Paralympic cycling star Dame Sarah Storey fought back tears as she described the difficulty of competing at Tokyo without the support of her husband and two young children, after smashing her own world record in her quest to become Great Britain’s most successful Paralympian.
In a repeat of the Rio 2016 final, Storey, who began her illustrious career as a Paralympic athlete as a swimmer, once more got the better of compatriot Crystal Lane-Wright by shaving four seconds of her own record in qualifying, powering over the line in 3:27.057.
By winning her country’s first gold of the Games, the 43-year-old took her total haul to 15 golds – one short of 1970s and 1980s British swimmer Mike Kenny’s record – and a phenomenal 26 medals overall, making her already Great Britain’s most decorated female Paralympian.
However, Storey has been competing in Japan without the support bubble of husband and fellow track cyclist Barney, eight-year-old daughter Louisa – who travelled to Rio five years ago – and three-year-old son Charlie.
After she secured another spot at the top of the podium on Wednesday, Storey waved to her family at home – and was saddened they were unable to witness her latest triumph.
‘Being in an empty stadium we have to be prepared to race like that, but once you finish racing that’s when it hits you, literally the stands are empty,’ she said. ‘Racing in a pandemic is hard. But it’s when you want to celebrate with people you realise you don’t have your friends and family here.
‘We can celebrate with the team, which is obviously amazing, but there is a bigger team behind the team you see here today and now more than ever they’re missed.’
During the Covid pandemic, Storey was juggling the challenges of home schooling Louisa and Charlie while trying to maintain her own elite performance level as a cyclist.
‘We did a lot of baking,’ she previously revealed. ‘It works for maths, science and tech and all sorts of different parts of the school curriculum so it was ideal for us.’
Husband Barney, a tandem pilot and coach who is a key part of Team Sarah, was forced to watch the world record run on his phone in bed before watching his wife claim her 15th gold.
When asked by Channel 4 whether he was shocked Storey smashed her world record by four seconds, Barney said: ‘No – we knew what she had been doing in training and with improvements in handlebars and so on we had a good idea. The bottom line is if you work really hard and get the package of details right then that’s the way to get better.’
Paralympic cycling star Dame Sarah Storey fought back tears as she described the difficulty of competing at Tokyo without the support of her husband and two young children
Great Britain’s Dame Sarah Storey celebrates winning Gold in the Women’s C5 3000m Individual Pursuit during the Track Cycling at the Izu Velodrome on day one of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games
By winning her country’s first gold of the Games, the 43-year-old took her total haul to 15 Paralympic golds – one short of swimmer Mike Kenny’s British record – and a phenomenal 26 medals overall, making her already Great Britain’s most decorated female Paralympian
Great Britain’s Sarah Storey celebrates with the gold medal after the Women’s C5 3000m Individual Pursuit Gold Final at the Izu Velodrome on day one of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games
Great Britain’s Dame Sarah Storey wins Gold ahead of Crystal Lane-Wright (right) who takes Silver in the Women’s C5 3000m Individual Pursuit during the Track Cycling at the Izu Velodrome
Storey with her daughter Louisa and son Charlie in cycling gear before she flew to Japan for the Tokyo Paralympic Games
Storey with her husband and fellow track cyclist Barney, Louisa and three-year-old son Charlie
He added: ‘The qualification was fairly early in the morning, at quarter to four I think in the end, so I was literally just sat watching it on my phone in bed, and then attempted to go back to sleep before the final which failed miserably.
‘I got Louisa up to watch the final and both sets of grandparents have come round as well. It was brilliant just to have the usual family crew watching the event and it is just a shame we’re so many thousands of miles away.’
Storey said: ‘It is fantastic to see the event getting faster. I just need to keep getting faster as well. Being able to do that. I needed to keep a cool head this morning and realise this was the last piece of that jigsaw puzzle that is race day.
‘But obviously there are two more races next week so I need to make sure I preserve my legs and keep on pushing the boundaries that I keep on setting for myself. I am just really pleased given myself that target has paid off and it is not just a little bit under 3:30 either.
‘It is a low 3:27. I am over the moon.’
She added: ‘There have been nerves for two weeks. Nerves aren’t a bad thing. You have to channel those nerves.
