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Q&A: Dame Sarah Storey

Mark Bailey
3 Sep 2021

To celebrate her Tokyo 2020 success, we look back at our chat with the 17-time Paralympic gold medallist after Rio 2016. Photos: Chris Blott

Dame Sarah Storey
Nationality: British
 12 Paralympic gold medals, 26 World Championship gold medals
Para-swimming 5 Paralympic gold medals, 5 World Championship gold medals

2020 Tokyo, three cycling golds
2016 Rio Paralympics, three cycling golds
2012 London Paralympics, four cycling golds
2008 Beijing Paralympics, two cycling golds
1996 Atlanta Paralympics, three swimming golds
1992 Barcelona Paralympics, two swimming golds

Cyclist: Your three gold medals in Rio made you Britain’s most successful female Paralympian cyclist of all time, with a total of 14 golds. What does that mean to you?

Sarah Storey: That’s an interesting question because it’s kind of a temporary title. At some point, as Tanni [Grey Thompson, the former wheelchair racer with 11 gold medals] handed it on to me, I no doubt will hand it on to another athlete.

But it is a privilege to be in that ilk. I have 23 world titles – Wikipedia has got it wrong – and if you add my 14 Paralympic golds I’m not far off that magic four-zero for international gold medals. 

If I start looking at my European and World Cup wins over the past 25 years it’s quite enormous, but I don’t reflect back on my career in one chunk. It’s been two careers really.

I have done four Paralympic cycles as a swimmer and three as a cyclist so it could quite literally be two different people.

Cyc: In Rio you competed in the C5 individual pursuit, C4-5 500m time-trial, C4-5 road race and C5 time-trial. How did you juggle the training?

SS: Those final weeks were intense because I was approaching four very different events within nine days. Still, those four events had been spread out over seven days in London so I had some experience.

But London was just a drive down the motorway – we travelled to Rio with nine bike boxes so the logistical elements were as big as the physiological ones.

I used to split the week up so the different energy systems were targeted on different days. I did complementary training, so I wouldn’t do a power session in the morning and a long ride in the afternoon.

You don’t want to build muscle and then instantly burn it. But it did feel for a while like I was doing the heptathlon of cycling. I thought I’d overcooked myself on a few occasions.

I was doing heat sessions in an altitude chamber – so 32°C, 80% humidity, 13% oxygen – which was pretty hard work. And then I was out on the track in the afternoon.

Cyc: You gave birth to your daughter Louisa in 2013. Was it hard to return to the top level?

SS: I didn’t feel any pressure but I came back because I wanted to. I felt free of that anxiety some people have of thinking, ‘I must do this or people will think badly of me.’

I’d done everything I wanted to do so if it didn’t work, people would say, ‘She tried. She’s a mum now. She has other things to consider.’

Although I was pregnant straight after London the training I did through pregnancy was really beneficial. I was cycling right up to the contractions.

I ended up with an emergency C-section so I had six weeks of enforced rest because of the surgery. I raced for the first time when Louisa was five months old and the time I did would still have won Paralympic gold so I was doing OK. 

I was still six kilos overweight but having had an eating disorder when I was younger meant I knew my weight loss had to be careful and not faddy. I broke the individual pursuit world record [in April 2014] when Louisa was nine months old, and I thought, ‘OK, I’m going quicker now.’

I attempted the Hour record 12 months later [in February 2015, missing out by 563m] when I was still breastfeeding so people thought I was crazy, but my body was strong because I had allowed myself to come back slowly. 

Cyc: How do you mix motherhood and training?

SS: You don’t have kids to leave them at home so we set up our own team [Pearl Izumi Sports Tours International, later reborn as Podium Ambition] because we knew we’d travel with Louisa.

We created an environment where my needs as an athlete were at the fore but her needs were the most important.

I’m a mum 24/7. Logistically it was challenging because we were packing bike kit with toys, nappies and wipes. In 2015 at the Apeldoorn Para-cycling World Championships we loaded the bike things into the car and my dad and [Storey’s husband] Barney drove over and I flew with mum and Louisa.

But knowing my family were there meant I could dip in and out of the bubble. Louisa had an immense ability to distract the entire dining room so even when the girls were on their knees after a race she would make them laugh. She’ll be missed more than me, I think.

Cyc: Were you surprised that you raced faster in Rio than in London? 

