Sports Personality of the Year: A supermarket hush tells its own Storey

Robin Scott-Elliot meets record-equalling Paralympian Sarah Storey who still cannot quite believe the public response her gold medals evoke

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Barney Storey leans back on the sofa and laughs. “She’s oblivious to it,” he says and unleashes a grin at his wife, sitting alongside him in their room in a quiet London hotel.

Days earlier the two had been shopping in a supermarket near their home in Cheshire and, as they pushed their trolley down the aisles, they were accompanied by an unnatural hush. It was down to Barney, winner of a Paralympic gold and silver in London as a tandem pilot, to explain to Sarah why: their fellow shoppers were captivated by the sight of Britain’s most decorated Paralympian, one of the dozen chosen for the BBC’s best-ever Sports Personality shortlist. “Eventually,” says Barney, “someone said, ‘Well done on your medals’.”

“We get moved to better tables in restaurants,” adds Sarah and shakes her head at the mystery of it all. Life has changed for the Storeys in 2012, and will do so even more in 2013. There’s the sporting success, their part in Britain’s summer of sporting love, and then there’s impending parenthood. Their first child is due in June.

“We always knew there would be time to have a baby after London if I got pregnant straight away, so we  feel very lucky that has happened,” says Sarah.

There is a post-Games look shared by Britain’s successful Olympians and Paralympians: a sort of bemusement, a puzzled smile. It is not at what they achieved. Many of those who excelled expected it – high expectations are part of the reason for their success – but none seems to have properly understood how, for a golden month, their feats gripped the country.

“The thing we didn’t realise is how the velodrome noise, the stadium noise, the swimming-pool atmosphere went together; you don’t appreciate that as one big thing,” suggests Sarah. “You know what’s happening in your little world. While they were cheering for me in the velodrome, they were cheering for Dave Weir in the stadium and if you added it all together, the atmosphere across everything, that’s one thing that we will never understand. Even though our apartment looked over the park and we saw this sea of people daily, I don’t think the enormity of what was happening really registered.”

Weir and Storey each claimed four golds; with Ellie Simmonds joining them on the BBC shortlist, it represents unparalleled recognition for the Paralympics. Storey, a veteran of six Games, happily accepts the wonder of it all but also wonders what the lasting effect will be once the awards have been handed out and the calendar has ticked over to 2013.

“In the past you would have had to explain what the medals were for but now people have an experience to tell you about and that is the most unbelievable part,” she says of being a 2012 Paralympian. “Within the UK it was incredible. The impact internationally has been less. The fact that the US didn’t show any live coverage is significant. We are fortunate in this country and it was exactly the right time for Paralympic sport to come to the UK. I read an article by Tanni [Grey-Thompson] saying we all got excited because during the Paralympics people with disabilities had better treatment, there was generally a bit more respect shown towards them but gradually…”

She pauses for a second, gathers her thoughts. “There is a similarity to cyclists. We had the same response, we had a bit more respect on the roads, drivers were a bit more courteous, but as the distance from the Games has got greater those people who had turned over a new leaf have slipped back into old habits. Tanni talked about still being patronised, things not being accessible. The impact of the Games was massive at the time but people are starting to slip back, which is a real shame. The press have a part to play. We should start to see a little bit more critical coverage of the Paralympics; in para sport people still shy away from being critical.”

It is about being treated as equals. She raises Jody Cundy’s disqualification as a case in point. Cundy lost his temper in spectacular fashion after being adjudged to have made a false start in the time trial.

“Jody did a false start – it was his own fault. But no one dared say that because at the time it was, ‘Wow, it’s amazing paralympic sport, everyone’s so passionate they are going to have an outburst like Jody’. It would be great to see people looking at both sides and being critical. We are all human.”

Some of Storey’s opponents may disagree with that. She dominated her four events, the pursuit and the 500m on the track and the time trial and road race at Brands Hatch. She equalled Grey-Thompon’s total of 11 Paralympic golds and is committed to improving the mark – Storey has turned 35 since the Games but has every intention of being in Rio in 2016, and may be there as both Paralympian and Olympian.

Barney, too, who won his third Paralympic gold with visually impaired rider Neil Fachie, has designs on a trip to Brazil. The pair are back on their bikes, recently spending a week warm-weather training in Lanzarote alongside Jo Rowsell, who won Olympic gold in the team pursuit.

For Rio the women’s pursuit will become a four-rider event as it is extended to 4km and Storey, who was in contention for a London Olympic place, remains highly rated by Shane Sutton, Britain’s head coach. “It’s an exciting prospect,” she says. “There’s some really talented girls in that group and it would be a privilege to work alongside them. It might be something that works, it might not be suitable for me. I think for all of that group, perhaps seven or eight of us, none of us really know how 4km will treat us. It’s a brand new event.”

Mention her (in sporting terms) advanced age – certainly when compared with the 20-year-old Laura Trott – and Storey brushes it away. “I’m the same age in cycling terms as Joanne Rowsell. We started at the same time, we have raced each other and swapped PBs all the way through this last seven years. So, for me ,in development terms in cycling, I’m in my  mid-twenties.”

Storey swam at her first four Paralympics before swapping sports – which is how she met Barney, whom she credits with transforming her into a cyclist – in 2005. Seven years on, she is absorbed in cycling. Retirement never crossed her mind; she plans to race again before the end of 2013.

Not that she didn’t enjoy the post-Games merry-go-round. She and Barney were taken on a tour of their five gold postboxes, there have been honorary degrees and other awards, while each has had a road named after them in Cheshire. “You want to go and cause a traffic jam on your own road so it gets on the radio – ‘a traffic jam on Sarah Storey Way…’,” suggests Sarah. “Yeah,” adds Barney, “caused by Sarah Storey.”

They look at each other. “Surreal,” sums up Sarah. Barney grins.

Spoty 2012 the shortlist

Nicola Adams, boxing Won first women’s boxing gold at London Olympics

Ben Ainslie, sailing Won his fourth Olympic gold medal at London 2012

Jessica Ennis, athletics Heptathlon Gold at London Olympics

Mo Farah, athletics 5,000m and 10,000m gold at London Games

Kath Grainger, rowing Won gold in London after three successive Olympics silvers

Chris Hoy, cycling Two golds at London Olympics to become GB’s most successful Olympian

Rory McIlroy, golf World No 1, winner of US PGA in 2012 and part of Ryder Cup success

Andy Murray, tennis Won 2012 US Open and gold and silver at London Olympics

Ellie Simmonds, swimming Two gold medals, one silver and one bronze at London Paralympics

Sarah Storey, cycling Four London Paralympic golds

David Weir, athletics Four London Paralympic gold medals

Bradley Wiggins, cycling Tour de France winner and Olympic gold

Tomorrow, BBC1, 7.30pm