Hannah Cockroft ponders the question for a split second – just as long as it might typically take to transfer her immense upperbody power through to the wheels of her racing chair. What sacrifices does she have to make to remain at the very top of her sport, I ask. Bang! And she’s off.
“I find the word sacrifice a really hard word to use because it’s not. I’ve just missed my dad’s birthday because we were racing in Switzerland, and I missed my little brother’s 21st-birthday celebrations. It’s hard being away from family at those times. Also, everything happening in Manchester and London while you’re away… that’s hard. You want to be at home to make sure everyone you love is OK. But these are not sacrifices. OK, I miss a party, I miss a piece of cake, I miss a little drink, but I get to sit on the podium and sing my national anthem and represent my country. At 24 years of age, what would you prefer to do? Me? That’s my choice. I would prefer to go and represent my country. I can go to all the birthdays when I’ve retired.”
A 141-word evocation of her approach to life and sport that’s powerfully and elegantly delivered in the time it takes her to go from starting gun to finish line in the 100m – one of three events she’ll compete in this week in London. For Cockroft, as for many of the 51-strong track and field British Athletics Para team, the memory of London 2012 remains as vivid today as it was five years ago. Just before our interview in the Olympic stadium, now used by West Ham United football club, she wheeled herself into the arena to reconnect with some of those memories.
“I’ve been out and sat on the pitch where the 100m start line would have been and you get tears in your eyes thinking about it because you can still hear the noise and the ground shaking. It was the most phenomenal time. I feel lucky and excited: hopefully we’ll have the chance to re-create that and get some new memories.”
Cockroft, who still lives at home in her native Halifax with parents Graham and Rachel, has won 12 world and Paralympic gold medals since her first senior championship in 2011. Her three T34 events in London are over the same 100m, 400m and 800m distances at which she won gold in the 2015 world championships in Doha.
How does she prepare for both sprint and endurance events? “In the winter it’s about a lot of miles and heavy weights, so now we concentrate on the sprints, turning power into speed. I don’t know how it works. I leave it to my coach and trust she makes me do the right things.”
The “right things” include a relentless dedication to training and winning that shapes and enforces a level of self-belief that falls comfortably on the acceptable side of arrogance.
“For so long I have had comments like, ‘It’s so easy, you have no competition and there’s no challenge there’, but actually there’s no challenge there because I put the work in. I know how the other girls train and 80 per cent of them do not train anywhere near as hard as I do. I know that’s a bold statement, but I know it’s true because I’ve seen it.”
You notice two things about Cockroft when she talks. First, she’s savvy way beyond her years – can she only be 24? Secondly, how could it be that her parents were told after her birth that she might not live beyond her teens, and if she did it would be a life lived without achievement?
Within 48 hours of being born she’d suffered two cardiac arrests that damaged parts of her brain, leaving her with weak hips and deformed legs and feet. The fact she can walk short distances – albeit very slowly and with great awkwardness – has led to criticism that she’s wrongly classified; essentially that she isn’t disabled enough to compete in a category designed for those with cerebral palsy. If that criticism hurts, it doesn’t show, except perhaps to strengthen her resolve to secure her place as Britain’s greatest ever Para athlete.
“I don’t expect everyone to love me any more. If you don’t like me, that’s totally fine. I’m OK with that. I’ve just learnt how to deal with it.”
There is, of course, no shortage of love from family and friends, all of whom will be cheering her on when her races start with the T34 100m on Friday. Before racing she’ll embrace superstition with lucky underwear and socks, a bowl of jelly and nails painted to match her racing colours. Then it’s tunnel-vision focus.
“I got beaten for the first time three weeks before I went to the world championships in 2015 and it absolutely destroyed me – I didn’t know how to handle it. That was my wake-up call.” Now, nothing is left to chance.
“I’m naturally quite a loud and vibrant person and am always smiling, but when I’m on that start line I’m focusing. My mum says that then I’m not her Hannah, I’m Hurricane Hannah.” Let’s hope that the Hurricane blows away the competition yet again.
World Para Athletics Championships is on from Friday 14 at 7.30pm on Channel 4 and 7pm on Radio 5 Live
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