No one is entirely sure why (‘and I’ve never really been bothered about the whys,’ she says) but one of Dame Sarah Storey’s arms just didn’t develop fully in the womb.
When she was born, her mother looked at the area where fingers would normally be and asked the doctor ‘But what is she going to do?’.
The answer that the paediatrician gave was not: ‘She is going to be Britain’s greatest ever Paralympian, of course’, because that would have been a long-shot of a guess. What he did say was equally reassuring, though.
‘He told my mum: “Don’t worry. She will be able to do absolutely everything, and if there’s something she can’t do and wants to, then we will find a gadget or some way to help her.”
Sarah Storey, 43, (pictured) became Britain’s most successful Paralympian, when she won her 17th gold medal, in Tokyo last week
‘He said the only thing we could possibly rule out was that I would become a concert pianist, but Mum said no one in the family was that musical anyway, so we could live with that.’
Shostakovich’s loss was sport’s gain. And society’s, really. Last week, Sarah did become Britain’s most successful Paralympian, when she won her 17th gold medal in Tokyo. As sporting careers go, hers is off-the-scale extraordinary. Firstly, it spans 29 years (and counting).
Aged 43 (‘No, I never thought I would still be competing at this age,’ she says), Sarah has competed in no fewer than eight Paralympic Games, winning her first gold in Barcelona aged 14.
As well as 17 gold medals, her Paralympic haul includes eight silvers and three bronzes. Over two elite sports, as well. She started out as a swimmer, then in 2008 switched to cycling. As you do when you are a woman who has grown up being told anything is possible.
Along the way, she has also had two children, and, dear Lord, give the woman another gold medal, please — she tells me she managed to oversee the school shoe-fitting for her youngest Charlie, who starts primary school this week — from Tokyo, in between scooping up all those golds. How?
‘We have one of those foot-measurers at home. Lots of people got them in lockdown, so we had my husband Barney doing that and me on WhatsApp saying “That sounds a bit wide”. I did try to order the shoes from here, but it was coming up in Japanese on my laptop so I had to send Barney the link.’
She will miss Charlie’s first ‘taster’ day at school, but she will be home in time for him to start school-proper. And yes, she spent the weekend sewing name tapes onto his school clothes.
How does she sew, with only one fully functioning hand? With great determination, and an acceptance that some of the stitches might be wobbly, it seems.
Sarah said you have to be selfish as an athlete, but being a parent is the least selfish environment because you have to put the children first. Pictured: Sarah with her children Charlie, three, and Louisa, eight
There is so much to unpick here. That a woman is now able to combine an elite sporting career with very full-time parenting is a sign of huge progress.
That she still feels she needs (or, rather, wants) to be so involved at home is interesting. I’m sure rower Sir Steve Redgrave (who can only boast six Olympic medals) was not worrying about the school shoes while he was in competition mode.
‘It’s been weird,’ she admits. ‘When we started a family, I was determined that I wasn’t going to sacrifice being with them, but it’s a hard one. It’s a very selfish environment, sport. As an athlete you have to be selfish. But being a parent is the least selfish environment because you have to put the children first. I’ve had to work out how to do it, but I know I can’t be a happy athlete unless I’m a happy mum.’
Sport is a very selfish environment, but I know I can’t be a happy athlete unless I’m a happy mum
When I speak to Sarah it is via Zoom, because she is still in Tokyo, excitedly getting ready to fly home. She has not seen her children for three weeks, and before this she had never spent more than a night apart from Charlie, who is just three. His big sister Louisa is eight.
‘Obviously, I’ve talked to them every day and the technology has been amazing. They’ve put me on FaceTime and set the phone in the corner of Louisa’s room so I could watch them play.
‘But it hasn’t been the same because normally they’d be with me. That’s the way it’s always been.’ Sarah’s husband Barney is also a former Paralympic athlete (he competed as a sighted rider in tandem cycling, and has three gold medals of his own), but when they started a family they vowed that, wherever in the world they were competing, the children would go too.
