Dame Sarah Storey tips more mothers for success in elite sport

Published 7 September 2015

Sarah Storey celebrates winning gold at the UCI Para-Cycling Road World Championship with daughter Louisa

One year out from the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, the priorities for Sarah Storey, one of Great Britain’s best ever athletes, have changed somewhat since she was preparing for London. In 2013 Sarah and her husband Barney became parents, when their daughter Louisa was born, yet just a matter of months later, Sarah returned to action and won two gold medals at the World Championships.

“Becoming parents has a huge impact across everything we do,” admits the 37-year-old. “Louisa is part of our cycling crew now, she comes everywhere with us. She has to be on the roadside and track with me so that normal family life can resume along with the duties of being an athlete. It’s fantastic to have that opportunity to bring her everywhere.”

As Jessica Ennis-Hill triumphed at the Beijing 2015 World Athletics Championships, Storey was watching on knowing exactly how she felt.

“I think it gives you a completely different perspective on life and it makes you a lot more relaxed,” she admits. “But you also have to be really focussed and driven because you’ve got a little person who is relying on you.

“It was great reading about Jess’ story about how Toni Minichiello was so involved in making sure everything was done to maximise her recovery from giving birth. Having those people who have that holistic approach creates a much happier environment and happy athletes are successful ones.”

Working with her coach Gary Brickley, along with her husband, she slowly made her way back into training and admits she didn’t think that winning double gold at the World Championships earlier this year was on the cards.

“It wasn’t an expectation I had to be honest, but I’ve come back stronger and I’m racing better than I did in the lead up to 2012 so I keep pinching myself.

“I spoke to medical staff, my own coach as well as Barney when I got back to training. We took it day by day, I had a caesarean section so that changed the recovery period. I generally went on how my body felt each day, how Louisa needed me, around feeding and other practical things. You have to build those things into training.

“I’m a pretty independent athlete as I know my body so well after 24 years in international sport, but I have an incredible group of advisors, so if there’s ever anything I’m not sure on then I’ll draw on their experience.”

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With an important insight into life as an elite athlete and a mother, does Storey believe athletes like Ennis-Hill and herself have something to offer the next generation of Olympians and Paralympians?

“This definitely gives us a different insight. Hopefully my experiences can help someone else in the future develop as an athlete. Shelly Rudman is another athlete who has had a child then come back strongly, it’s great to see.

“We were talking about this with my women’s cycling team that we could become the first women’s team to travel with childcare support – like the American women’s soccer team. We fully understand how women are getting older in their sports thanks to things like National Lottery funding and not having to work alongside as much as we did previously. We could potentially have more mothers on the team in the future.”

If Storey makes the British Cycling team for Rio 2016, it will be her seventh Paralympic Games since competing as a swimming in Barcelona 1992.

“Every part of the landscape has really changed since Barcelona, and it’s been fantastic to witness that change first hand.

“The biggest change was the publicity around the games and athletes. In 1992, Lord Holmes won six medals in Barcelona and most people know him now because he’s in the Lords campaigning for disability rights, but he is one of the all-time greats in Para-Swimming.”

Storey was one of the first group Paralympians to benefit from National Lottery funding when it began in 1997 and she says it played a vital role in her development as an athlete.

“The funding side of things changed after Atlanta and that brought in a new level of professionalism and required athletes to be much more accountable.”

The Manchester-born cyclist was training in a 25m pool near Strangeways prison when she was at university, but the Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games changed the landscape for elite sport in the region.

“It came along when I was at University so it meant I could confidently complete my studies knowing I could go full-time when I was finished. Funding has allowed me to build up my CV around my sport without having to find a full-time job and along that journey National Lottery funding has provided some amazing facilities as well.”

With one year to go until Rio 2016, Storey is faced with the possibility she could overtake Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson and Dave Roberts to become Britain’s greatest-ever Paralympian, but she confesses that it’s not something she’s really thinking about.

“It’s not really that’s a massive driving force; winning bike races and gold medals is what I focus on. If it happens, it would be incredible but there’s plenty of talent coming up behind me to do even better.

“It’s exciting to think I could potentially hold that title for a little while. My focus now is to be the best I can be when I’m on the start line in Rio – to be better than my rival and that the outcome is more gold medals.”

Storey has a special training method ahead of Rio which could well give her those marginal gains she’s looking for – her daughter.

“Louisa doesn’t like being in the seat on the back unless it’s fast – it’s almost like having a cox in the back keeping us on pace!”

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