In the end, was there ever any doubt? When it comes to delivering Paralympic titles, few do so with such ruthless efficiency as Sarah Storey, and sure enough she was at it again in the Izu Velodrome.
Her resounding win in the C5 3000m individual pursuit was her 15th Paralympic gold medal and Britain’s first of these Games, forcing her compatriot Crystal Lane-Wright into a creditable silver.
What was more surprising was her reaction. Storey is normally ice cold when it comes to her sport but the 43 year-old revealed her vulnerable side after her latest victory, which takes her to within one gold of swimmer Mike Kenny’s Paralympic British record.
The cause of her emotion was her family – or, rather, the lack of them. Storey had planned to bring her two children – Louisa, 8, and Charlie, 3 – to these Games; she had brought Louisa with her to Rio five years ago, and this was the first time that her husband and former coach Barney had been absent at any of her competitions in the last 15 years as a couple.
When asked how difficult it has been without her family by her side, Storey had to pause, tears welling in her eyes. “It’s hugely difficult,” she sobbed. “It is really, really hard. I FaceTimed them last night. You know they are the biggest motivation. It is harder now because you can’t see them.
“I can’t see them and share it with them and all of the things they put up with. They came into a bubble with me as soon as we came back from Lanzarote [where she had been training] to protect me coming into the team. They do so much to enable me to do this. So, yeah, I am hugely grateful.”
Storey’s anguish at being away from her children was heightened by the knowledge that she will miss Charlie’s first day at pre-school in September.
“You know, your own personal targets are nothing to shy away from,” she added, “but equally you also want to be the best mum in the world and that is why not having them here makes it so hard. I am only an athlete for a few hours a day. You’re a mum 24/7. So that is why leaving them and not having him here is difficult.
“They are just a huge motivation for me. Their reaction, the way they soak up the culture, learning language and trying new foods and all of that. I just try to share with them as much as I can virtually and sending things home. But yes, it’s hard.”
Barney and the children had watched Storey’s early-morning race under the duvet at home. He told Telegraph Sport: “That was so impressive. She never seems to waiver in her drive to go faster. I find it harder to bend down and put my bloody socks on in the morning and she’s smashing world records.”
That was a reference to Storey’s qualifying run for the final, when she broke her own world record by a remarkable four seconds, clocking a time of 3mins 27secs – a portent of what was to come. Lane-Wright, while impressing hugely in reaching the final, never stood a chance in a race that Storey has now won at every Paralympics stretching back to Beijing 2008.
More remarkably, Storey’s qualifying mark would have beaten fellow British cyclist Rebecca Romero and won gold at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the last time the 3,000m pursuit was held at the Games.
“I broke the world record in qualifying in each of the last three Games, so you never assume you are going to do it again,” she said. “And obviously we have seen the first two riders go sub-3:40, which has not happened since I first went sub-3:40 in 2008.
“It is fantastic to see the event getting faster – I just need to keep getting faster as well. I just needed to keep a cool head this morning and realise this was the last piece of that jigsaw puzzle that is race day.”
For all her achievements, pre-race flutters are never far away for the athlete born without a functioning left hand after her arm became entangled in the umbilical cord in the womb.
“There have been nerves for two weeks. Nerves aren’t a bad thing – you just have to channel them and not allow them to control you.”
Storey, whose drive and resilience is legendary – she battled an eating disorder when she was a teenager after her first Games success, as a swimmer in 1992, brought on by bullying from other schoolchildren – saved her very best for the final, passing Lane-Wright with more than 1,000 metres remaining in the race.
For Britain, this was a dream start to the Games – the team’s talisman delivering at the perfect moment, early in the Games, just as Adam Peaty had done in this city in July. For Storey, she now has two more golds in her sights: in the C5 time trial and C4-5 road race. Win those and she will officially become Britain’s greatest ever Paralympian.
“I know I have two more races next week so I need to make sure I preserve my legs and keep on pushing the boundaries,” she added. “I am my own biggest competitor. I never feel like I am that far ahead [of her rivals]. You cannot make those assumptions. It has had to happen on race days. I am just really pleased that has all paid off.”
Three medals in the pool as GB get off to strong start
Molly McElwee in Tokyo
Five years ago, Tully Kearney thought her Paralympic dream was doomed. She had missed London 2012 due to injury, had to relearn to swim when she had an involuntary movement disorder, dystonia, diagnosed. She lost her funding at one point and had to withdraw from the Rio 2016 team due to a progression in her condition.
To her mind, a swimming career was off the cards. But on day one at Tokyo 2020 she finally became a Paralympian and, not only that, won a silver medal in the S5 200m freestyle – securing the third of three medals won by British Paralympic debutants on a successful first night in the pool. It is no wonder she was lost for words.
“I’m a bit speechless at the moment,” Kearney, 24, a seven-time world champion across freestyle and butterfly, said. “There was a question mark over whether I’d ever get to the Paralympic Games. The fact that I’ve been able to race and come away with a medal is just crazy.”
The way the race was going, it could well have been gold too. Kearney built up a two-second lead and was swimming at world record pace coming down the straight, after swimming within the 100m event’s world record pace for the first half of the race. But she tired, and was pipped to the line in the final 10 metres by reigning champion, China’s Zhang Li, who won the race by 0.12seconds.
But the silver medal was far from dimmed in Kearney’s eyes, considering her long and trying path to this moment: “After Rio I thought the Paralympics weren’t going to be possible, I wouldn’t be able to swim anymore. This a massive deal, and all down to the support staff, especially the medical team and my coach. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be at this point. To be honest, it was all down to them, I just swam.
“I’ve been dealing with injuries, I was worried my fitness wouldn’t be good enough swimming 200m. So to go that close to my personal best is pretty impressive and I’ve got to be pleased with that.”
Britain’s Suzanna Hext just missed the podium in fourth, with Italy’s Monica Boggioni taking bronze.
Kearney and Hext were part of a solid start in the pool for ParalympicsGB, adding to Reece Dunn’s silver in the S14 100m butterfly and Toni Shaw’s bronze in the S9 400m freestyle.
Just a fortnight ago, Aberdeen’s Shaw had exam results, university places and a first Paralympic Games to worry about. But the straight-A student need not have worried, as she will head to the University of Stirling next month as a ‘fresher’ with a Paralympic bronze medal around her neck.
The 18-year-old swam a lifetime best time of 4minutes 39.32seconds to make the podium, beaten only by world champion Lakeisha Patterson of Australia who took gold, and Hungary’s Zsofia Konkoly, who made an impressive late surge to win silver.
World record-holder Dunn, 25, followed Shaw’s lead and marginally missed out on gold in the 100m butterfly, taking silver behind Gabriel Bandeira in a tight S14 class race, for athletes with intellectual impairments. Though Dunn had the stronger start, the Brazilian took the lead at the turn, and was racing within touching distance of Dunn’s world record in the final stretch before finishing with a Paralympic record of 54.76seconds. Australia’s Benjamin James Hance took bronze.
“A little disappointed in my finish, I lost it there, but still happy nonetheless,” Dunn said afterwards.
He, like Kearney and Shaw, has a busy rest of the Games, with four more individual events to come. Meanwhile in the women’s equivalent event, British pair Louise Fiddes and Jessica-Jane Applegate came fifth and sixth respectively, and Zara Mullooly finished seventh in the S10 50m freestyle.