Sarah said her family have been going wild for her whole career, joking that her father likes to plan his travel around the Paralympics. Pictured: Sarah as a child
They’ve travelled en famille to races all over the world, Charlie carrying his little toolkit, which he uses to ‘fix’ his mum’s bike; Louisa measuring out the drinks she will take. ‘They’ve always been part of it, and we hoped that would be the case for Tokyo, too. They were all set to come.’
Covid prevented that. Sarah gave her children the choice about whether she would go, which was quite a gamble. ‘If they’d said “No, stay, Mummy” then I would have had to bow out of the games, but they took it all on board. They said “But who will race?” and I ran through who would take my place. Then they said “But we want you to win” and that was it.’
She didn’t half miss those huge hugs after every victory, though. ‘Obviously, I was elated to win, but in a normal situation you have spectators in the stands. You have noise. For my whole career I’ve had my family going wild. Everyone who was here did their best to fill that space, and they were brilliant, but they were all there in a professional capacity. It’s just not the same.’
She also missed her mum and dad, who had previously attended all her big races. Indeed, she jokes that her father likes to plan his travel around the Paralympics, saying ‘Oooh, Rio looks lovely’ and the like. You quickly realise her parents deserve a medal, too — although, in the literal sense, they do have all of hers.
‘Dad is pretty much the curator of all the medals,’ she says. ‘He looks after them, always has. We did move to a house 500 metres from them recently and he said “Do you want your medals back?”, but my brother joked that I wasn’t responsible enough to be able to have them because I didn’t have a “proper” job. I think I’ll let Dad keep them.’
Sarah (pictured), who competed in both able-bodied and para events, revealed the word ‘disability’ was never mentioned in her childhood home
If there is a secret to Sarah Storey’s success, it must surely be that she was blessed with parents who had a can-do attitude. Her mum was a nurse and her dad an engineer.
The word ‘disability’ was never mentioned at home (‘We never thought in terms of things I couldn’t do, but in terms of finding a solution to how I could do something’) and when she describes those regular trips to the hospital’s limb centre, it is with genuine affection.
‘Mum worked at that hospital anyway, so she would always be chatting to the porters, and I used to love going to see what new gadgets they could come up with. I loved Inspector Gadget, the cartoon, so it was wildly exciting.’
So came a series of ‘gadgets’, very rudimentary NHS ones, mostly made with foam and Velcro, ‘nothing like the carbon-fibre 3D printer ones people can get now if they go private. I remember they made me this sleeve thing that helped me use a knife and fork. Later, I was playing table tennis and I got a wristband thing that helped me throw the ball up with one arm to serve. And when I started to swim, there was a paddle hand. The thinking was that it would help stop the muscles on both sides developing at different rates.’
In her life she has competed in both able-bodied and para events, but had never even heard of the Paralympics until she was already on the competitive circuit.
‘I saw on the news about a girl who was hoping to compete in Barcelona in 1992. I asked my coach what the Paralympics were and he said I probably would fit the classification, but he hadn’t liked to mention it because I was doing so well as I was.’
Sarah (pictured) believes she developed an eating disorder at around 15 in response to being bullied at school because of her sport
She qualified for Barcelona, and came home with six medals, including two golds. She was just 14. The happy ending should have started there, but it didn’t. Her success plunged Sarah into a very difficult phase. At around 15 she developed an eating disorder, a reaction, she believes, to bullying at school.
‘It’s been reported I was bullied because of my arm, but this isn’t the case,’ she says. ‘It was because of my sport. I was the girl with the gold medals who’d arrive at school with wet hair. It marked me out as different. I was a walking conversation-stopper.’
The memories are still painful, and she documents the sort of cruel treatment teenage girls can be adept at.
‘It’s not stone-throwing or anything. It’s hearing them in the toilets saying “Who does she think she is, coming in here with her wet hair?”, it’s the moving the desks in class so you can’t sit with them, but have to sit with the boys, then the “Who does she think she is, sitting with the boys?”, the whispers of “She thinks she’s better than us”. It’s mental torture.’
