For Team GB’s athletics team, the Beijing Paralympics were a relative disappointment, resulting in only two gold medals. Hannah Cockroft, 20, took up wheelchair racing around the time those Games were taking place, after being introduced to the sport by Tanni Grey-Thompson’s husband Ian, and in the intervening four years has broken 21 world records. Safe to say, the T34 world champion at 100m and 200m is one of Britain’s best track and field medal hopes this time around.
Cockroft already has form in the Olympic Stadium. The Halifax girl was the first athlete to set a world record there, for T34 over 100m, in May.
She has also broken world records at 400m and 800m – unlike able-bodied runners, wheelchair racers often compete in both sprint and endurance events – but those distances are not available for her classification at the Games.
Her talent is such that Cockroft has attracted criticism and doubts about her disability – T34 is for brain-damaged and cerebral palsy athletes – fuelled, it seems, by the fact that she can walk short distances unaided, albeit with a lot of difficulty.
She suffered two cardiac arrests at birth which damaged two areas of her brain, leaving her with weak hips, deformed feet, deformed legs, problems with fine motor skills, and problems with mobility and balance. So she can communicate just fine, but tying a shoelace is impossible.
Cockroft, whose infectious personality has already made her a media favourite, loves the training, racing, travelling, camaraderie and TV work of elite sport, but struggles with the strict diet enforced by her new head coach. “My parents and brothers have to do the healthy diet too, to help me out,” she says.
She also loves, she admits, the pop group McFly, and painting her nails to match her kit on a given day.
Her early sporting talent was not restricted to wheelchair racing. Before specialising, she tried wheelchair basketball, swimming and seated discus, winning silver at the school games for the latter aged 15. It was there that she was persuaded to try racing by Ian Thompson, who coached her for the first two years of her career.
Success has come more quickly than she dared to hope. “At the beginning the aim was Rio in 2016, so when I got selected for the world championships, I thought it would just be good experience – but I won double gold and thought ‘what is going on?’ It’s only been four years, so it’s all happened really quickly, but it’s been amazing.”
Her biggest threats are the racers from Australia and the Netherlands, but she told The Independent: “I’m still pretty confident as I’m sure I can psych these girls out. The way I look at it, I’m going in as world champion with 21 world records behind me, so I’m kind of hoping for double gold, which is what everyone is expecting of me.
“It’s my first games and I’m still young, so I kind of want everyone else’s expectation to go down a bit, but I am aiming for double gold. No one goes to the Paralympics to win bronze.