British wheelchair racer on becoming a seven-time Paralympic champion, Jo Coates’ resignation from UKA and changing perceptions in para-sport

It’s been quite a few weeks for Hannah Cockroft after she became a seven-time Paralympic champion, securing two more gold medals – in the T34 100m and 800m – in Tokyo this summer.

Since then she has opened the elite wheelchair races at the Virgin Money London Marathon, saw Jo Coates and Sara Symington resign from UK Athletics as chief executive and performance director over Twitter, and has dressed up in period costume as the star of Müller’s new TV advert.

It seems a long time now since Cockroft took to the track in Tokyo where she broke her own T34 100m world record with 16.39 and then overcame a slashed hand – due to slipping on the wet track in practice just 45 minutes before the race – to narrowly miss out on breaking her own T34 800m world record a few days later.

All in an empty stadium. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, spectators weren’t allowed, like the Olympics a few weeks earlier, to watch the Paralympic action in the Olympic Stadium and it’s something which affected the 29-year-old.

“The expectations were 10 times worse than what I had going on in my head,” Cockroft says. “As a Paralympic athlete you’re used to empty stands and no one there supporting you and that’s fine but in your head you’re working for the Paralympics for five years.

Hannah Cockroft (Getty)

“Obviously, no one planned the pandemic and this was the only way the Games were going to go ahead but it was rough and I don’t cry, but I cried when I finished the 100m because I just felt it was such an anti-climax.

“I’d gone in there, broken a world record, done everything on my list, absolutely smashed it and there was literally nobody. This is a big empty stadium.”

“You would get on buses and people were literally lining the roads with signs. There was one lady that had a sign which said ‘you are my hero’ and they were all stood there day and night. That was incredible. You just wished people were there as I’ve seen that stadium full. 

“As a Paralympic movement, I feel like we needed crowds there to give us that extra boost and to keep us going. Covid took that away.”

Cockroft was part of a Great Britain Paralympic team that finished fourth in the athletics table, behind China, Russian Paralympic Committee and USA. The team swept up nine golds, five silvers and ten bronzes, courtesy of some fresh faces like 21-year-old Thomas Young, who won gold in the T38 100m, and Owen Miller, who claimed victory in the T20 1500m in his first Paralympics.

“This is the nicest team that I’ve ever been apart of and we had a really nice mix,” the seven-time Paralympic champion says.

“To see Tom [Young] win gold was a joy. When Owen Miller won gold he just didn’t take his medal off and literally wore it in the food hall, around his accommodation and I was like ‘good on you, be proud of what you’ve achieved as that’s amazing’.

“That’s what we needed as a team with people who genuinely felt putting on that kit was a privilege. I think sometimes you get lost and feel it’s like a job but those guys just went and did what they love.”

Dan Greaves (Getty)

In the October edition of the magazineAW sat down with six-time Paralympic champion Dan Greaves who highlighted that attitudes towards para-sport are continuing to change, stating “they see the performance first and then the athlete – which is what we all want.”

Cockroft concurs.

“I totally agree with what Dan [Greaves] says,” adds the 29-year-old. London 2012 was a lot about the back story. Why is Jonnie [Peacock] missing a leg? Why is Hannah in a wheelchair? What happened?

“I think we’re getting to a point now where we’re almost moving away from what happened in life to what’s happening on the track. That’s what sport is about, right there in that moment. 

“We want people to look at it as you notice the disability but putting it into context if you put an able bodied person in a wheelchair, they probably couldn’t go 100m in 16.39 seconds. So it is all about the performance, the sprints and the times you do when you’re out there. To get through that we need the media to keep pushing the actual races that we’re in.

“I would love to get to a point where instead of having an hour of para-athletics at the beginning. Why don’t we have Adam Gemili running the 100m followed by Jonnie [Peacock]? Actually mix it as I guarantee you people would watch it. Athletics fans are athletics fans and they don’t care whether you’re missing a leg or where you come from, they just want to watch sport.”

It does seem that the next natural step in promoting para-sport is through coverage of athletes and races through TV and other forms of media.

Hannah Cockroft in the TV ad (Müller)

One company that has taken that step is Müller, who sponsor British Athletics. As part of their ad series promoting Müllerlight, Cockroft has taken the hot-seat and thinks such a move is so impactful for para-sport and perception of para-athletes in general.

“The whole thing wasn’t about Hannah the athlete, it’s a situation where you wouldn’t expect to see a wheelchair user,” Cockroft says. To have it out there now with the seven-time Paralympic champion means para-sport is out there and there’s representation.

“People see my name and go, I wonder who she is and what she’s done? That draws attention to the sport and I can’t name another para-athlete who is in an advert.”

Cockroft now looks to the future and it’s safe to say the athletics landscape across the UK has changed after both Coates and Symington quit from their positions last week, news where Cockroft found out over Twitter.

“I remember opening my phone and I was like ‘oh my god’,” Cockroft adds. I literally spoke to Jo [Coates] three days before and she was like ‘yeah let’s sit down and have a meeting’ and then she was gone. It felt a bit like a backstab to be honest. Don’t promise me the world and then just leave. We’re in a very difficult situation and I think it will be a rocky few months. 

“The communication since the Twitter outburst has been really good. We’ve had emails from Paula [Dunn], Christian Malcolm and others higher up. We’ve had voicenotes, phone calls to ask how we were. But we needed that before everything came out. Hindsight is a great thing. The difficult thing is that we as athletes don’t really know how this is going to affect us yet.

“For me I want more stability in staff, more integration with events and let’s get our events back on TV, not just us but the able-bodied guys as well. They’ve just launched all this ‘athlete first’ stuff and currently the athlete is not first. I can’t go any further down and I do believe the people stepping up love our sport as much as we do.”

Hannah Cockroft MBE spoke on behalf of Müllerlight. As a seven-time Paralympic champion and five-time world record holder, Hannah proves that you really can have it all. Müllerlight smooth toffee is low fat, high protein, 0% added sugar and Müllerlicious.

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