She is sport's little big shot. At 4ft 4in, Sophie Hancock is not quite the smallest person to compete for Britain – prolific swimming star Ellie Simmonds is three inches smaller – but the dwarf shot-putter from Bolton will be walking as tall as any of the 400 athletes from 31 countries when she competes in the BT Paralympic World Cup in Manchester this week.
Think dwarf, and pantomime and the circus can spring uncomfortably into the consciousness. Sophie, 23, is aware of this, which is why she is determined to bring greater recognition to the world of little people through her own sporting endeavours. "It is good to get the message across that we may be little people but we are also real people with real feelings and we can do just as much as anyone else if we put our minds to it," she says.
She certainly does not shy away from the word dwarf. "That is what I am. I was born with a condition called Achondroplasia, which restricts the growth, but I have never let that hinder me. Being able to do something in athletics when you are my size is an amazing feeling. You keep setting yourself targets and it is such a joy to achieve them, the best feeling ever."
Vivacious Sophie, who also throws the discus, was a gold medallist in last year's World Cup and holds the European shot record in her event category, 7.48m, with a shot weighing 3kg, 1kg less than the one used in able-bodied events. But her most remarkable achievement was walking across Africa for the BBC programme Beyond the Boundaries, which featured 11 people with various disabilities taking part in a month-long expedition from Victoria Falls to the Ivory Coast. "It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, but I wanted to draw attention to dwarfism and prove that a dwarf can walk.
"We had to do 25km every day in 40-degree heat through jungles and across deserts, camping out at night with lions roaring around our tents. It was pretty scary stuff. They put us under a lot of pressure because they wanted to see us break to make it a better documentary. Unfortunately three dropped out but luckily I made it to the end. It was a fantastic feeling and showed my mental strength, which helps me in my athletics."
She is a member of DAAUK (Dwarf Athletics Association), which helps people with dwarfism who are unable to join in school sports to try different events. "At first I was actually a swimmer but I had leg surgery in which I gained four inches in height and found things weren't quite working for me in swimming, so I had a go at the shot put and the discus and had some really good results. I moved to Loughborough for about two and a half years in the lead-up to the Beijing Paralympics, where I came fifth in the shot and the discus with big personal bests. Afterwards I returned to Loughborough but I missed home life and moved back to Bolton, where I now have a new coach, Shelley Quarin, who will take me through to London 2012, which is my real aim."
Sophie works for a local fostering agency. "They are really understanding about giving me time off. And I train at Bolton Arena, who have been really good to me, sponsoring me and letting me use their gym free of charge."
She says she has never experienced any prejudice because of her size. "Luckily at school I had a good network of friends. They showed great understanding about my disability but I do know others who have not had such a good experience with silly, hurtful remarks."
She is the only member of her family with dwarfism. "My parents are into all sorts of sports and I have a sister who is doing triathlon. My brother is a football coach in the US." Her husband Dexter, 23, is from the Bahamas and more than a foot and a half taller than her. He works as a graphic designer and they met when she was on holiday in the islands. They married in January last year.
Sophie knows Ellie well because she also started with DAAUK. "Ellie has been an inspiration and pioneer and I hope my achievements will also help others of our size to take up sport and realise size doesn't really matter."
The BT Paralympic World Cup takes place in Manchester from 25 to 31 May, featuring seven-a-side football, athletics, swimming and wheelchair basketball. Visit www.btparalympicworldcup.com