Plus: Lauren Steadman overcomes suspected broken toe to claim first Paralympic title plus battling silver for Will Bayley and rowing success
Hannah Cockroft is as ebullient as they come, a zany bundle of restless Yorkshire energy. But even she acknowledged concern that the loudest accompaniment to her crowning moment as a Paralympic athlete, a sixth gold medal in a world-record time, was the buzzing chirp of Tokyo’s cicadas. At the Olympics, the absence of crowds brought melancholy. For Paralympic stars, though, there is mounting alarm that the most precious showcase of their lives is being lost.
“It does worry me,” said Cockroft, after a signature burst of late acceleration brought her a third successive T34 100 metres title, at the expense of British rival Kare Adenegan. “Every four years, the Paralympics are our time to get people interested, and that opportunity has been taken away from us. It’s very quiet out there. It felt like a shock when we were on the start line and there was no noise. This is a beautiful stadium, in a beautiful country, with incredible volunteers. It makes me very sad that I’m one of the few people who has ever seen it. We have to hope that this is not a loss of momentum for the Paralympic Games.”
To date, Cockroft’s career on this stage has been framed only by the acclaim of full houses. At London 2012, she surged to instant celebrity, becoming the poster-girl of the greatest advert for disability sport in living memory. In Rio, where crowd numbers at times surpassed those for the Olympics, triple gold propelled her to such recognition that she secured a presenting job on Countryfile. But in Tokyo, she has a distressing glimpse of how life once was for Paralympians, when empty venues reinforced a sense that they were mere afterthoughts.
It was never meant to be this way, of course: initial lotteries in 2019 suggested a demand in Japan for over three million tickets. But the decision to ban public attendance amid rising Covid rates threatens to derail a change in a nation with historically conservative views on disability. Cockroft has been an impassioned advocate for her sport, arguing that the Paralympics were sidelined in discussions about Tokyo 2020’s 12-month postponement, and she gave little sign of settling for second-class treatment.
“It’s a fight where we’re just going to have to keep going,” she said. “In Britain, we’re lucky that we’re one of the only countries in the world where we get equal funding to the Olympic athletes. Some Paralympians have personal sponsors, and I’m fortunate to be one of them. But we don’t fill stadiums regularly, unfortunately. We just have to keep striving towards that. We need to push the message that we race year in, year out, that people don’t have to wait for the Paralympics.”
Cockroft illustrated here that she had lost none of her gift for peaking under maximum pressure. After Adenegan launched off the start ahead of her, the defending champion retained composure, generating extraordinary power to sweep to victory in 16.49sec. “I honestly didn’t know that time was within me,” she reflected. “There was definite panic. When Kare shot out, I thought, ‘I haven’t got enough time. I need 120 metres.’ You just need to get your head down, get your arms moving.” She could not resist checking the device on her wheelchair showing her top speed. “19.1mph. There you go: new top speed in the 100m. You’re welcome.”
Even the stadium announcer conceded that he had lost count of the world records in Cockroft’s collection. After all, this is a young woman so dominant on the track that in 2010, she broke seven records within a week of sitting her A-levels. Given how her life started, her accomplishments are astonishing. Cockroft suffered two cardiac arrests at birth, damaging two areas of her brain, while leaving her with weak hips, underdeveloped feet and legs, as well as problems with her mobility and balance. Doctors had warned her parents of a high likelihood that she would not live beyond her teenage years.
Today, approaching her 30th birthday, she continues to rewrite the standards for her sport. For all that she relishes winning by yawning margins, this was a final to suggest she draws the best out of herself under close competition. “Kare pulled a good time out of me,” she said. “It has always been hiding, it has just taken a few years to show its face. As I came off, somebody said to me, ‘Sub-16 is in you.’ If you’d said that to me last year, I wouldn’t have believed you. I’ve been trying to go sub-17 for seven years, so to be flying through the 16s is exciting but scary, because I don’t know where I’m going to go next.”
Adenegan, her nearest challenger and a history student at Warwick University, is among the few convinced she is not unbeatable. But Cockroft’s distinctions are establishing her in rare company. She has the chance in Tokyo to defend her title over 800m, taking her one step closer to the 11 golds of Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, still the record for a British wheelchair racer. “I’m 29, I don’t know if I can do another three Games,” she smiled. “But it’s there, in the distance. This sport has changed so much since Tanni. We just need to keep bringing more girls into the sport. And if I have to keep beating them, awesome.”
‘Massive redemption’ for Steadman with para-triathlon gold but bittersweet for Cashmore with bronze
by Molly McElwee in Tokyo
British triathlete Lauren Steadman came into the Paralympics with one thing on her mind – redemption. Only gold would do, after falling just short with a silver medal in Rio, so not even a suspected broken toe picked up during the race on Sunday could stop her from storming to her first Paralympic title.
