I had to travel four hours to train during lockdown
Cockroft left frustrated after local track closed in lockdown Wheelchair racer to return at the British Championships
Hannah Cockroft, the British fivetime Paralympic champion, has voiced her frustration at the logistical headache she faced during lockdown ahead of her return to competitive racing next month.
The 28-year-old is due to compete at the British Championships in Manchester on Sept 4, her first high-profile race since she sealed her 11th world title in Dubai last November.
The world’s fastest female wheelchair sprinter in 2019 endured weekly four-hour round trips for one-hour training sessions at Loughborough’s high-performance centre while her local track in Cheshire was closed. When she turned up after it reopened, she was left quietly stunned.
“When I got there [to the track], I said, ‘I’m honoured that I’m going to be the first person on it’,” said Cockroft, who was due to start the defence of her three Paralympic titles in Tokyo this week.
“They said, ‘Oh, there’s been people on it throughout the whole of lockdown, they’ve been jumping the gate. You could have done it.’ I said, ‘Not in a wheelchair, I couldn’t. You didn’t really think about that, did you?’
“Things like that have been frustrating. If I could have done that, why didn’t they just open it for me? That would have been much simpler. You see your rivals, you see your competitors, who are back on their local tracks and you’re thinking, ‘I’m still driving 100 miles to access one’.”
The easing of coronavirus restrictions and introduction of social distancing measures has impacted many of Britain’s top para athletes, an issue that Emma Wiggs, the British Paralympic champion canoeist, and England deaf footballer Claire Stancliffe have been vocal about in recent months.
Cockroft had to practise on a private road during the pandemic, the ongoing uncertainty of which poses additional concerns for those targeting the delayed Paralympics next year.
“If coronavirus is not under control, it’s going to be really difficult to put us in that [Paralympic] village and ask us all to push our bodies to the absolute limits, which would put us in more danger,” Cockroft said. She will resist pulling out of the rearranged Games until the last minute – “Getting on the plane and I wasn’t comfortable, that would be the day I decide.”
“I don’t think I have any underlying health issues, so I have managed to carry on as normal. [But] if you are having to ease off training so you aren’t getting ill, you won’t go to the Games at your absolute best,” she added.
The Halifax athlete went sub-17 seconds and set a world record time in the T34 100m in Dubai – a barrier she spent seven years trying to break – and months earlier had shattered her own 400m world record at a meet in Switzerland. After a fallow year in 2018, the pandemic has brought renewed self-doubt.
“Suddenly that routine and that rhythm was taken away from me – and from everyone,” Cockroft said. “I do keep thinking, ‘What if I can’t find it again?’”
She will aim to quash that niggling thought in Manchester, where four stand-alone para events – two wheelchair and two ambulant track events – will make their debut at the British Championships.
“To have wheelchair racing put on for the first time at a British championships is massive,” said Cockroft, who will compete in the women’s 400m. “If we can do it this year, then hopefully it’s a sign of good things to come.”
With competition opportunities in 2020 restricted by the pandemic, a record 29 para athletes are expected at the event. Does the coincidence perhaps lend itself to the idea of one day staging a championship exclusively for para athletes?
“It’s definitely something that I would like British Athletics to look into,” Cockroft said.
Race restrictions: Hannah Cockroft had to practise on a private road during the pandemic while her local track in Cheshire was closed