Attempting to put a marathon athletic career into context can seem reductive. It is 29 years since Dame Sarah Storey won the first Paralympic gold medal of the series which reached a climactic point on Thursday morning, when her victory in Tokyo’s rain-soaked C4-5 road race pushed her gold medal tally to 17, making her the most crowned Paralympic athlete in British sporting history. That’s five more golds than the golden couple of British Olympic cycling, Jason and Laura Kenny.
When Storey tackled her first Paralympics aged 14, as a swimmer in Barcelona, cycling was a Cinderella sport. Chris Boardman’s gold medal in that Games was a glorious aberration, and the “medal factory” in Manchester – which now seems as if it has been there for ever – was not even a gleam in the eye of its founder, Boardman’s then-coach Peter Keen; it began life five years later. Storey’s Paralympic debut is that long ago that when she first pulled on GB kit, Lance Armstrong was not even a professional cyclist, Miguel Indurain was in his prime, Kelloggs and the Milk Marketing Board still sponsored cycling Tours of Britain, and in the political world, Tony Blair as prime minister was a remote prospect.
The historical references mask a serious point. The drive, patience and stamina needed for an athlete in any sport to achieve success at the highest level over such a duration is truly remarkable, and those qualities are needed in their support staff as well, at which point it’s worth remembering Storey’s husband Barney, a former Paralympic tandem pilot, and their two children Louisa and Charlie, eight and three years old respectively.
Storey has said in the past that returning to the highest level after the birth of their children ranks as her greatest achievement, but it is part of a bigger picture. She and Barney have run their own team, Storey Racing, since 2017, beginning as a way of enabling her to juggle competing and motherhood, and currently with a focus on mentoring younger riders.
In cycling, women seem to have careers at the highest level which last this long more often than men manage it. Two two-wheeled parallels spring to mind: the Yorkshire time triallist Beryl Burton, who dominated the sport in Britain for over 25 years, although she never had the opportunity to race at the Olympics and France’s Jeannie Longo, who was a contender at the Los Angeles Olympic road race in 1984, and was deeply annoyed to miss out on selection for London 28 years later.
Such a career calls for extraordinary endurance in other spheres as well. Storey began life by having to contend with a disabled left hand, caused by its being entangled in the umbilical cord when she was in the womb. “I just carried on as normal,” she said in a 2010 interview, describing how she played cricket and netball, learning to catch with one hand rather than two.
In 1996, four years after her Barcelona achievements, she was turned away from a Leeds swimming pool, by a coach who said he “didn’t work with disabled swimmers”. She has also overcome chronic fatigue that led to the ear infections that eventually pushed her from swimming into cycling, bullying at school, an eating disorder in her teens, and the consequences of an emergency caesarean at the birth of her daughter in 2013. Nine months after that, she broke a pursuit world record, and another three months later, while still breastfeeding Louisa, she took on one of cycling’s ultimate challenges, the Hour record, falling short of the able-bodied distance by 563 metres.
That Hour record underlined something else which sets Storey apart: while her Paralympic and world championship medals – she has 29 world titles at swimming and cycling – have all come in Paralympic sport, the terms “Paralympic” and “able-bodied” seem almost irrelevant in her case, such is her ability: she has taken four national track titles at pursuit, individual and team, and points race against all comers. She is also the last rider to win one of the toughest women’s road races on the British calendar, the Cheshire Classic, back in 2015.
In 2010, she became the first Paralympic cyclist to compete for England at the Commonwealth Games , taking sixth in the individual pursuit, while in 2011, she raced on the team pursuit squad for Great Britain, winning World Cups in Manchester, and Cali, Colombia, and then narrowly missing out on a slot for the London Olympics. September 2021 may seem like the climax of a unique career, but there are indications that she may carry on to an eighth Paralympics in Paris in 2024.