After a disappointing first day of action on Saturday with two fourth places and a withdrawal, the British squad won three medals on the final day of competition, led by Steadman’s gold in the PTS5 women’s race.
Steadman, 28, who was born without her right arm below the elbow joint, emerged from the swim in third place, before overtaking team-mate Claire Cashmore in the transition and Rio gold medallist Grace Norman of the USA midway through the cycle.
But after finishing that gruelling 20km section, she tripped and dropped her bike twice during the transition to the run, it landing directly on her left foot. Watching the 28-year-old’s pace throughout the final 5km run, you would never have suspected she was struggling. But after crossing the finish line 41 seconds clear of Norman in silver, she was hobbling and the extent of her pain was clear.
“I think I might have broken my toe, to put weight on it really hurts,” she said. “I don’t know what happened, hopefully it’s just a bruise, but no pain, no gain.” The Peterborough-born athlete, who appeared on Strictly Come Dancing and SAS Who Dares Wins in the interim since her 2016 silver, said all of those so-called “distractions” helped her succeed.
“Doing those things matured me and made me a better athlete,” she said. “Doing Strictly I did lose some power on the bike but it made me quicker on my feet, my running improved. With Celebrity SAS you go to a dark place and you have to go to a dark place in a triathlon too. I used that as a boot camp for training that year.
“[The gold] is massive redemption. I was devastated after Rio, I was really destroyed, I didn’t go anywhere near my bike, my shoes or my swimsuit for seven months. My coach told me: ‘You’re not done yet and keeping going’. I put all my faith in him and he got me there.”
Meanwhile Cashmore’s race ended in tears, despite securing a bronze medal, after a bike infraction forced her to serve a 30-second penalty – which she had to do in two parts due to a refereeing error. “It was a bit rubbish for me,” Cashmore said through tears, after finishing nearly three minutes behind Steadman. “A bit of confusion with the penalty, I thought they always give you a warning and they didn’t. They made me stop, but didn’t do the right time and made me stop a second time which is just annoying – you got that wrong not me.
“By that point I was way back and it’s kind of trying to chase them down. I felt really good today. And fricking worked hard this year. But hey, it’s a bronze medal and so I can’t be disappointed – but I am.”
The five-time Paralympian and former swimmer was competing in triathlon for the first time in Tokyo, and her misfortune followed her partner Dave Ellis’s own nightmare race on Saturday. During the world champion’s PTVI triathlon, a mechanical error on the tandem bike meant he and guide Luke Pollard could not finish. “He’s worked so hard and he deserves that gold medal more than anyone, but he’ll be back,” Cashmore said. “I had my cry yesterday but I had to selfishly focus on my own race. He put on a brave face for me, that’s his true spirit. He said ‘why are you crying over me, focus on your own performance’. It was just bad luck.”
Meanwhile George Peasgood began his Tokyo 2020 with a silver medal in the PTS5 men’s race, the first of three events he will compete in over the next six days as he aims to win medals across two sports.
He pulled away in the swim, and continued to hold his lead in the cycle, but the crucial point of his race was always going to be the run. As one of the only athletes in his classification with a below the knee impairment, rather than a below the elbow impairment, the run is when he is most vulnerable to being overtaken. And so it was, the 47-second lead he took into the run from the cycle not enough to hold off reigning Paralympic champion Martin Schulz.
A silver medal sets Peasgood, 25, up nicely for a busy next few days in the road cycling, as he prepares to double up. It was also a vast improvement on 25-year-old Peasgood’s seventh place in Rio, and far more than he could have hoped considering his recent injuries. “There were 100% moments when I thought I wouldn’t be here,” Peasgood said. “[In May] I had a bone stress in my ankle. I had six weeks without any running. There have been times when I’ve been pretty bad physically and mentally. But it’s one day, one race. In the Olympics, as soon as I saw those medals [for Team GB’s Georgia Taylor-Brown and Alex Yee] I knew it was possible for me.”
‘I really didn’t want to be on this planet’: Rower Rowles completes golden turnaround alongside Whiteley
By Molly McElwee in Tokyo
As Lauren Rowles and Laurence Whiteley left their medal ceremony, gold medals around their necks, the volunteers at the Sea Forest Waterway had gathered on the pontoon. Celebrating Whiteley’s 30th birthday, on the same day the British rowing pair became double Paralympic champions, the volunteers were all singing “Happy Birthday” at the top of their lungs.
It was a moment of joy and togetherness that Rowles could never have imagined in her darkest moments. Just a few years ago, not only was she doubting herself as a rower, but also her place in the world at all. “I’ve doubted even my ability to be alive at this stage,” an emotional Rowles said after their win. “In 2017, after we won gold [in Rio], I wasn’t in a good place with my life and I really didn’t want to be on this planet. I’d completely disconnected, I think the pressures of performance sport just took me away from what was important in life – and that was being happy.”
