Women's Sport: Dame Sarah Storey on getting ready for Tokyo and training through the coronavirus pandemic

Competitors don’t come much more experienced or decorated than Dame Sarah Storey. With a total of 14 gold Paralympic medals, she is Britain’s most decorated female Paralympian of all time. She also has 38 world titles and 76 world records to her name. 

Now a cyclist, Storey was a swimmer before switching to the bike and has competed in seven Paralympics. Four of these were in the pool and her first was Barcelona 1992. At the Beijing 2008 Games when she competed for the first time in cycling, Storey left with two golds in her new sport.

Given this experience, it is little surprise that Storey is pragmatic about the uncertainty surrounding the Tokyo 2020 games and the unprecedented circumstances athletes around the world are facing because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Training through the pandemic

Over the phone due to social distancing, Storey explains how the situation is “problem-solving at its absolute extreme”.

In some ways, Storey, who explains that she does all of her training on the bike and little to none in the gym, is in a fortunate position as she lives in the Peak District so can train outdoors as usual. But even with this, she explains it is important to make good decisions.

“It’s vital that you don’t get ill or injured for lots of different reasons, not just personal ones, but also because we need to make sure we create that capacity in the health service. So if it’s a wet and rainy day, there’s a higher chance of sliding off your bike so you might choose to go on a turbo instead.

“If it’s a bright, sunny day like it was the other day, I was out in the Peaks training on the road. Those are the decisions I made throughout my pregnancy when I was training as well, so for me, it feels like I’m just making good decisions for different reasons now, and trying to make sure I stay fit and healthy until we know when we can start racing again.”

She is practical about the mental impact of the uncertainty too: “As an athlete, you can only control what you can control and this is something that really will test everybody’s resilience and internal intrinsic motivation.

“There are a lot of unknowns but there are also a lot of unknowns anyway. I think it’s about trying to keep on the right track with what you can control if you’re able to go out training or you have to adapt your training. It’s not ideal, obviously, but a lot of people are in the same position.”

For Storey, it is about finding solutions wherever possible: “There is a solution, it might not be a good solution and it’s really hard if swimming pools get closed and you’re a swimmer. But there are staff in the swimming world that are working to mitigate that and everyone’s in it together.”

Storey’s road to Tokyo

Up until coronavirus turned the world upside down, Storey’s training had been going well. She won three golds at the Track World Championships at the end of January, defending her C5 individual pursuit and scratch race titles as well as winning the omnium. 

Since then she explains she went on a three-week training camp and had started racing on the road building her fitness. She describes it as, “exactly what I wanted so it’s all looking good”.

With so many games under her belt, it helps that Storey knows what is coming in the run-up. She explains: “Knowing the processes that you go through that are not specifically in your control and are dictated by that runoff means you know what to expect. There’s nothing new there.”

From there, her preparation is all about working backwards from the day of the race and making sure all the different types of training are factored in. It sounds straightforward but in practice, it’s anything but. 

Storey says: “When you’re preparing for multiple events in one week like you are with the Paralympics, you’ve got two track events first, a couple of days, and then you’ve got two road events. That creates an intense period of racing that’s quite hard to train for, but it creates a good challenge to put together the right types of training and make sure that you’re fit and healthy.”

What this looks like for Storey is lots of training on the road with track introduced about a month out from the competition. The reason? Because: “You can’t get fit riding in circles on the velodrome as an endurance rider, so you go outside to get that fitness and then you apply that to the velodrome,” she explains.

Bringing up the next generation

Away from her training, for the past year Storey has been helping the next generation of cyclists through her role as the principal of the ŠKODA DSI Cycling Academy, an initiative set up to help address the lack of women in cycling – there is, for example, no Tour de France for women.

In fact, coaching and supporting younger athletes is something that Storey has done throughout her career, first in swimming as a coach for the junior northwest of England team to this latest project supporting five budding female cyclists.

She reflects: “It’s been a privilege across my career to be able to support younger and developing athletes in different situations, from that swim team when I was younger and now into my team at Storey racing and alongside that at Skoda.”

Since the academy was founded in 2019, Storey has helped the five cyclists grow and develop. She says: “Each of the riders has been able to get stuck in and improve and when you see those improvements, and you see how much joy it brings to them, that’s what it’s all about.”

Currently, racing is on pause but Storey added that she is looking forward to continuing working with them again, taking a positive view on how this period can impact their growth: “This period of training time is a bit like a winter training block again, you’ve got no racing you’re just training hard and waiting for that opportunity to get back into the race situation.”

While Storey is working hard with the ŠKODA DSI Cycling Academy to bring about more equality in cycling, it isn’t something that has impacted her career much. She explains: “I was aware of inequalities, it’s not specifically affected my career because you adapt to the scenario that you find yourself in.”

She returns to an idea that has been woven throughout our conversation – the importance of focusing on what you can control and not getting hung up on the rest. She explains: “In cycling on the track, we do 500 meters and men do a kilo. The kilo would suit me more than the 500 because I’m not much of a sprinter, but I still managed to find a way to win it in the Games in London. So it affects you, but it affects you on the periphery because you can’t control that.”

Equally, this doesn’t mean that it is something that she ignores altogether, adding: “You can add your opinion to the discussions but the focus is on what you can control and performance is what you can control.

“I think the development of my mental training has probably set me in good stead and then you take the opportunities available to you and you work to improve things, either for your benefit or somebody else’s benefit if It’s not going to happen for a number of years down the line.”

Whenever the Tokyo Games do take place, Storey is sure to be an inspiration to people across the country and if people do want to join the sport, her advice is simple: have a go, find a velodrome or attend a development session. 

She says: “If you’re trying to develop in cycling, the best piece of advice that I have is that it is process-driven. There’s no real destination, it’s a journey, so enjoy that process and make the most of that journey, not thinking: ‘Oh, well, I’ll be happy if I get to this point’. Every day, even when you’ve achieved that first goal, you can set new goals and continue on your journey.”

For Storey, what she is most looking forward to about the next stage in her journey is competing somewhere new. She says: “I’ve never been to Japan and I’ve got three titles to defend so there’s that unknown of whether that would be successful or not which is always a privilege, for the whole experience and that challenge of performing on a specific day. That’s always the excitement.”

Dame Sarah Storey is the Principal of the ŠKODA DSI Cycling Academy that was set up to support aspiring female cyclists and address the gender imbalance in cycling. For more information visit www.skoda.co.uk/discover/cycling-academy

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