Olympic legacy: ‘We haven’t been forgotten this time’

Hannah Cockroft returns to limelight with her sponsorship falling away but her dreams coming true

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The Independent Online

The rain may be lashing down in Lyon but it’s hard to break Hannah Cockroft’s sunny disposition. Her two gold medals at last summer’s Paralympics – in the T34 100m and 200m – were matched only by her 100mph TV interviews in which she couldn’t get her words or excitement out fast enough.

The fast-talking, fast-wheeling, all-smiling 20-year-old returned to  centre stage at the International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships to win the 200m. Indeed she has been virtually unbeatable in both events for which she is the Olympic and world champion, as well as world-record holder, and she is not even quietly confident that she can emulate her gargantuan winning margins of 2012.

“I’m in the shape to break a world record,” she said on the eve of the championships. “I’ve raced most of the girls this year and I’ve not seen the gaps getting closer. My plan is to be even further ahead.”

Along with the sprinter Jonnie Peacock, she is the undoubted star of the British team – which is missing the four-time London gold medallist David Weir – and as such features heavily in the “Return of the Superhumans” advert for Channel 4’s coverage.

Nearly a year on from the highlight of her career, she looks back on a period of time “that changed my life”. When you ask exactly how, her youthful enthusiasm comes gushing out once more. “I’ve met McFly three times, ah, they’re lovely,” she says. “I also got to meet Jon Bon Jovi. These are the sort of things you dream of doing but this 20-year-old from Halifax is getting to do them.

“I’ve been to some amazing things, the National Television Awards and BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards, I get so many messages, letters, presents. I even got a rose named after me recently, Hannah Lucy Rose.”

Life has not all been a bed of roses for Cockroft, however. In the lead-up to London, sponsors were lining up to get her on their books. Now her sole backer is BT, the other sponsors having fallen by the wayside as the euphoria of last summer has dissipated.

“I remember thinking after London that I’d come to the Games and won two gold medals and everyone would want me,” she admits. “That didn’t happen and it’s a bit like, ‘OK, why don’t they want me?’

“But it’s just something you have to accept and some athletes have no sponsors or Lottery funding. I’m not in a bad place. But it’s been strange seeing athletes with just a silver or even no medals with loads of sponsors. You have to sell yourself as an athlete. I don’t know, maybe I’m not enough of a personality.”

Nothing could be further from the truth for one of the most colourful figures in British athletics. The lack of sponsorship is not just a Paralympic problem; that fate has befallen Olympians too, with long jump gold medallist Greg Rutherford recently revealing he had been left without a sponsor.

Regardless of that situation, Cockroft has relished the last year and argues that perceptions of Paralympians and, more broadly, all people with disabilities have changed markedly. “It’s different to before – we haven’t been forgotten again,” she says. “We’ve never had this much attention before. People want to be the next Jonnie Peacock or David Weir, and there are a lot more people coming into the sport.

“But I think things have improved not just for athletes but disabled people in general. We’re a lot more accepted in society now, a lot more confident. I think people feel like they can go out and do what they want to do without getting stared at or comments.”

Her one frustration is with those who try to be overly helpful. “People are only trying to be nice when they ask if they can push you around or help you up the kerb,” she says. “In your head you’re like, ‘do you want me to help you walk?’ But normally I just say, ‘no, you’re OK thanks’. As I say, they’re just being nice by it.”

After London, like many of her peers, she struggled for motivation.Her coach, Peter Eriksson, had quit the Paralympic programme, she was training by herself and the weather was terrible over the winter months. Training involved being glued to the rollers indoors when all she wanted to do was “stay in bed really”.

A switch to new coach, Jenny Banks, in January sparked her motivation, partly because of wanting to prove herself to her new mentor but also having to adapt to new innovations in training.

Now she is somewhere near being back to her best both in terms of training and competition. As a result, she is setting herself ambitious targets, the biggest being Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson’s haul of 11 Paralympic golds. “I’ve got two world titles, two Olympic titles and world records all at a young age,” she says. “Maybe I can be the one that gets the most gold medals ever.”

Wallace breaks 200m record

In addition to Hannah Cockroft’s victory in the women’s 200m T34 race, fellow Brit Libby Clegg crossed the line first in the women’s 200m T12 semi-final. The final takes place tonight. Clegg took silver in the 100m T12 at both the Beijing and London Paralympic Games. The American Jarryd Wallace became the new world-record holder in the men’s 200m T44 class after running 22.32sec in the heats of the event. “It feels pretty good,” said Wallace of his record and victory. “We’ve been putting in a lot of hard work and I made a technical change about one month ago with the prosthetic and it’s been the right decision.” The 23-year-old added: “I’m just excited to get out here [again for the final] and lower it [his time] again.” When asked whether he could beat the time when he races in today’s final, Wallace confidently replied: “Just wait and see!” His compatriot Raymond Martin won gold in the 1,500m T52 and said after his triumph: “I felt great it was a shiny day for me and America.”