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. 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 Great Britain’s most decorated Paralympian of all time.
Sarah’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 Sarah 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,” Sarah, 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. You should do as much variation as you can, for as long as you can, and the different skills that you get from the range of sports add up to something greater.
“That early versatility without a doubt has helped shape me into how successful I became as an athlete, both in swimming and cycling.”
Sarah’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.
Further Games nirvana followed at Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 as Sarah 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 Sarah called time on her para-swimming journey and opted to enter a brave new world of para-cycling ahead of Beijing 2008. Few would have forecast the thrilling successes to come and Sarah traces the simplicity of her transition to those early days in school.
“Even though I went to my first Games as a 14-year-old I still clung on desperately to my other sports and versatility for as long as I could,” she added. “But the confidence of competing in so many sports at school definitely helped me switch from swimming to cycling in 2005, even when I was a known athlete.
“Much of my success of transitioning sports was that I had that confidence of several sports, and trying new things from being a child. I was just really curious to see what could happen when I switched sports - I knew I was versatile and I wanted a new challenge.
“I think knowing about that early versatility at school definitely made that transition easier - there was an element of fear that wasn’t there, so I knew that trying something new would probably go well. It was a good challenge and it was a challenge that was achievable, and knowing about my capabilities in other sports as a kid took away that element of fear that ‘gosh, this might not work’.
“The more opportunity you have under your belt the more you can diversify as you get older and the more you can transfer your knowledge with confidence into something different, so variety is the spice of life!”
Sarah took to the velodrome like a duck to water, immediately storming to a pair of golds at her maiden Games on a bike in the time trial and individual pursuit. Further glory on home soil followed at those evocative London Games of 2012, as Channel 4’s flagship coverage helped propel the profile and visibility of Paralympic sport into an entirely new stratosphere.
Sarah played a central part in that national fervour as she romped to four golds - two on the road, two on the track - as she wrote her name deeper into ParalympicsGB folklore, taking her tally of golds to 11 exactly two decades on from her maiden Games appearance.
And a hat-trick of triumphs in Rio came next, as the evergreen star made herself a British sporting immortal on the Brazilian boards. Paralympic sport continues to draw more eyeballs at every Games that passes, with Sarah 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. “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.
“As an individual, I may have found my potential but then again I might not have, and while my body’s still willing and the motivation is still there I want to keep going. 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.”
The second instalment of this two-part feature with Sarah will be released next Tuesday (4 August). She talks about being inspired by the next generation of talented young athletes, her role as a parent and the opportunities her sporting endeavours have given to her two children.
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