Halifax wheelchair racer Hannah Cockroft ready to bake a golden treat in Tokyo
FIve-time champion Hannah Cockroft admits competing at the Paralympics is less nerve-wracking than baking in front of celebrity chef Paul Hollywood.
The wheelchair racing star travels to Tokyo for her third Games appearance having established herself as a household name by sweeping two golds at London 2012 and a further three in Rio four years later.
Her successes and rising status have opened doors away from the track, including the chance to present BBC nature programme Countryfile.
She also featured on a celebrity version of The Great British Bake Off alongside judge Hollywood, an experience she found far more daunting than the demands of being an elite athlete.
“It was never the plan to be a Paralympian, I’ve kind of just rolled with it and every opportunity that’s come up, I’ve said ‘yes’,” said the Halifax-born racer.
“The TV cameras didn’t bother me; cooking in front of Paul Hollywood definitely did that, every day, so scary.
“Racing, I practice every day, I could do it in my sleep, it’s my job.
“Whereas when you’re standing in front of a professional baker and he’s going, ‘Hannah, why are you doing that?’ and I’m like, ‘I’ve no idea – because you’ve written it on my bit of paper is why I’m doing it’, it’s scary.”
Cockroft will defend her T34 100 metres and 800m titles in Japan as she chases down the remarkable 11 golds won by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson between 1992 and 2004.
The 29-year-old – who has deformity to her legs and feet and weakened hips after suffering two cardiac arrests following birth – has spent little time reflecting on her remarkable journey as she focuses on future challenges.
“I’ve done things that I guess people would only dream of doing: I’ve represented my country, I’ve presented on BBC Countryfile, I’ve met the Queen, I’ve been awarded an MBE,” she said.
“I’ve done all of these things and I’m very bad on looking back on what I’ve actually done.
“I’m very much a person that goes, ‘Okay, cool, what’s next?’, instead of going, ‘Oh wow, that was an amazing experience’.
“I’ll have some very impressive things to look back on when I’m old. My life’s probably very different to what it could have been without sport, let’s put it that way.
“Ultimately, I’ve just enjoyed every second and gone with it.”
While her own profile has undoubtedly grown during the past decade, ‘Hurricane Hannah’ believes the Paralympic movement as a whole is on an upward trajectory.
She also remains determined to use her prominent position to inspire disabled athletes of the future.
“A lot more people since London 2012 see Paralympians as elite athletes now,” she said.
“They understand the time that goes into our training and they know names now, its not just Tanni Grey-Thompson or Ade Adepitan (wheelchair basketball player) that they’ve heard of, it’s all of us.
“It’s nice to have more household names really and Paralympic sport is just going to keep growing.
“I would hate to think that there are still kids out there thinking they can’t do sport because they are disabled.
“It’s important to be a role model. It is nice to have that responsibility and hopefully help to change someone else’s life as much as sport has changed mine.”
Having lowered her own world records in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m at the World Para Athletics Grand Prix in Switzerland in May, Cockroft heads to the Japanese capital as one of Britain’s leading medal hopes.
She acknowledges the weight of expectation is far greater now than when she burst on to the scene on home track nine years ago.
“For London, I was very relaxed, a fresh-faced 20-year-old that no-one knew. There was no pressure,” she said.
“I had never won anything so I could just go there and enjoy it – and I still enjoy it – but people now know my name and expect me to perform well and expect gold medals so that does add to the pressure and a lot more nerves.
“I can’t really complain about it; it’s nice for people to want you to win and to believe that you can.
“But it definitely means now that I am one to watch and it’s not as relaxed as it was going into London.”