Almost peerless as a Paralympian given her longevity, medal-winning tally and ability to cross into able-bodied sport at the highest level, Dame Sarah Storey is the athlete of the decade.
The straight-talking, ultra-competitive Mancunian has come full circle since starting her Paralympic career aged 14 at Barcelona in 1992 as an elite swimmer. Storey, who swam in an arm amputee class, amassed five gold and eight silver medals over three Paralympic Games. Nine years ago, aged 27, she switched to track cycling with the Beijing Games in mind, having “discovered” her cycling ability by chance after a chronic ear problem had forced her to retire from swimming. They say sport can be a “postcode lottery” and Storey took up cycling with the Manchester Velodrome near her home.
By the time she had recovered from the ear infection, she was a world champion para-cyclist, a domination she has maintained at every Games since. In Beijing in 2008, Storey’s time in the 3km race at the Beijing Paralympics, would have earned her seventh place in the women’s Olympic event in the Chinese capital.
Yet as the new decade was ushered in, in London, in 2012, Storey stripped 2.5 seconds from her gold medal-winning 3km pursuit time, which would have placed her fifth at the Olympics. Physically, what holds Storey back from surpassing “able-bodied” cyclists over the sprint distances on the track, is her grip on the handlebars, the part of the race in which riders focus on power from the start.
Effectively with no hand and fingers, Storey can only balance her left arm on the bars, with no grip. Once away, she possesses all the power and speed which make her a world-class athlete, Paralympic or Olympic.
The decade began strongly. In 2010, Storey competed in England’s 20-strong cycling team at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Then, aged 32, she became the second Paralympian to represent England in an able-bodied competition after archer Danielle Brown. While Brown won team gold, Storey finished outside the medal events, but still ranked in the world’s top 10 in the 3km event.
Then, at London 2012, Storey claimed four gold medals at a glorious Games and was made a Dame of the British Empire in the New Year’s Honours list.
In the intervening four years, Storey moved with the times, and in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Storey bagged another three gold medals, taking her to 12 golds overall, passing modern record-setting Paralympians Tanni Grey-Thompson, the wheelchair racer, and Dave Roberts, the swimmer, who had both reached 11 before retiring.
Major changes have taken place, incrementally, throughout Storey’s Paralympic career. Notably the professionalism which now exists within Paralympic sport disciplines, given the parity the athletes now have with their Olympic counterpart.
It has also facilitated a blurring of the edges between disability and able-bodied sport. Storey has been at the forefront of that movement, tirelessly honing her physique to the needs of her sport.
She also prepares meticulously, right down to the timing of having her daughter between Games, and living and breathing cycling alongside her life partner and husband Barney Storey, a former guide for impaired-vision tandem cyclists. They are a team with unshakeable self-belief.
Now a 42-year-old mother of two – Louisa, six, and Charlie, two – Storey intends to continue into the next decade, currently in qualifying for the Tokyo Paralympic Games in 2020.