Dame Sarah Storey has been there and done it all but believes one piece of advice stands truer than most - variety is the spice of life, writes Will Jennings.
The para-cyclist has enjoyed a remarkable career sampling the dizzy Paralympic heights, making her debut as a 14-year-old swimmer at Barcelona 1992 before going on to scoop 14 gold medals and become Britain’s leading female Paralympian of all time.
Storey’s decision to swap pools for pedals back in 2005 was unprecedented at the time but has proved an unequivocal success, with the 42-year-old going on to claim nine of her golds on a bike and show versatility reigns supreme.
Few are aware that such a seamless transition was the product of a sport-obsessed youth, however, and Storey says those early days dabbling in netball, table tennis, gymnastics and cross country were what first got the ball rolling in her rise.
“Balancing so many different sports in school definitely helped my progress as an athlete,” Storey, an early recipient of SportsAid funding, said.
“My primary school, Disley, was very big on sport so I just tried every sport I was offered - I loved being outside and trying to challenge myself.
“I did a lot of gymnastics, played table tennis in an adult league, did cross country running, track and field athletics and just tried everything!
“I was always obsessed with sport and the concept of competing for my country - that was really the big ambition I had ever since I was six and watching the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984 on the TV.
“That versatility definitely provided me with far more than if I’d been specialising early, and I think that’s the key for all young athletes.
“That early versatility without a doubt has helped shape me into how successful I became as an athlete, both in swimming and cycling.”
Storey’s passion for sporting glory had been born, fuelling the fires for Paralympic success that were realised in the Barcelona water 28 years ago.
The then-14-year-old stormed to a pair of gold medals - in the SM10 200m individual medley and S10 100m backstroke - three silvers and a bronze, as she marked herself out as a thrilling young talent and became the name adorning sports fans’ lips far and wide.
🎥: The @StoreyRT might be better known for racing bikes, but everyone on the team rides their bike for leisure & transport too, here’s why we’re right behind the @BritishCycling #ChooseCycling campaign 🚲🚲🚲🚲 pic.twitter.com/rG6xVnF0Xe
— Dame Sarah Storey (@DameSarahStorey) May 18, 2020
Further Games nirvana followed at Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 as Storey continued to augment her glittering medal collection, winning three more golds, five more silvers and two more bronzes across that Games treble.
But then came that startling career move, as Storey took to the velodrome like a duck to water and immediately stormed to a pair of golds at her maiden Games before winning four more in London and a further three in Rio.
Paralympic sport continues to draw more eyeballs at every Games that passes, with Storey witnessing a marked transition since 1992 as further steps towards equality - catalysed by terrestrial television coverage - continue to be taken.
But as she prepares for a remarkable eighth Paralympics in Tokyo next summer, the 42-year-old believes there is still considerably more that needs to be done.
“If you were to draw a graph of the changes in the Paralympics, it changed drastically between 1992 and 2000, and then from Athens to London it ramped up to a massive spike,” she said.
Being able to cycle for everyday journeys is really important. This week @CyclewalkSCR take a closer look at the women who are tackling the challenges & how they are championing the need for better infrastructure & safe space for everyone to get around on their bike more easily. https://t.co/XXyWUpdeEH
— Dame Sarah Storey (@DameSarahStorey) July 27, 2020
“But I think that progress has plateaued over the last eight years - there’s often not a lot of interest in promoting Paralympic sport in between the Games, which is a huge disappointment for me.
“It’s at a pivotal point now where we need that investment either side of the Paralympics to really bring disability sport to the next level - it really needs to build far more equality than we have and far more focus on para-sports between Games.
“My determination for Tokyo definitely still burns as brightly even though it’s my eighth Paralympic Games.
“I’ve achieved a lot but I haven’t achieved what I dreamt of when I was a kid - I dreamt of that Olympic Games that I watched in 1984, and while progress has been made, there’s still more work to be done in bringing about equality with able-bodied sports.”
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