‘We have been putting in a lot of resources into making sure my bike was absolutely spot on and everything was going to come together. Of course, there are nerves but that is something you have to learn to thrive on.’
Storey will have a chance to surpass Kenny next week when she attempts to defend her C5 time trial and C4-5 road race crowns.
‘For me as an individual, I’ve won a medal at every single Games I’ve been to and this is my fourth time winning the individual pursuit in a row,’ she told Channel 4.
‘I broke the world record in Beijing, in London, in Rio, this morning, so for me it’s been quite overwhelming to try and keep backing that up and keep pushing on the pedals to go faster and faster. I never expected to go as quick as I did this morning but I’m so glad that I did.’
Storey’s mantra that ensuring the children are happy and settled makes a mother’s training more achievable goes back to when the children were new-born. The Olympic rower Helen Glover described before the Olympics how it was Storey she turned to for advice on these matters.
But it’s needed more than baking sessions to clear the obstacles to success at Tokyo which these past 18 months have posed.
There was a total loss of race impetus, with no competitions for an entire year after the UCI Para-cycling international Yorkshire in September 2019.
Barney, Louisa and Charlie speaking on BBC Breakfast this morning after Storey smashed her own world record
Storey pictured with her family hiking during lockdown. In lockdown, Storey was juggling the challenges of home schooling her children Louisa and Charlie while trying to maintain her own elite performance level as a cyclist
Storey with Louisa with her medal during the Women’s Time Trial C5, 2016 Rio Paralympics at Cycling Road, Rio de Janeiro
Dame Sarah Storey of the Great Britain Cycling Team celebrates with her daughter Louisa after winning the Women’s C-5 500m TT during day one of the UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships on March 26, 2015 in Apeldoorn, Netherlands
It has been quite a Storey for Paralympics GB’s golden girl Dame Sarah!
Storey reacts after winning gold at Tokyo
Twenty-nine years after first topping the podium at the Paralympics, Dame Sarah Storey is still at it as she closes in on history.
Storey looks on course to become Great Britain’s most successful Paralympian after winning her 15th gold medal – and 26th overall – by retaining her C5 3000m individual pursuit title in Tokyo.
She did it in style, beating her own world record before getting the better of compatriot Crystal Lane-Wright in the final.
The 43-year-old has two more events to compete in as she tries to overhaul Mike Kenny’s British record of 16 golds.
Storey’s achievements, which began way back as a 14-year-old in 1992 at the Barcelona Games where she claimed two golds, three silvers and a bronze in the pool, are even more remarkable considering she has dominated the world in two sports.
She had won 16 Paralympic medals as a swimmer before an ear infection led to her switching disciplines – and becoming even more successful on the bike.
Back in 2005, Storey was unable to take to the pool due to a persistent ear problem and instead rode a bike to keep fit. In less than a year she broke the world record for the para-cycling three-kilometres individual pursuit and the rest is history. Storey was born in Eccles, Manchester, in 1977 with a partly formed left hand.
At the age of four she took to the pool and, after watching 15-year-old Sarah Hardcastle win silver and bronze at the the Olympics two years later in Los Angeles, had her eye on glory.
Storey reacts after winning gold in the women’s C5 3000m individual pursuit cycling event at Tokyo
She did not know the Paralympics existed until 1990 but just two years later she was competing – and winning – in the pool.
Two golds, three silvers and a bronze were an incredible return as she became Britain’s youngest Paralympic gold medallist – a record which lasted until Ellie Simmonds won in Beijing 16 years later.
Three more golds followed in Atlanta in 1996, while the Sydney and Athens Games returned five more medals before the ear infection changed the course of her career – and the record books.
Her first international cycling competition was the 2005 European Championships. She won three gold medals. More success followed in the 2007 World Championships.
She returned to the Paralympics for a fifth time in 2008 and promptly added two gold medals to her collection. Her time in the individual pursuit would have seen her finish eighth in the able-bodied event.
Storey regularly rode able-bodied events, winning the individual pursuit titles at the British Cycling Championships in 2008 and 2009 before competing for England at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, where she finished sixth in the women’s individual pursuit, ahead of Laura Trott.
