Words by Laura Laker
Dame Sarah Storey is Britain’s most decorated Paralympian and the most successful in modern times. After switching from swimming to cycling in 2005, she has added nine Gold cycling medals to her previous six swimming medals and winning Gold in all four events she entered in Rio 2016.
Storey has also competed against able-bodied athletes in Commonwealth Games and won medals at the UCI track cycling world cup. She recently joined British Cycling’s safety campaigning team, wanting to “create a better future for us all" and to show that road safety benefits “not just men, but women, children and grandparents, aunties, uncles and visiting relatives". She even has a train named after her...
The Paralympian cyclist turns 40 this month and is expecting her second child imminently. She talks to TWC about training in pregnancy, why sport should replace reality TV and the “shameful" lack of women’s and Paralympics cycling coverage on TV.
Dame Sarah Storey is a formidable athlete – she won all four Paralympic events she entered last year in Rio: the 500m Time Trial, the 3km Individual Pursuit (in which she set a new world record), the Road Race and Time Trial.
“Last year’s Games was a real high in succeeding with all of my goals," she says. “Lowering the 3k record and winning both road events as well as having Louisa [her daughter] there to cheer me on! I don’t think there were any lows for me because we worked so hard to be properly prepared."
The challenges for Para and women’s sport are similar, she says, and boil down to a lack of TV coverage. Despite the growth in media outlets, the sports focus continues on a narrow range of disciplines.
“The lack of coverage of women’s sport remains shameful," Storey tells TWC. “The problem of retaining schoolgirls in sport hasn’t changed in my 25 years as an international athlete."
Storey believes as well as encouraging women into sport, more sporting role models could help address rising mental health problems among young people, by promoting a realistic cross-section of body and personality types, to counter reality TV portrayals of quick fame and one ‘look’ not everyone can achieve.
“Not everyone is an extrovert in a size zero pair of jeans, or a certain style of make-up or brand of clothing," she says.
“Sport teaches work ethic and overcoming setbacks and, when covered properly, exposes the normal challenges everyone faces growing up. Sport isn’t just about winners, it’s about the process of following goals and creating a performance."
“If half the money pumped in to these [reality TV] shows was spent covering sport we could boost coverage, and therefore sponsorship, in women’s sports. Very few of the Women’s World Tour events received live TV coverage."
Since tweeting about this, she says 99% of responses were in agreement.
“It’s surprising the number of people who watch because ‘there’s nothing else on’. That isn’t about supplying a demand, it’s about people just tolerating it for a quiet night on the sofa!"
Similarly, for Paralympics sports, she says, lack of coverage means fewer role models, as well as fewer sponsorship opportunities for athletes which, compounded by reduced medal prizes, mean making ends meet is harder for Paralympians.
“The USA is one many nations who don’t place the same importance on Paralympic and Olympic medals, with athletes receiving $25k for an Olympic gold and only $5k for a Paralympic gold in previous Games.
“Ultimately," she says, “to get more grassroots participation there needs to be more para-sport athletes visible and a greater number of role models covered all the time and not just once every four years."
Storey has enjoyed training in pregnancy, and because she was fit and racing already this time, she continued with slightly higher intensity for longer.
“The important thing," she says, “is to listen to your body and not over-exert yourself, especially after the first 8-10 weeks.
“With it being the second pregnancy my bump appeared quicker, so my body couldn’t go as hard as I wanted."
“Some people try to ‘warn’ you about cycling, in case you fall," she says. “You don’t make a habit of falling off normally so why would that change in pregnancy? You are just as likely to trip or fall over on your feet as you are on two wheels."
For safety, Storey doesn’t ride in the rain while pregnant and rides cautiously if caught in a shower. She advises carrying plenty of water and some extra food, just in case. She adjusts the bike as the pregnancy progresses – she recommends a sloping stem, or forks with a longer steerer to bring bump up at the front, and for comfort.
“Women may feel criticised for exercising in pregnancy but if you are already fit and training regularly it is more detrimental to stop than to carry on. Reducing the hours and intensity will feel normal, and as you get bigger you go slower anyway!"