As Kadeena Cox wept under a hard Tokyo rain, the psychological toll of juggling two sports at the same Games was plain for all to see. While she had dominated at the Izu velodrome, with a pair of cycling golds, her tilt at a second glorious doubling-up in athletics unravelled on a saturated track here at the National Stadium, as the 30-year-old polymath’s rivals in the T38 400 metres finally caught up with her.
In the moment, Cox’s dejection at finishing fourth, cut adrift by a world record for German winner Lindy Ave, was too much to bear. She described how close she had come to giving up on the event this time, how her coach, Paula Dunn, had sought to persuade her to shelve the idea, even how she had erupted in anger at her mother, Jasmin, amid the stress of it all.
Sometimes, a temptation is to regard Cox as the indomitable linchpin of the British Paralympic team, a consummate multi-tasker who can shift seamlessly between wildly different challenges. But then she hobbles into the post-race interview area with a walking stick, and you remember the constant battle she faces to mitigate the effects of her multiple sclerosis.
Throw in the recent injuries to her Achilles tendon in both legs, and it turns out there is a limit even to her endurance. “I’ve had a really turbulent time,” she explained. “I’m very emotional now – it’s hard. I had an injury that just dug away at me. I would spend every track session crying, attempting to run and breaking down when I couldn’t.
“That lasted one week, before Paula stepped in to say, ‘If we get her to Tokyo in one piece, she is going to be mentally broken.’ The therapists brought me to this point. I only started running on the track a week before selection. I had really had tendonitis in both Achilles. You can run through it with one leg, but not two.”
At Rio 2016, Cox became the country’s first Paralympian in 32 years to grasp golds across separate sports, a stirring rebuke to those who once told her that her MS would only be exacerbated by exercise and exertion. On that occasion, she had movingly credited maternal support for nursing her through a strike. But as she fell short of delivering an encore in Tokyo, she acknowledged how even her most precious support network had grown strained.
“My family know the struggle I’ve been through, all the tantrums,” she said. “On the weekend of the Olympic trials, I lashed out at someone I’m really close to. I’ve lashed out at my mum, my siblings. It’s so hard when all you want to do is compete, and your body’s just denying you. But without my family, I’d be nothing.”
Despite her anguish, Cox’s status as a sport-switching inspiration is secure. Over at Sea Forest Waterway, two golds arrived courtesy of canoeists who only took up the sport during the last Paralympic cycle. Charlotte Henshaw, who prevailed in the KL2 200m, was a swimmer until Rio, before she was persuaded to take up paddles in pursuit of the ultimate prize. Laura Sugar, who swept all before her in the KL3 sprint, was until these Games known primarily as a hockey player and para-athlete, who kayaked purely recreationally.
But now here they are as Paralympic champions in a sport where they are relative novices. One interpretation of this is that the British are hunting, unapologetically, for low-hanging fruit. The rationale goes that it is better to guarantee medals in sports with a shallower pool of talent than to risk UK Sport funding by falling short elsewhere. Take Sugar, who did not even make it through the heats of the T44 100m in Rio, but who proved herself as a world-beater on the water in Tokyo.
Understandably, she had few regrets about the transition. “In athletics, I always had to compete against people with blades,” said Sugar, who was born with a club foot. “With my ankle, that is a bit of a struggle. I was going to carry on, but British Canoeing approached me and I went along with it. I tried it out for fun and didn’t expect to pick it up so quickly.”
For Henshaw, likewise, the leap into canoeing has been a revelation, transforming her from a marginal medal contender in breaststroke into a world record-holder. “I didn’t switch sports to win a gold medal,” she insisted, having earned a silver and a bronze in the pool. “But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to complete the set.”
Henshaw, who has a congenital lower-limb deficiency, with her legs amputated above the knee when she was 18 months old, reflected: “I came back from Rio, and I knew I wasn’t going to have much more to offer as a swimmer. I realised I had lost some love for the training, but I felt that I wasn’t finished being an athlete. I had untapped ability. Canoeing was the one sport I loved right from the get-go. I understand the water, I feel very comfortable in and around it. I’d never sat in a kayak before until January 2017, but I have never looked back. It was clearly the right move.”