SS: I fully expected the girls who were snapping at my heels in London to be that little bit closer, so when I got to Rio and won the pursuit on the first night – and set a time of 3:31, which was 17 seconds, not 15 seconds, quicker than my opponent this time – I was blown away.

I knew the next event, the 500m, was out of my reach with all the sprinters on better form – they messed up their taper at London 2012 and I just capitalised. But I saw it as a stepping stone to the road and it kept me out of mischief.

The individual time-trial was good and the road race I won by three and a half minutes. That was just a case of smashing it as hard as I could.

Cyc: You’ve said the Hour attempt was a one-off. Might you change your mind?

SS: No, I won’t be doing a Steve Redgrave-style comeback. That Hour was a unique opportunity because I was the first woman to attempt it in 13 years.

You need to go to altitude really – that’s where Evelyn [Stevens, who set the current women’s record in Colorado in February 2016] has done hers – and I can’t afford the cost.

I have been there, done that, got the T-shirt and a nice plaque so I’m happy with it. The intensity of the suffering is unique.

I’ve done the end-to-end race over nine days twice and some days you are riding for seven hours in terrible weather. But the intensity of the Hour is hard to replicate. 

Cyc: You won five Paralympic gold medals as a swimmer before switching to cycling. How did that background
help you?

SS: There were lessons I had learned and mistakes people had made with me that I couldn’t let happen again.

When you win five gold medals before your 19th birthday people assume you’re invincible, but I ended up with chronic fatigue syndrome.

There were things I could recognise – failures of the national governing body people who were perhaps not managing me as well as they could have done – that allowed me to be quite firm about the things I was going to do as a cyclist. 

I had an eating disorder as a 15-year-old so there are lots of things I can recognise in other athletes and things I can do to support them. I’d also learned a lot about my body.

I’d trained as a sprinter, doing lots of weights, but cycling allowed me to explore the endurance side. My longest event in the pool was five minutes, whereas now some queen stages on the road are nearly four hours long.

Moving to cycling felt a bit like being at university. You have more freedom and you have to do it yourself because you don’t have a daily appointment at the pool.

Cyc: What are your plans for 2017?

SS: It’s about putting the foundation in place for another successful cycle. This is my eighth cycle so while it would be very easy to rush back into international competition, I wanted to take a longer look at things – not just from a physical perspective but also a mental and financial perspective.

I’ll support local races. The calendar for the British races is out and we’re looking at the National Road Series.

Sadly we’ve lost the Cheshire Classic race – I still have the trophy because I was the last person to win it – but we have the Curlew Cup and a couple of Lincolnshire races, the Tour of the Wolds and the Lincoln Grand Prix.

I’ll also watch races like the Women’s Tour and Ride London, maybe on the media side.

Cyc: How disappointed were you that athletes received only seven weeks’ notice for the Para-cycling World Championships this year?

SS: There’s a huge amount of work to be done. We need to make sure para-cycling has a bigger voice. We’re a parallel sport – well, we’re supposed to be – but we don’t sit closely enough to the road and track in the UCI and I’d like more of an opportunity to discuss integration.

The UCI isn’t keen on integration, but look at para-rowing and para-triathlon. Para-rowing has upped the distance from 1km to 2km so it’s an interesting blueprint we could learn from. I’m hoping we won’t have such a short turnaround of seven weeks for the next World Champs.

Cyc: If you win three gold medals in Tokyo you would overtake swimmer Mike Kenny to become Britain’s most successful Paralympian. How soon will you start thinking of Tokyo?

SS: I’m thinking about it now. But I’m trying to hold myself back to get myself forward. The specifics of which races I will do will become clearer as we get a better idea of the courses and how the road fits into what is happening in the velodrome.

The velodrome is at least a couple of hours from the Olympic village so it’s likely they will need a satellite village down in Izu.

We’ll then have a look at the type of calendar we might create, the stepping stones and all the nice-to-haves and must-haves to arrive in top form. 

I know Mike – we swam in the same place in Salford, but I met him properly for the first time after London. Everybody has been talking about that for a while but I’m just trying to find the best version of me.

Having improved in Rio, my coach will tell you I can improve again, so it’s an exciting opportunity to see what my engine is capable of.

Dame Sarah Storey was speaking at the London Bike Show 2017. Follow Sarah @DameSarahStorey

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