paralympic sport and changed public perception of disability, but she has also been nurturing young disabled talent behind the scenes since her early 20s. Most people that age are still figuring out what they want from life, but she already knew, so she spent her spare time helping other disabled people realise their potential.

Her ‘spare time’ priorities have changed over the years, she is a mum now and her children fill that space. But her drive and ambition are still the same.

To win 14 Paralympic gold medals, there will have been times when she had to be selfish. She is not easily distracted, she can single-mindedly focus on the goal at hand and she has painstaking attention to detail.

I wasn’t shocked when she moved from swimming to cycling. Because of starting at such a young age, she reached her peak early in the pool but was able to transfer her performance to another sport. She isn’t afraid to challenge her body to do new and different things and that’s why she always comes out on top. Athletes can’t rest on their laurels.

Her physical sporting talent is exceptional, but I think it is her mental attitude is that makes her a cut above the rest.

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