Here are a comprehensive list of the most frequently asked questions Sarah gets asked.
Click on the question to reveal the answer:
Here are a comprehensive list of the most frequently asked questions Sarah gets asked.
Click on the question to reveal the answer:
My parents had me playing in the garden from as soon as I could stand up. We have always been a very sporty family and so playing cricket, football and racquet sports was something my sister, brother and I all did from a very early age. It wasn’t that our parents were pushy in any way, quite the opposite, they just wanted us all to enjoy a fit and active lifestyle. I loved being outside and always loved the competitive element of sport and so when I when I started at Primary School, a sporty school, I was in my element.
I was 4 years old and in reception class at school. The school had a swimming club every Saturday afternoon and all the kids would go there and learn to swim. The club was advanced to, we would attend school galas and everyone had the opportunity to progress through the different distance badges to doing their lifesaving and survival badges. Our main swimming teacher Lyn Ashton was also brilliant at teaching synchro and so we would learn all the sculling and strength based aspects of that too. When I was swimming at the High Performance Centre in Manchester some years later, Lyn even came there to help with the sculling aspects of our training.
I was 6 years old when I watched my first Olympics in Los Angeles and the whole event just completely mesmorised me. I couldn’t miss any part of the competition and loved watching people from all over the world win medals. It was after seeing Sarah Hardcastle winning medals at those Games, at the age of 15, that I realised I could be old enough to do the same in 1992. I desperately wanted to know what it would feel like to have a gold medal hung round your neck and be listening to the National Anthem knowing you are the best in the world. Although I did tell people that is what I wanted to do I don’t think anyone believed me!
Although I was a good swimmer at that time and completed my 3000m badge when I was 6, I didn’t really care which sport it was that I represented my country in. I loved all the sports I was doing at school and went on to represent the county at National level in Athletics, Table-Tennis, Biathlon and Cross-Country. I was also on the county Netball team for a short time too. All of these sports were in able-bodied fields as I didn’t really know much about the Paralympics back then.
I watched a swimming article on the news in 1990 about a girl with one arm who had broken the world record over the 100m freestyle at the World Championships and was looking to make the 1992 Paralympic Games. I don’t remember who the girl was and I know she didn’t make the team because we had no one of her disability on the team that year. I also saw Clare Bishop [now married and called Cunningham and is a para-triathlete] on Wogan talking about how she had been the youngest swimmer at the World Championships, aged 12.
My coach at the time was a brilliant former Deaflympics swimmer called Alastair Johnson and so I asked when whether he knew how I could go for Trials for the Paralympic Team. Alastair gave me the address of the lady who ran the North West of England squad and so I wrote to her and gave her a list of my personal best times and described my disability – a congenital absence of the left hand.
It took 18 months of writing letters, each time I swam a Personal Best I would write again, but eventually the lady replied and I went to a North West selection event for the National Championships. I sailed through the event and was also spotted by an amazing lady called Trina Curran who said she thought the British team would want to see me prior to the National Junior Championships, so the following weekend I went to meet them. After the initial process being so slow, it was all suddenly going at a very fast pace. Before long I was in the training squad for Barcelona, I was only just 14 years old and the Games were 9 months away!
My left arm has shorter bones both above and below the elbow, and in total my left arm is about 18cm shorter than my right arm.
Within the Paralympics the classifications take into account all kinds of different impairments, from the most severely impaired who rely on support from others to do day to day things like washing and dressing, to very mildly impaired athletes like myself. The bottom line is that anyone who is going to be at a significant disadvantage whilst competing against a non-impaired person, will usually get classified into one of the groups.
I asked the very same question when I first switched from swimming, because I thought riding a bike was all about the legs. I was quite wrong and the mechanics of having both brakes on one lever and having one hand do all the work with the gears as well, is quite tough. Sometimes I have to choose between braking or changing gear! The upper body contribution is greater than I first realised, so whilst I am not at as much disadvantage compared to someone with both hands missing, there is still a disadvantage and I obviously compete with other girls who have a similar level of disadvantage.
Although the length of my arms is also quite different, through good coaching and a lot of practice, I have been able to disguise the length difference quite well and so I look less disadvantaged compared to someone who has spent no time on this. In fact it is quite true of a lot of the best paracyclists, they have all worked so hard at their balance, it is often difficult to work out their impairment level just by watching them riding their bike.
Well it wasn’t for a long time after that I realised I was the youngest ever [until Ellie Simmonds won as a 13 year old in Beijing in 2008] so it didn’t feel weird in that sense, especially as the team was a very young team and our relay squad had 3 teenagers in it.
Winning on my international debut was everything I had dreamed about. I took almost 4 seconds off the 100m backstroke world record and became the first female swimmer to dip under 2 minutes and 40 seconds for the 200m Individual Medley. That sort of time people just do in training these days, but in 1992 it was a big step forward for the sport.
I look back and it gives me shivers to think I had achieved my first dreams at such a young age but at the time I was just taking it in my stride, answering the media questions with honesty and making sure I was training hard to get the next job done on my list.