She tried desperately to fit in. ‘The teachers said “Don’t make a big thing about your medals”, but then they [the other girls] thought I was being aloof, so I tried the opposite. I tried to involve a few of them.
‘I got invites to sporting events and would say “Would you like to come to such-and-such? It will be fun. And Sally Gunnell will be there”. They’d said “Who?”.’
Sarah said her weight loss became noticeable while competing in a swimming event in February 1993. Pictured: Sarah with her husband and children
She was desperately unhappy, living for the weekend ‘when I could get to see my swimming friends’. She was a keen cross-country runner, too, at this point, and says that instead of ‘sitting on my own at lunchtime’ she would go for a run, thus skipping lunch.
She lost weight, ‘which actually made me a better runner’, and a dangerous cycle had begun.
She does not use the word anorexia, but this is what we are talking about.
‘I never stopped eating entirely, but I would start skipping more meals. The weight loss was gradual, but significant. My periods stopped.’
She talks of having to accept she ‘would never be supermodel thin’, but it sounds, as is often the case, as if it wasn’t really about the physical. ‘It was more about the control. It was the one thing I could control.’
Some teenagers manage to hide weight loss until things are critical, Perhaps mercifully, she was required to be seen in a swimsuit, which meant that alarm bells rang early.
In February 1993, she competed in a swimming event where her weight loss was noticeable.
‘One of the other parents said, concerned, “Oh gosh, Sarah has lost a lot of weight. Has she been poorly?” My dad looked at me again and realised something wasn’t right.
Sarah (pictured), who can’t remember the name of any of her bullies, said she’s thankful the bullying wasn’t about her arm because it would’ve been more difficult
‘Mum said, “Are you sure you have been eating all your meals?” and I had to admit that no, I hadn’t. I think it was a cry for help.’
She says her mum and the family GP ‘were brilliant. They got me through’.
Over a period of seven months, she was encouraged to keep a food diary and brought her eating disorder under control.
It was a close call, though. She tells me that at one point she considered quitting competitive sport entirely, so she could fit in at school.
‘I do remember a conversation with my parents where I said “Maybe it would be easier if I wasn’t an athlete. Then I could hang out at the cinema at the weekend.”
‘They said, “But your sport is for life. You are only at school for another 18 months.” That was very wise.’
How must those bullies feel now? Have any of them been in touch? She was a local hero before she was a national one, and she still lives in the same area.
‘No, and I can’t even remember some of their names. I kind of feel sorry for them now. I wish they’d had parents who had helped them compute it, point out that this girl they thought was such a threat wasn’t impacting on their lives.
‘What I am thankful for is that the bullying wasn’t about my arm, because I think that would have been more difficult.
Sarah (pictured) said her children have grown up surrounded by para athletes, so acceptance of ‘difference rather than disability’ is the norm
‘I made the choice to stay an athlete, but I had no choice with regard to my arm, so it would be harder to put it to bed, and move on.’
What’s striking, perhaps, is how little space her disability takes up in her head, and life. Her children don’t see anything missing in her arm, and she laughs at how they have dubbed her left hand her ‘little paw’. ‘They have said they want one, too,’ she says.
They have grown up surrounded by para athletes, so acceptance of ‘difference, rather than disability’ is the norm.
‘They are used to false legs, people in wheelchairs, bikes with adaptations. They are familiar with speech differences from people with cerebral palsy. It’s normal for them to see the person first, whereas many adults see the disability first.’
As her fame has grown, so has the number of requests she gets from the parents of children who also have a missing or non-functioning limb.
She tells of showing one little girl how to tie her shoelaces at the side of a velodrome. ‘Really, the learning process was no different from that of any other child, but it was the mum who had a mental block, thinking that her hand would stop her.
‘I just showed that if she did this loop, then put her little hand here and her big hand there, she could do it. It’s about finding solutions, not saying “I can’t”, because mostly you can.’