True Independence

“I am a work in progress.” Paralympic athlete Hannah Cockroft recounts the highlights, lowlights and life lessons of a fruitful career

By Hannah Cockroft

Photography by James Cannon

As five-time Paralympic Champion, twelve-time World Champion and World Record holder in the T34 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m in wheelchair racing, everyone expects me to recall one of these titles as my proudest achievement, but to me, my proudest achievement in life is my independence.

When I was born, doctors told my parents that I would never walk and that I would never live an independent life. I had two cardiac arrests at birth that left me with multiple areas of brain damage and, subsequently, also left me with nerve damage, deformed legs and feet, weak hips and mobility problems. Aged three, I took my first steps unaided and I represented Great Britain for the first time aged 18, bringing home my first World Champion title in my debut race for Queen and Country.

“My proudest achievement in life is my independence.”

There is obviously so much that happened between those two events, but somewhere in the middle came acceptance; acceptance of myself, of my disability and of how far it could take me if I let it. Growing up, I fought to be as able as I could be. I followed my two brothers through mainstream school and I walked everywhere, supported by specially made splints on my legs and big heavy boots to hold my feet straight. I avoided my wheelchair at all costs. In my head, that was independence – because I looked and acted like everyone else. That all changed when I was 12.

“At first, my motivation was just to win.”

My PE support assistant invited the local basketball team to do a demo in one of my classes. Up until this point, PE for me was mostly doing something separate from the rest of the class, it was using the exercise bike or the rowing machine, or sometimes it was just sitting and watching. I loved the idea of sport, but I just couldn’t find anything that was accessible for me. When the team came in, they changed my life in an instant. These guys were flying around in wheelchairs, moving so seamlessly and quickly; unafraid and unapologetic for what their bodies could or couldn’t do. I instantly fell in love. That evening, my dad took me to the coach’s house and signed me up to the team. Suddenly, my wheelchair went from something to avoid – something that sat in the cupboard just waiting for the days I couldn’t walk a step further – to being something I couldn’t wait to jump into and never wanted to leave. And so, a whole world of Paralympic sport opened its doors to me, and I couldn’t wait.

“I loved the feeling of being the best at something after a lifetime of always being that one step behind.”

Through the club, I tried anything they could offer me, from wheelchair basketball to wheelchair tennis; wheelchair rugby to Para-athletics. Aged 15, the opportunity to try wheelchair racing came up. As soon as I jumped into the new style of wheelchair, I knew it was for me. I felt proper speed for the first time, I had freedom to move around the track without the support of an adult or a team, and I just felt free. I took to it straight away. Soon after, the other sports and after-school activities started falling away because I wanted to spend more time on the track. At first, my motivation was just to win. I loved the feeling of being the best at something after a lifetime of always being that one step behind. The more finish lines I crossed in first place, the more addictive victory felt. And it stayed this way for years. I could talk about the London 2012 Olympics and World and European Championships, but you can read those stories anywhere. The stories you don’t hear so much are those of the silver medallist.

“Ultimately, we can do anything, but we can’t do everything.”

ACCEPTANCE

2018 will always stick with me as both the best and worst year of my life. Up until this point, I had only been beaten once in my 10-year racing career. But in 2018, my wheels completely fell off. Since the build up of London 2012 and after being sold as a ‘superhuman’ in Channel 4’s advertising campaign for the Games, I found a passion for being in front of the camera. That year, my dream job came along, and I took on the balancing act of full-time training with a presenting job for BBC Countryfile. I was perpetually tired, I never had free time and I was always on the road, but I convinced myself that if I could fit it all in, then everything would keep going my way. What I didn’t see at the time was that my sessions were half-hearted or rushed. I wasn’t eating or sleeping well and having no recovery time was impacting on the training that I was managing to squeeze in.

It all came to a head at the Anniversary Games in July that year. I lost a lot more than a race that day; I lost my title on national TV and my 100m World Record was taken too. A month later, I took silver at the European Championships in Berlin, my first ever major international loss. It was a massive wake up call and it hurt a lot to realise that I had become complacent about the privilege of victory. I had only been winning for the last 10 years because of the work that I had been putting in. As hard as I worked between the Anniversary Games and the European Championships, no amount of training could make up for the months that I had skipped or could slow down the girls who I was racing against. Ultimately, we can do anything, but we can’t do everything. Being the best in the world is a full-time job that can never be compromised.

“The exposure I was able to give disability on Britain’s most watched TV programme was massively important to me.”

I will never regret my choices that year though. As a youngster I would never have dreamed of the experiences I had whilst filming. I herded Highland cattle across a beach in the Outer Hebrides, went on a dolphin observation and became a gamekeeper for a day. And the exposure I was able to give disability on Britain’s most watched TV programme was massively important to me. If I had seen someone in a wheelchair on TV when I was growing up, who knows how much quicker I could have accepted my own. Hopefully, I was able to give that acceptance and belief to someone watching at home.

“Now, my motivation is the challenge of my own body.”

But that year also helped me realise how privileged I am to do what I do and how quickly it could be taken away. My motivation no longer came from winning; it came from challenge and progress. I moved away from home after 2018, took over my own management, bought a new racing wheelchair, found a new strength coach, and started to train with a new club. It really was an ‘all or nothing’ approach to get back to the top, and thankfully, it paid off. I took back my 100m World Record and the gold at the 2019 World Championships in Dubai; my last major championships before the pandemic struck.

Now, my motivation is the challenge of my own body and I love to see how far I can push it each day. This new motivation has been a massive driving force to keep me going through the last year of lockdowns. I’ve had the time and attention to really grow as an athlete in the areas that don’t always get the attention and credit they deserve in performances. From nutrition to psychology, it all adds to the end result. I’m so excited to see how fast I can go when I get everything right and it’s a great feeling to no longer just thrive on victory, but on the feeling of something I can control. I am a work in progress and as long as I can continue to enjoy the challenge, that’s what’s important.

“I am a work in progress and as long as I can continue to enjoy the challenge, that’s what’s important.”

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