She disclosed that she had been diagnosed with endometriosis last December, which limited her Tokyo preparations over the winter. In the circumstances, it was little wonder, as she seized gold ahead of veteran compatriot Emma Wiggs, that she was overcome with joy beside the pontoon. Now 34, Henshaw said: “I was very pleased when I came across canoeing at 30 and they called me a youngster. I had always assumed that I would retire after Rio. But now even Paris 2024 seems achievable.”
Henshaw conceded that she had never expected to clutch a Paralympic gold when she hung up her goggles in 2017. The fact that she has adapted so rapidly shines a revealing light on Britain’s medal-centric philosophy. But few could dispute, on this evidence, that the approach is working.
Cockroft secures seventh gold — but no prize money
By Molly McElwee in Tokyo
Hannah Cockroft continued her dominance on the track to win the seventh Paralympic gold medal of her career on Saturday, despite injuring her hand during the warm up.
The wheelchair racer’s final showing at Tokyo 2020, the T34 800m, had a familiar sense of the inevitable about it as she cruised to a significant lead from the 200m mark and never looked in any danger of getting caught. Pumping her arms at what looked like double the speed of her competitors, the 29-year-old finished more than 10 seconds ahead of team-mate Kare Adenegan in silver, for a new Paralympic record time of 1 min 48.99sec.
Cockroft remained a touch disappointed that her time fell one tenth of a second short of her world record. The drizzly morning conditions had a part to play in that, but she also revealed after the race that she caught her right hand in her wheel during her warm up, just 40 minutes before the race, and had competed with it hastily taped up and still bloody.
“I’m obviously a bit frustrated I couldn’t quite squeeze under that time but to go close on a rainy day, I had a little accident in warm-up as well,” Cockroft said. “I put my hand through the wheel, while the chair was moving. I’ve never done it before. So to come here with a gammy hand, I’m happy. Even if my hand’s fallen off I was going to be on that start line.”
Halifax-born Cockroft successfully defended her 800m and 100m titles in Tokyo, winning gold in both events at a remarkable third consecutive Games. Adenegan meanwhile set a new personal best time of 1min 59.85sec in silver, while Britain’s Fabienne Andre finished in fourth with her own personal best, trailing American Alexa Halko in bronze.
Cockroft noted that Halko would win bonus prize money for her efforts, while the British medal winners do not. Earlier this week, Australia joined New Zealand and the USA in announcing equal cash bonuses for their Olympic and Paralympic medallists. While UK Sport does not provide such bonuses (instead investing in athletes throughout the cycle with National Lottery funding) Cockroft revealed that British Athletics had previously remunerated medal winners at the London and Rio Games – but had not done so for Tokyo.
“In the UK we’re really lucky we have National Lottery funding, so we get equal to the Olympic guys,” Cockroft said. “I got prize money after London and after Rio, and this time we’re just here. I know the Olympic guys are the same, but it does feel a bit of a step backwards. We had that prize money before – where is it gone and why haven’t we received it?
“I’m so happy for the guys [from Australia, New Zealand and USA] — a bit gutted my bronze medallist [Halko] is going to make more than me off this Games, but there you go.”
Cockroft was also keen to voice her desire for lasting change in wheelchair racing – including more investment in chair technology – and echoed team-mate and boyfriend Nathan Maguire in her wish that para athletics be given a more prominent space on the Diamond League circuit. “Let’s get disabled events into able-bodied sport, like Nathan said, not just a token wheelchair race,” Cockroft said. “Let’s get an afternoon before the able-bodied guys, because people are watching and inspired by what we do.
“We’ve obviously missed out on a crowd while we’re here, and that sucks because we only get a crowd every four years. We need to change that, desperately. We saw in London what a difference it makes – Kare watched me in London and she’s now here winning her fifth medal. As much as we’re shouting we need people to shout with us.”
Davies defends gold, but heartbreak for Skinner
By Molly McElwee in Tokyo
Aled Davies defended his own title in the F42 shot put. The Welsh athlete, who has limited movement in his right leg, was far from his world record breaking best of 17.52m set four years ago, but his 15.33m throw was still nearly half a meter further than anyone else in the field could muster.
