Hurricane Hannah Cockroft learns to reset her sights for tilt at Tokyo Olympics and beyond

Had the year gone as planned, one of Yorkshire’s most charismatic and dominant athletes would have been in Tokyo next month competing for more medals and records to flesh out what is already one of the more decorated careers in British sport.

NEW GOALS: The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics has given Hannah Cockroft the time to pursue other interests, such as a fashion photo-shoot. Picture: Simon Hulme

Wheelchair sprinter Hannah Cockroft would have been competing in the T34 100m, 400m and 800m in the Paralympic Games looking to add to the five gold medals she won in London and Rio.

After a fallow year in 2018, one she describes as ‘terrible’ even though she was only beaten twice, Cockroft had reclaimed her place as the fastest wheelchair sprinter in the world in 2019 and was narrowing her focus on Tokyo.

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Then coronavirus struck, the world shut down, the Olympics and Paralympics were postponed, and Cockroft was forced to live a normal life.

The break from action has also helped Hannah Cockroft prepare to renew her rivalry with Kare Adenegan. Picture: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

“I was the one in the house who cried when the Paralympics was postponed,” says Cockroft, who a few months earlier had moved in with her boyfriend and fellow British wheelchair sprinter Nathan Maguire in Cheshire.

“I found it to be a hard hit to be honest, just because I was training really well and as an athlete you have only one meaning for the whole year.

“We expected it but that doesn’t mean it didn’t come as a shock. It took me a while to get my head around it.”

The chance to reset, though, has given Cockroft fresh perspective. Lockdown has allowed her time to reflect on all she has achieved since bursting into the nation’s consciousness at the London 2012 Paralympics, and all she might go on to achieve next year and beyond, which now includes a fourth Paralympics in Paris in the late summer of 2024.

Paralympic athlete Hannah Cockroft finishes the Leeds Run For All in July last year. Picture: Tony Johnson.

“I definitely am considering Paris,” says the Halifax athlete.

“When I started out, Tokyo was the aim, the Games I wanted to get to, even before London.

“London was never the aim, Rio was a case of ‘I’ll be lucky if I get there’, so Tokyo was the Games I was training for.

“Things came a lot quicker than I planned. But because of that, I’ve never really looked beyond Tokyo. But now we’re in the Tokyo cycle, I’m thinking that I have so much more I want to do, so much more I want to give to the sport, so much more I feel I can learn from it.

WINNER: Hannah Cockroft celebrates winning the Women's 400m T34 at the World ParaAthletics Championships at London Stadium in July 2017. Picture: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

“And Paris is only three years after Tokyo. I’d dearly love to go to my first Commonwealth Games, I’ve never been to one, I’d love to make the team (for Birmingham 2022) if they have my event. Then it’s only two more years to Paris – and it’s a bit closer to home.”

Quite how long she can stay on top of the world is another matter.

That ‘terrible’ year Cockroft alludes to was 2018 when she was beaten twice into second place by teenage prospect Kare Adenegan, once at the Anniversary Games in London and then again at the European Championships in Berlin.

Second place for most people would not usually elicit such a reaction, but Cockroft was smarting. A natural born winner, she had not lost a meaningful race in a major competition since the World Junior Championships in Dubai seven years earlier.

Her success had bred rivals like Adenegan, and the setback made her hungrier than ever.

“That year taught me how much I love what I do, how lucky I am to perform, but also that the rest of the world is catching up on me,” says Cockroft, whose response a year later was to beat Adenegan into second place with a world-record-breaking performance in the 100m world championship final.

“It was lucky that it happened then and not in a Paralympic year. As gutted as I was at the time I’m actually quite thankful for that year now.”

In the grand scheme of things, four months at home this year to reflect and recharge, even if the Paralympic Games has been postponed 12 months, may also stand her in good stead as she heads towards the second half of her career.

Cockroft has still been able to train during lockdown – “we had a gym and rollers for our race chairs put in the garage, plus we went out on the roads when they were quiet” – but it is the quality of training that sets this period apart.

“It’s given me the time to focus on things that otherwise might get swept under the rug,” says Cockroft, who turned 28 on Thursday.

“Things like ‘I need to change my push technique but I don’t have time for that right now’.

“Now I have the time to do that, so I have focused on those things and I’ve made those changes.

“I’ve come to see this year as one to rest a little bit, be something other than an athlete. I’ve moved into my house properly, I’ve been able to empty my suitcases that I normally don’t get chance to empty.

“I really think that how this year has panned out is going to help me going in to next year.”

As ever with an athlete of such dominance there comes with it a responsibility to be an ambassador for their sport.

Cockroft was one of the faces of a transcendent Games for the Paralympic movement in 2012, but to her immense frustration, she has seen that interest dwindle.

Like many of her 2012 heroes, she has cashed in on the fame with appearances on Celebrity Bake Off and a Strictly Come Dancing Paralympians’ special, but Cockroft has never overdone it, preferring to let her deeds on the track be the achievements that define her.

“For me, it’s got to be about more than just personality, it’s got to be about the sport itself,” she says.

“It’s got to be about engaging people with the sport, I want people to cheer me because of what I can do on the track.

“The Paralympic movement is definitely nowhere near where we want it to be. It’s a cycle where as soon as the TV coverage drops off, the crowds drop off, the sponsors drop off.

“I think if the coverage was there as frequently as it is for the able-bodied athletes, and people tuned in, people would learn the names and the disciplines they enjoy watching.

“Once you get into it, it’s exciting. I hope we get chance to show a bit more of that and not just the same faces. I know I am one of the same faces, but there’s a lot of good youngsters coming through, we have a lot of talent.”

Tokyo, she believes, was going to be a springboard, and still can be. In December, she was part of an ensemble of past and present able-bodied and para-athlete champions who opened the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo with a team relay event.

Hurricane Hannah from Halifax handed the baton to Usain Bolt of Jamaica.

“Not many people can say they’ve done that,” she smiles.

“It was an absolutely phenomenal experience, every seat in the stadium was occupied, 85,000 people, it was just mind-blowing.

“It really gave me hope that Tokyo know what they’re doing, they’re going to give us a fantastic Games that will create the effect we had after London, because that’s what we need.”