Gliding over the finish line, their triumph in the PR2 mixed double sculls sealed, Rowles and Whiteley could not stop the tears from flowing. But now they were happy tears. For both Rowles and Whiteley, it has taken a lot to get back to the top of the podium and this mental space, both taking breaks to focus on their all round health during this Paralympic cycle.
“To be the happiest person I’ve ever been across that line, I don’t think this performance would ever have happened if I’d just kept pushing through, kept battering myself and not overcome the anxiety,” Rowles, 23, said. “No matter what, we’ve stuck by each other and said, ‘If you need time to go away and do what you need to do’. We’ve both taken breaks. I’m grateful to this guy for doing that and letting me do that, and just to be here today, the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, next to this guy, is a real honour.”
The pair became the first to defend a Paralympics doubles scull crown, and reaffirmed their status as reigning European, world and Paralympic champions.
The race was evidence of the confidence that comes with holding all major titles at once, Rowles and Whiteley letting China and Holland go out quickest, not panicking even when they were still trailing in second at the halfway point. They built up their rhythm and pace, then powered to a convincing victory almost five seconds ahead of the Dutch silver medal boat.
“We want to leave a legacy,” Whitely said. “The medals are one thing, but going down in the history books and being remembered as a fantastic combination is something else. We’re writing that story today. But first of all, it’s time away, a break – and if Paris is on the cards it’s because we’re both there ready for it.”
It was the first of two gold medals for the British team on Sunday, the PR3 mixed coxed four also retaining their gold medal, albeit with a new group of rowers. Ellen Buttrick, Ollie Stanhope, Giedre Rakauskaite, with cox Erin Kennedy, won their first Paralympic medals, while James Fox earned his second in a row.
It extended Great Britain’s unbeaten record at major championships in this boat, last losing in a major final in 2010. “That’s 11 years unbeaten now,” Fox said. “We are tough on ourselves, always pushing the pace, it’s why we can go out there and do races like that. Long may it last. I am so happy to be a part of that, this goes out to all our ancestors I guess, the guys who have won since 2010.”
Earlier in the day, Benjamin Pritchard came home in fifth in the final of the men’s single sculls.
Bayley concedes table tennis title despite battling final performance
By Gareth A Davies, at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium
Will Bayley was beaten but unbowed after having to settle for silver in the men’s S7 table tennis, conceding his title to world No1 Yan Shuo, of China.
Bayley, 33, suffered a serious cruciate knee ligament injury while rehearsing for Strictly Come Dancing in late 2019, which saw him withdraw from the competition, undergo major surgery and also balloon in weight by three stone.
The postponement of the Games by 12 months allowed him to make these Paralympics but he did so having not taken to a major championship table in two years.
“I wasn’t ever guaranteed to make it back to this level, so I’m proud to make the final,” he said. “It’s been a tough few years but I believe I’m the best player in the world, so I’m a bit disappointed not to win it. I am the best on my day but I missed some crucial shots, he played well and deserved to win.”
Before the final Bayley had received a raft of good luck messages from the Strictly crew. “There’s a group WhatsApp so they’ve been sending messages of support, which is cool,” he said. “Janette (Manrara) has been messaging me a bit and some of the people I was on with. It’s been really nice. You’ve got sportsmen like David James who was in there so he understands the pressure of it all. James Cracknell as well.”
Champion in Rio and silver medallist in London, the most charismatic and infamous player on the circuit had a brilliant opening game against Yan, dominating to win 11-4. In a much closer second game, they went neck and neck with the brilliant Chinese player – a single leg amputee – bringing the match all square at 11-9. It was to prove pivotal in the final outcome with Yan eventually snatching a 3-1 win.
“I was one nil up 9-8 up and I missed the backhand,” said Bayley. “If I make that ball I think I would have won the match 3-0 probably. Sport is decided on those little details, a millimetre miss and then you lose the match. I should have probably got that ball on and then you’re looking at 2-0 up and he’s got a massive mountain to climb.”
The Paralympics star from Kent said he would attempt to regain his Paralympic title in 2024. “I want to go to Paris and make it four finals in a row, it would be cool to be a part of that,” he said. “I want to keep fighting, I want to keep showing my daughters that you don’t ever give up no matter what the odds are.
“I’ve had the odds stacked against me in the last few years, I’ve had people writing me off. I haven’t got to a major final since Rio. I’m a Paralympic guy, so it’s good.
“I didn’t play for a year to nine months, until I got on the table and started playing. When you tear your ACL… I couldn’t twist or anything so I couldn’t play a forehand. I literally had to have the surgery and it was such a long recovery, like with a footballer, when they tear their ACL, it’s a long long way back. Especially with my condition it took me extra long because it’s harder to build muscle.”
Bayley will return to the fray on Tuesday in the team event for classes six and seven, competing alongside Paul Karabardak, who won singles bronze.