Sarah Storey’s campaign to become Britain’s most-decorated Paralympian gets under way on Wednesday, when she competes in her eighth Games in Tokyo.
Now 43, Storey, 14 times a Paralympic gold medallist, is the leading British female Paralympian. If she successfully defends titles in the C5 individual pursuit on 25 August, and C5 time trial and C4-5 road race on 31 August and 2 September, she will go past swimmer Mike Kenny.
Storey’s Paralympian journey is long and remarkable and wends its way from an adolescent career as a gold medal-winning swimmer, in Barcelona in 1992, to a seasoned and all-conquering cyclist in Rio in 2016. She has won nine cycling golds and there have also been multiple national and world titles along the way.
“Competing for my country is all I have ever wanted to do since being six years old and watching the 1984 Games,” she said. “I’m hugely proud to have contributed to such a significant era in Paralympic sport and am incredibly excited to attempt to defend the three gold medals I won in Rio.”
Storey was born without a functioning left hand after her arm became entangled in the umbilical cord in the womb, but by her early teens was an outstanding swimmer. As a 14-year-old at the Barcelona Paralympics, she won two gold medals, three silvers and a bronze, and went on to take 10 more medals at the next three Games before, in 2005, a persistent ear infection forced her out of the pool and on to two wheels.
Like many, Storey’s teenage years were not without difficulties. “When you win five gold medals before your 19th birthday people assume you’re invincible, but I ended up with chronic fatigue syndrome,” she said in 2017. “I had an eating disorder as a 15-year-old so there are lots of things I can recognise in other athletes and things I can do to support them”
“Moving to cycling felt a bit like being at university,” she said of her change in disciplines. “Cycling allowed me to explore the endurance side. My longest event in the pool was five minutes, whereas now some queen stages on the road are nearly four hours long.”
With Covid-19 on the march again in Japan, her family have been unable to travel to Tokyo due to the restrictions in place, which means her children, eight-year-old Louisa and three-year-old Charlie, and husband and fellow track cyclist, Barney, will be watching from home.
While the pandemic has affected her preparations and her trip to Japan, Storey’s Tokyo buildup has been relatively smooth and included an 11th world title, in the Para-cycling Road World Championships C5 class time trial in Portugal.
However, off the road her pre-Games buildup got a little bumpier last spring when it was revealed Storey had benefited from a backdated therapeutic use exemption (TUE) at London 2012.
An adverse analytical finding for salbutamol – the same asthma treatment at the centre of the Chris Froome controversy in 2017 – was established in a urine sample, given after the first of her gold medal-winning rides at the London 2012 Paralympics.
Storey then applied for a retroactive TUE through the British Paralympic Association (BPA), which was granted by the International Paralympic Committee. In subsequent statements, Storey said she had been diagnosed with asthma as a child. “The symptoms presented in the time after the race, so I needed the inhaler as soon as I exited the track, particularly as I was going to need to speak to people in the mixed zone.”
In the aftermath, Storey was publicly supported by the BPA and British Cycling. The BPA said: “We are entirely confident that the correct procedures were followed at the time and have all the relevant supporting documentation.”
British Cycling said: “Our understanding is that the British Paralympic Association and the rider followed the appropriate processes, and that the International Paralympic Committee, UK Anti-Doping and the World Anti-Doping Agency have raised no concerns either at the time or since.”
“I had a TUE for asthma medication prior to 2009, when the requirements changed, and then again after the London individual pursuit,” Storey said. “I have had no further retroactive TUEs, although this could be because I’m very aware, and sadly less inclined, to use my inhaler, given the way retroactive TUEs have been portrayed by the press.”
History has shown it takes a lot to deflect Storey’s focus. All eyes are on Kenny’s record, a threshold that if surpassed, would take Storey’s athletic achievements, across two disciplines and four decades, into uncharted territory.
“Everybody has been talking about that for a while,” she said, “but I’m just trying to find the best version of me.”