The Big Interview: Hannah Cockroft

Hannah Cockcroft
Hannah Cockcroft
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LIVING on an isolated, windswept hill on the edge of the South Pennines is perhaps not the ideal training place for an Olympic athlete, never mind a wheelchair racer.

But Paralympic star Hannah Cockroft has turned Mount Tabor, the tiny village overlooking Halifax where she lives, to her advantage. “I live on the top of a mountain so it’s not the most perfect place for a wheelchair person, but when it comes to training my theory is if I can sprint fast up a hill then I should be able to sprint even faster somewhere flat,” she says.

It’s a simple philosophy and it’s proved a sound one for Hannah who won the sprint double in her T34 class at the Paralympics this summer, setting a new record in both the 100 and 200m.

Six months ago she was racing in front of a handful of people, but her success at the London Games and the Olympic fever that swept the nation during our glorious summer of sport has made her hot property. Last month she was given a rapturous welcome when she returned to Calderdale College, where she spent a year studying and training, to officially open its sports hall which has been renamed The Hannah Cockroft Hall. “When I was here we had a field which wasn’t the best thing for someone like me so to come back and have this amazing facility named after me is fantastic – I think I chose the wrong year to come here,” she says, laughing. A few weeks earlier, she was among the London 2012 heroes whose achievements were honoured at a Buckingham Palace reception.

It has, by her own admission, “been a bit mad” since the Paralympics finished in September, so has she suffered a post-Olympic comedown like the rest of us? “There hasn’t been time for the athletes to come down yet because we’re still getting so much attention, especially the Paralympic athletes, which is something we’re not used to. I haven’t had a day off in two months, I’ve had something different to do every day which is exhausting, but it’s also amazing. I don’t know how long it’s going to last so I’m just grabbing every opportunity while I can.”

Just as Hannah makes bubbly irrelevance of the cerebral palsy she has lived with all her life, so she has taken to being in the media spotlight like a duck to water. But while she became a poster girl for Team GB during the Games, racing in front of a full house in the Olympic stadium, it was a different story earlier in the year. “In the run-up to the Games I was competing in races where I just had my parents in the audience and that was it. People paid so much money to come and watch us at the Olympics but they could have watched any of our races earlier in the summer for free.”

Her training schedule in the run-up to the Games was pretty intense. “I was training 15 times a week and each session was between one and two hours so I was on the track quite a lot. But it’s not just training, you’re working with the physios, you have a special nutrition plan and all these things to keep your body in good shape, so it was literally like a full-time job.”

There was also the small matter of public expectation. Hannah went into the Games as a double world champion and the world record holder for both her events and many people assumed she was a shoo-in for the gold. But as many sports stars will attest, it doesn’t always work out like that.

“I felt the pressure more leading up to the Games, but as soon as we went to the training camp I was like ‘you know what, I don’t care what everyone else thinks I’m going to enjoy this’, because you’re never going to get that many people cheering you on again.

“I think, also, I thrive under pressure and I don’t let it get to me, but my psychologist said to me before I went into the stadium ‘all you can do is your best’, and she was right. I’m only 20 and it was my first Paralympics, a home Games, so that’s quite a lot to handle. I’ve only been in this sport four years so you can’t expect anything more than your best.”

Thankfully, her best was enough to leave the competition trailing in her wake as she was roared home by the crowd. For the millions watching on TV the noise inside the stadium seemed deafening, so what was it like actually out there on the track? “I’ve never heard a noise like it. I watched Mo Farrah’s first race and I was screaming at my TV, but they found that for the ‘Thriller Thursday’, which was our ‘Super Saturday’, the noise decibels in the stadium were louder for us than they were when Mo won his 5,000m race.

“When you dream about it you think ‘oh my God, it’s going to be so scary’, but when I got out there it was just amazing and you think ‘this is all for me’. But I did feel a bit overshadowed,” she says, jokingly, “because I won my second gold, but then Dave [Weir] went and won his third straight afterwards and Jonnie [Peacock] won the prestigious event. But just to be involved in a night like that was such an honour – there isn’t a word to describe how amazing it was.”

As well as adding to the feelgood factor the Paralympics were a sporting revelation. “No one used to be really bothered about what we do and now people are taking notice and they realise that we’re actually elite athletes.”

And what about the much-talked about Olympic legacy, have our sports stars inspired a new generation or will their exploits simply fade to memory? “I think the Olympic legacy, and particularly the Paralympic legacy, has really kicked off and we haven’t been forgotten, which is what we thought would happen. We thought it would be the same as after the Beijing Games that you come home and your mum and your grandma are happy and that’s it. But every time I go down to London now, even when I’m not in my kit, people know who I am.”

This recognition has come as a pleasant surprise. “London’s the fastest moving city in the world and people can forget you in five seconds which is why it’s amazing that people are still so excited to see you and remember what you did, because it means you made a bit of history. But also if they remember what you did it means more people are going to want to try your sport.”

“So I hope it will last and right now I think maybe it will because everyone’s still really excited about what we’re doing. London 2012 is hard to forget but I hope that people remember that and still want to come and see us competing next year and the year after, but only time will tell.”

Behind Hannah’s infectiously warm personality is a steely determination that can be traced back to her childhood. “When I was born my parents were told I would never walk and I wouldn’t be able to do this and I couldn’t do that, but they were never pushy they’ve always been very encouraging. They know what’s going to be best for me, they got me walking and then I wanted to be a ballerina as a child so they took me to a dance class and I would jump around like a lunatic but I enjoyed it.”

This encouragement gave her confidence. “I hate being told I can’t do things because it’s not true. I can’t run, but I can wheelchair race faster than people can run – it’s just about finding ways around it.”

It was her willingness to “have a go” that inadvertently set her on the path to Olympic glory. As a 15-year-old, she was at a sports event where she met Ian Thompson, husband of legendary Paralympian Tanni-Grey Thompson. “When I first got in a chair it was just an off chance,” she says, picking up the story. “Ian asked me if I wanted to try wheelchair racing, I’d never seen it before and the machine looked a little bit scary, I thought ‘oh my God’, but I had a go anyway and I just loved it.”

A few months later she started training with him. “I had to borrow my first race wheelchair from Ian and then my dad built my roller, which is like a treadmill for a wheelchair, which I have downstairs for when it’s too windy or it’s snowing.”

In the space of five years she has gone from novice to Paralympic champion and at the age of 20 she’s already won more medals than most athletes manage during their entire career. “I’m still young and I’ve got another three or four Paralympics left in me definitely. But I want to go to uni at some point and be a normal young person because athletics doesn’t last forever.”

While she’s seen as a role model now Hannah still draws inspiration from her fellow athletes. “One of my best friends on the team Mel Nichols had two strokes when she was about my age that left her unable to use one side of her body. A lot of people in that situation would have given up but she’s come back and is now a Paralympic wheelchair racer.

“You meet some people who’ve had accidents and they’re like ‘my life is so terrible, I’m disabled, feel sorry for me’, and then you meet others who say their life is so much better now and that’s just amazing to hear. I’ve been disabled since birth and I’ve always been a bit cocky, but it’s really inspirational to meet people who do n’t think that life stops when you get put in a wheelchair.”