Reigning World and Paralympic Champion Hannah Cockroft MBE is one of the UK’s best known para-athletes with a dizzying number of titles to her name and a reputation as a tough competitor. Winning her 7th Gold Paralympic title at this year’s Toyko Olympics, we find out from Hannah how her incredible ascent into sporting history first started.
Born in Yorkshire in 1992, complications at birth and two cardiac arrests led to permanent damage of Hannah’s brain, resulting in mobility problems, weak hips and deformed feet and legs. She attended a mainstream school but wasn’t allowed to do sport there, “As the only disabled child in an able-bodied world I just accepted it”. Instead, with the characteristic determination which has led to her Hurricane Hannah nickname, she threw herself into the arts, played in the orchestra and sang in the choir. Then, aged 12, Cockroft discovered parasports and tried everything she was offered. Rugby, swimming, tennis and discus. Aged 15 she discovered wheelchair racing, and it clicked. “Competing independently is just my thing – I guess I like being in the limelight. Something I often think about when I’m outside in the freezing cold and could be in a sports hall, or even in sunny Spain where the wheelchair tennis team train!”
Despite being told she would never live independently, Cockroft’s parents were determined to let her take every opportunity and, crucially, make mistakes. “The biggest moments in your life are when things go wrong.” She acknowledges it must have been hard for them to see her get hurt, but,“if you wrap kids in cotton wool they can’t learn”. Cockroft sees her parents as the driving force, taking her to different clubs for training and competitions. She has two brothers, one older and one younger, and says they joke that the trophy cabinet installed by their mother in the hall is a shrine: “Where are the pictures of us?!”
Asked if she always had her eye on competing at an international level Cockroft says she never gave a second thought to where it might lead. It was a case of one race leading to another as a junior competitor, because how many people think that their hobby – and in her case, route to independence – will grow into a job? Aged 19 Cockroft was competing at senior level and found herself winning her first World Championships in New Zealand. Cockroft’s dedicated parents and two brothers were there to support, and it was “a massive moment”.
What about the inevitable sacrifices? Cockroft smiles and says that when you are abroad competing you don’t get to see much outside the track but there’s this feeling from friends that you’re on holiday. You don’t get to sit on the beach filling yourself with ice cream, but competing, recovering, and eating the right things. What is a break is being away from the public appearances that are part of the job and the relentless training. She admits to not being great at nutrition, but knows that a massive piece of cake isn’t worth missing a gold medal for. “It’s a choice. You train on Christmas Day, miss family and friends when you’re abroad, and see parties on social media that you wish you’d been able to go to. But how many people get to represent their country?”
“It’s a choice. You train on Christmas Day, miss family and friends when you’re abroad, and see parties on social media that you wish you’d been able to go to. But how many people get to represent their country?”
At this stage of her career Cockroft is starting to think about her legacy, having received so much wisdom from those she has followed. When she met her idol, 14-time Paralympic gold medallist Chantal Petitclerc, she was lost for words – and was pretty speechless when she met David Beckham too. Now it’s younger athletes telling her that she is the reason they started sport. As someone in the public eye she feels she has a responsibility to help grow her sport. She is the only Paralympian to be nominated for BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year outside a Paralympic year – “It’s every athlete’s dream to be up there making history. My dad watches the show religiously and it was amazing to be able to get him a ticket”. Being awarded an MBE was a “massive honour, but humbling and strange. I was in the line with Britain’s most injured Afghan war veteran, Lance Bombadier Ben Parkinson. He lost both legs, has severe brain damage and is the nicest guy. I just go out and do something I love. He put his life on the line and almost got killed.”
Her advice for any aspiring athlete is not to hook your dreams on becoming a professional: “it’s ruthless and competitive, never something you can do on the side, and you have to be the best of the best. It takes hard work”.
Hannah will be competing in the T34 800 Metres on 4th September
Article taken from the Spring 20 edition of Noticed Magazine