British team-mate, T13 long jumper Zak Skinner was heartbroken to finish marginally outside of the medals in his own final. European champion Skinner, 22, who is the son of former Harlequins and England rugby flanker Mickey Skinner, was in the bronze medal position heading into the final round but American Isaac Jean-Paul bettered his best jump by two centimetres, relegating the Brit’s 6.91m to fourth.
Reid beats Hewett to bronze, then offers hand of support in classification row
By Molly McElwee in Tokyo
Gordon Reid says he is hoping for a U-turn on new classification rules that are set to oust British team-mate Alfie Hewett from wheelchair tennis, after he beat him to a sombre bronze medal in Tokyo.
Hewett has Perthes disease, an arthritic condition which affects his pelvis and hips and means he can only walk short distances. But new classification rules implemented by the International Tennis Federation, in conjunction with International Paralympic Committee guidelines, deem his impairment not severe enough.
These rules were agreed back in 2019, but a decision was made to delay their implementation until after the Tokyo Games, to ensure Hewett and others affected would not see their preparations go to waste.
There is a review into Hewett’s situation, with results expected at the end of 2021, but if the rules stand the 23-year-old will be looking at early retirement. The former world No 1 and five time major champion will be ineligible not only for the Paralympics, but the wheelchair tennis tour as a whole.
This bleak context, as well as the pair’s defeat in the doubles final on Friday, made for a flat bronze medal decider, which Reid won 6-4 3-6 7-5. Celebrations were muted from the Scotsman, considering his friend’s predicament.
“To be honest, it doesn’t feel like I’m a winner at the moment,” Reid, 29, said. “It’s not just the doubles [result], it’s the whole situation with classification and maybe this being the last Paralympics for Alfie.
“I think I’ve cried more this week than I have probably for the last three or four years… I’m trying to put it to the back of my mind and keep present. It’s not something that ever happens in sport – sometimes in disability sport, but not somebody who’s been playing for so long. It’s a difficult thing. I’ve seen Alfie grow from junior to best player in the world. I’ve been part of that journey with him as a partner and a rival so hopefully it’s not the end of the story.”
Hewett echoed the feeling, saying they both “hated” playing Saturday’s match, and reiterated his desire to continue in the sport: “It’s what I’ve done since I was eight years old. It’s my career. It’s my profession. And I want to continue.”
The pair play the US Open final next week and remain on track for a calendar slam in doubles. Worst case scenario, it will be Hewett’s final major appearance and their last as a doubles partnership.
“It’s impossible to replace Alfie Hewett,” said Reid. “I doubt I will have a bond with somebody on the tennis court like I do with Alfie. We have put so much effort and time into working together.
“There are still reviews ongoing that could change the outcome, and that is what we have all got to hope for – for Alfie and the sport of wheelchair tennis as well.”
Meanwhile Briton Jordanne Whiley, 29, announced Tokyo would be her final Paralympics after she won a silver medal in doubles with partner Lucy Shuker. Former world No 3 Whiley, who also won bronze in singles, hinted the US Open could possibly be her final event before retirement too.
Bethell’s silver as Para-badminton makes its debut
By Gareth A Davies in Tokyo
Dan Bethell’s dream of inspiring a new generation to play para-badminton came true after he claimed Great Britain’s first Paralympic medal in the sport with silver in the men’s SL3 singles.
Badminton was included for the first time at the Paralympic Games here and although he lost 21-14, 21-17 to India’s Pramod Bhagat, the 25-year-old revelled in the achievement.
“It’s amazing. I’m so happy with this week; it was my dream to win a Paralympic medal and to do that, it’s just fantastic,” he said. “I really wanted to win gold but all credit to Pramod, he played an amazing game, the variety of his attack was devastating and he kept at it the whole time. He deserved to win. If any kids with disabilities want to play badminton, it’s a great sport and I’d encourage them to pick up a racket. My performance and the performance of my teammates this week will hopefully inspire them to do that.”
GB could leave Tokyo with a second badminton medal when Krysten Coombs faces Vitor Goncalves Tavares of Brazil in the SH6 bronze-medal match on Sunday.
Great Britain has now amassed medals in 17 different sports at Tokyo 2020 – the highest of any nation at a single Games.
Elsewhere, arm amputee taekwondo player Amy Truesdale claimed a bronze medal in the women’s K44 +58kg event, defeating Iran’s Rayeheh Shahab 41-31 in a solid bout in which she was briefly behind. The medal partially made up for the disappointment of losing the semi-final match 60-14 to Uzbek Guljonoy Naimova earlier in the evening session.