She had hopes of making the team pursuit squad for the 2012 Olympics. Although she was part of the successful team at the 2011 World Cup event in Cali, Colombia, she missed out on selection for London, with Joanna Rowsell, Dani King and Trott going on to win gold.
There was no stopping her at the London Paralympics, though. She won two golds on the road – the time-trial and the road race – and added two more on the track in the individual pursuit and time trial, while husband Barney piloted Neil Fachie to gold in the men’s 1km time-trial.
After London, the Storeys had a baby but Sarah was soon back on the bike. More world titles followed in 2014, while the following year she was 563 metres short of breaking the women’s able-bodied UCI hour record.
Three more golds followed in Rio and, following the birth of her second child three years ago, there were doubts whether she would continue competing.
But she had history in her sights and few will bet against her achieving it.
Storey even started competing in cycling’s Esports world championships in an attempt to find the competitive edge again.
The subject seems like the chance for a little sense of fun to enter this extremely serious conversation, though that never materialises. This was clearly not cycling’s equivalent of Ben Stokes and Johnny Herbert battling it out in virtual F1 cars.
‘I needed to keep the race impetus going,’ she says. ‘Races are such an important part of my programme. But there’d been no stage races. No travel abroad. It’s good to have other people attacking when you’re not expecting it and to have to respond to that in Esports brings a different level in your physiology.’
Next week, she will look to defend her time trial and road race titles.
Storey’s equivalent was the turbo trainer machine she had at her home in Disley, on the edge of the Peak District. ‘I’d either use the once-a-day exercise allowance to do a training ride or I’d train on the turbo and use that exercise slot to take the kids for a walk,’ she says.
Barney, a three-times Olympic gold medallist as the sighted pilot for blind or partially sighted cyclists, is a constant reference point in our talk over Zoom.
‘He did so much of the home schooling,’ she relates.
As the Paras neared, so the chance for competitive cycling started to pick up. Some athletes would not welcome their sport’s world championships, two months out from the Games.
But the Para-cycling worlds at Estoril, on Portugal’s Algarve in June, provided a proving ground. Storey won the C5 class 25.2km time trial on the former F1 circuit there, as well as the 67.2km road race.
That event came a month after it emerged she had received a retrospective Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) following an adverse finding for levels of the asthma drug salbutamol in a urine sample at London 2012.
Storey insists that that she was diagnosed with asthma as a child. She had ‘breathing difficulties’ immediately after winning gold in the individual pursuit, requiring the use of the inhaler.
There is disagreement among former British Cycling doctors over who applied for that exemption. Dr Richard Freeman has said Professor Steve Peters, then British Cycling’s head of medicine, asked him to fill in some forms relating to the application. Peters denies this. Greater clarity would certainly have helped clear up this controversy.
Since Estoril, Storey’s training routine has taken her to Lanzarote, which offered unexpectedly good acclimatisation for the heat and humidity of Tokyo during her three-week preparation camp.
‘There were training days of 45 degrees,’ Storey says. ‘It provided me with a very good environment. I also lived without air conditioning out there. I went to accommodation that didn’t have the choice because if you’ve got the choice you or someone else will flick it on.’
Now back in the UK, she is going out on training runs with multiple layers of clothing. ‘It’s been quite a balancing act to make sure we get all the training that we have to do,’ she says.
She was engrossed by the Olympic cycling events concluding at the Fuji International Speedway track at Izu, where she will compete.
‘We were looking at gradients of the hills and the different layout of the track and how wide it is,’ she says. ‘We were analysing how other riders were riding, the speed of climb, the gearing they were using. Anything we could to get an idea of how to pitch and pace things.’
The chance to make history is not a part of her thought process, Storey insists. ‘The medals aren’t lined up in front of you before you leave the apartment so it’s not something you get reminded of visually,’ she says.
‘I’ve got 25 Paralympic medals that I’m going to be leaving here in the UK. To be able to go there and return with something to add to that would be amazing.’
For just a few more days, though, her training companions will be the ones who were with her throughout the foothills of this Paralympic preparation. The children.
‘They’ve been coming out to meet me with Barney, for the final couple of kilometres of my training runs,’ she says. ‘We’d just ride home together, with them on the kids’ bikes they just rock around on. Just the four us.’
British Cycling chief executive Brian Facer marvelled at Storey’s latest accomplishment, calling her ‘superhuman’.