Truesdale, the world champion in 2014 and 2017, was 13-8 down to Shabab after the first round, yet fought back to turn the match around 24-16 in the second, and moved ahead swiftly to 32-21 within the first 30 seconds of the final stanza, urged on by her coaches, finishing strongly 10 points to the good.
“I’m delighted with a bronze medal, and I put the disappointment behind me straight away,” Truesdale told Telegraph Sport.
Was the loss to Naimova affected by the open weight +58kg category ? “No, because I have beaten her before,” said the 32-year-old martial arts pioneer. “We just got the tactics completely wrong. I should have used my movement and skills and I got it wrong.”
Double gold for sport-switching canoeists
World canoeing champion Charlotte Henshaw completed a full set of Paralympic medals after winning the battle of the Brits by powering to glory ahead of defending title holder Emma Wiggs in Tokyo.
The 34-year-old former swimmer added KL2 kayak gold to SB6 breaststroke silver and bronze – claimed in London and Rio respectively – on another magnificent morning for Great Britain at Sea Forest Waterway.
Ex-sprinter Laura Sugar also claimed gold on Saturday, winning the women’s KL3 competition, while there was VL3 bronze for Stuart Wood in the men’s events.
Mansfield-born Henshaw has taken the sport by storm since switching from the pool in early 2017 and continued her remarkable progress by completing the 200m straight line in a personal best time of 50.760 seconds.
Team-mate Wiggs was just 0.649secs off the pace as her Rio crown passed into the hands of her compatriot.
“I didn’t switch sports to win a gold medal but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to complete the set,” said 34-year-old Henshaw, who had both legs amputated above the knee aged 18 months after she was born with bilateral tibial hypoplasis.
“It’s lovely with a bronze and a silver but it looks much better with one of each colour.
“You always dream about it, you have to otherwise you wouldn’t put yourself through this. It was a cracking race and Emma is such a fearsome competitor, she’s won everything. She never gives in.”
Henshaw called time on her swimming career, which began at Beijing 2008, after falling out of love with training.
Five years ago she had never sat in a kayak but swiftly developed a passion for paracanoe as she searched for a way to prolong her sporting career.
Her headline-grabbing performance came just nine months since undergoing surgery for endometriosis, a condition where tissue similar to the lining of the womb grows in other places, such as the ovaries and fallopian tubes.
“I knew I wasn’t done being an athlete – I knew that I had untapped ability,” she said.
“I tried a few sports but canoeing was the one I loved right from the get-go. I got in a boat in January 2017 and I’ve never looked back. It was clearly the right move.
“I was in hospital just before Christmas, so I missed a good chunk of training over the winter.
“It was tough to say I’d have the surgery in a Games year, but it was what I needed to do for my health.”
With Henshaw already planning to celebrate with pizza and ice cream, team-mate Sugar secured her own place atop the podium.
The 30-year-old, who was born with talipes, or club foot, had finished fifth in both the T44 100m and 200m athletics finals in Brazil five years ago.
She outstripped those achievements on the water, crossing the line in a personal best 49.582secs, 1.976secs clear of France’s Nelia Barbosa, with German Felicia Laberer taking bronze.
“The racer in me comes out halfway through the race, so I only think about nailing the start and it paid off,” said Sugar, who was enticed into Para sport after noticing discus thrower Dan Greaves had a similar condition while watching London 2012.
“I am just glad it has all gone to plan.”
Games debutant Wood capped a momentous morning by clinching a podium place courtesy of finishing his event in 52.760secs – behind Australia’s gold-medal winner Curtis McGrath and Brazil’s Giovane Vieira De Paula.
“I was so sure that I’d lost it at the end there – I was so nervous and then so unbelievably relieved when it came up,” said the 27-year-old.
Meanwhile, 51-year-old Jeanette Chippington’s defence of her KL1 title ended in disappointment as she failed to progress from the heats.
Great Britain’s paddlers depart the Japanese capital with a total medal haul of seven after Friday brought gold for Wiggs and bronze for Chippington in the inaugural VL2 va’a, plus Robert Oliver’s third place in the KL3.