He said: ‘To have had the mindset, the ability and the body to be able to go on and do this, when others could give up and retire easily sooner than this, is just phenomenal.
‘It’s really hard to put into words and it’s really hard to put into words what it means to the paracycling community. It shows us all that if we go on and work hard then we can achieve great things in our own lives.
‘Dame Sarah Storey is an inspiration and if it encourages more people to get on a bike and a smile on their face then that’s got to be a good thing. She’s done that for a number of years now.’
Storey, born without a functioning left hand after her arm became entangled in the umbilical cord in the womb, has long been regarded as someone who breaks down barriers and shifts perceptions for disabled people.
Speaking at an event led by the National Lottery, which supports British Cycling through funding and a host of community programmes to get more people active, Facer added: ‘She’s setting the standard for us all to follow.
‘In terms of the dedication, the mindset and the training she puts in, the family life she has with her children and all that sort of stuff as well, what an inspiration to us all.’
Jon-Allan Butterworth, who gold at Rio 2016 in the C1-5 mixed team sprint to go with three silvers at London 2012, applauded his former ParalympicsGB team-mate for continuing to find and then reach new goals.
He said: ‘It just takes a special kind of person to keep wanting to do that and put yourself through it. Knowing how hard it was to win that gold, every single gold is exactly the same challenge and just as hard.
‘I can’t imagine what she’s done, to keep the motivation alive and that fire burning. People do expect her to just win. It’s almost like she just turns up but she’s out on the bike six days a week, she trains really hard.
‘She makes it look so easy that it takes away a little bit of what she’s achieving continuously.’
Storey has signalled her intentions to still be competing at Paris 2024 and Butterworth, who retired from the British cycling team in December last year, does not see an end point.
He added: ‘For her to keep going, I don’t know how she does it. I can’t see her retiring and I definitely didn’t think after Rio that she’d still be going and still be as strong.
Storey poses with her daughter Louisa after she receives her Gold medal for the WC5 Time Trial during the Time Trials on Day 2 of the UCI Para-Cycling Road World Championship on July 30, 2015 in Lucerne, Switzerland
‘We did a lot of baking,’ she relates. ‘It works for maths, science and tech and all sorts of different parts of the school curriculum so it was ideal for us’
Storey became the first woman to smash through the three-and-a-half minute barrier
‘There’s got to be a time where she retires soon, you’ve got to expect that, surely. But she’ll be going to Paris and beyond. That’s what she loves to do.’
On Wednesday, Storey reeled in New Zealander Nicole Murray after two and a half minutes in the qualifying run – though that opponent was also operating at a high level, qualifying for the bronze medal race with her time.
Elsewhere, later that day Great Britain won silver in the pool as Reece Dunn finished second in the Men’s S14 100m Butterfly final. The world-record holder powered his way into the final, qualifying quickest from the morning’s heats in 55.99 secs – in what was a new Paralympic record.
But despite going even faster in the final, completing the race in 55.14 secs, it was only good enough for silver and to deny the 25-year-old his first Paralympic title.
Brazilian Gabriel Bandiera took the gold medal with a new Paralympic record time of 54.76 secs, with Dunn finishing second, and the bronze medal going to Benjamin Hance of Australia.
Despite never threatening gold, Lane-Wright was satisfied with her day’s work. ‘As much as I’m up against Sarah, it’s me versus me all the time,’ she told Channel 4.
‘To get such a big PB this morning, to me that’s my gold medal. I can only control what I can do, so I am so pleased for today. If there’s one person that watches this and thinks, ‘I can do it’ and I inspire them, that’s more than any medal, any race I have ever done.
‘Paralympic sport is still really in its infancy and it’s a hard job, but it’s the best job I’ve ever had and I absolutely love it, so please be inspired.’
Visually impaired rider Steve Bate secured GB’s third track cycling medal of the day but had to settle for silver following another irresistible performance from Dutchman Tristan Bangma.
Bangma and pilot Patrick Bos set a new world record in qualifying, becoming the first pair to go under four minutes in the event, finishing in 3:59.470.
Their stunning form continued in the final as Bate was unable to defend the title he won in Brazil after he and pilot Adam Duggleby were powerless to being caught.