Although winning gold was my 6 year old dream, I also harboured the desire to become a successful defending champion and deep down wanted to be one of those athletes who isn’t just around for a Games or two, but had the resilience and work ethic to go to several Games. I always loved the hard work of swim training and didn’t mind the arduous schedule of morning training before school, having my breakfast in the car and then going straight back after lessons were over. To me it was all part of the job and I have always loved training and racing.
Coming home from Barcelona I just got my head down ready for my first World Championships in 1994 and then it was on to 1996 and I sat my A levels just before the Games started in Atlanta.
I was in some ways as I was going to University and I didn’t know whether combining the two would be possible. I didn’t swim much for about 3 months after the Games and started to really miss it. During that time I was settling in at University and doing a whole host of post Games events from Noel’s House Party to my first appearance on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. I had been Great Britain’s most successful athlete at the Games in 1996, so a lot of events came my way after the Games and I really enjoyed it. By the time Christmas came round I was itching to race again so got back into training. It was only for a brief moment I wondered about retiring from international sport and I have never had a brief moment like that again.
On reflection I am quite philosophical about not winning gold as I had been through a lot prior to the Sydney Games suffering with chronic fatigue syndrome that nearly ended my career. In both Sydney and Athens I did personal best times to win the silvers, just happened to get beaten by someone better on the day. At the time it was very frustrating as I was defending 3 titles in Sydney and in Athens I went in as a 3 times World Champion from the 2002 Championships. Ultimately as an athlete you have to accept you are not going to win all the time, if you are producing your own personal best but still get beaten you have done everything you could and there is nothing else you can do until the next time. I feel proud to have been able to say I was swimming personal best times right up to the end of my swimming career and even at my retirement swim meet in November 2005 I almost broke the world record over 100m freestyle, despite spending much of that year out of the water with ear infections!
Losing races also teaches you more than winning, so whilst it isn’t great at a major event to miss out, even the best athletes have to lose sometime and the important part is to learn and move on.
No it wasn’t the intention to swap, it was something of an accident!
After the Games in Athens I did a bit of cross training to stay fit and part of that involved going to the Manchester Velodrome to learn how to ride on the track, as anyone can do. Then in the early part of 2005, having spent a month in Australia doing some swim training, I came home to find I had picked up an ear infection while I was out there. The normal practice for an ear infection which happen from time to time as a swimmer, is to have a week out and then all is well again.
Unfortunately for me the infection returned in the other ear about 2 weeks after the first one cleared up. At first everyone thougt it was bad luck but then after another week out of the water, the first ear got infected again less than 2 weeks after getting back to normal training. By the time I got to July 2005, I’d had six ear infections and each one had taken longer and longer to clear up. The speciallists were quite bemused as to why the infections were so stubborn and in the middle of July told me they were keeping me out of the water until they were convinced my ears had functioned normally for 6 weeks.
I’d been using a bike to help me stay fit whilst I couldn’t put my head in the water and during that time had completed my safety accreditation at the Velodrome in Manchester. I had also borrowed a road bike from British Cycling to help keep me out of the gym and had gradually been building up my confidence on two wheels, even doing a couple of small races to help satisfy my love of racing.
When I discovered I was banned from the water for up to 3 months, I was gutted, but then British Cycling offered to trial me over 3000m to see whether I could meet the selection criteria for the 2005 European Championships, due to be held in the middle of August. I turned up for the trial and rode double track discs for the first time to record a time of 4 minutes and 3 seconds, which turned out to be just 2 seconds outside the current world record!
Everyone, including me was quite shocked, but I had booked my ticket to the Europeans! Whilst out there in Holland I was entered into all the events possible and came home with a silver in the 500m, a gold and new world record in the 3000m, a bronze in the Road Time Trial and for good measure on the final day I won the sprint finish to take the gold in the Road Race too!
Goodness no, I didn’t really see that as anything other than I would have an enormous decision to make! I had always intended to get back in the pool and see through the following 4 years into Beijing. UK Sport told me I had been offered places on both the swimming and cycling programmes for 2006, so it was up to me to decide who I was going to accept the place with.
I entered the National Track Cycling Championships not long after the Europeans and rode in all the able-bodied events finishing 7th in the 3000m and dipping under 4 minutes for the first time. Never in swimming had I finished so high up in an able-bodied Nationals so it made me curious about how good I could become.
In the end I had a long chat with my swimming coach, Colin Hood, and asked for his advice. We talked it through for ages and I explained to him all the things I still hadn’t done in swimming. For the most part Colin laughed at me and told me that no one would ever remember those things, but that they would remember the other stuff I had achieved over the previous 14 years. As everyone now knows, we decided I should switch paths and put myself out of my comfort zone and see whether I could make the transition to being equally as good on a bike!
It is difficult to say how easy or hard it actually was because I just set myself the target of trying to ride as fast as I could and that is something I don’t believe I have yet achieved.
The technical differences between the sports are without doubt, vast, but then training time has been there to master new skills and when I am out on the road I always have something to work on whether it be pedalling efficiency, aerodynamics or out of the saddle accelerations. I have gradually learned to do new things and every year I get better at bike handling, cornering, climbing and race tactics. Certain things have been harder to master than others and breaking my collar bone twice in the first two years of being officially a cyclist was certainly a tough introduction.
I would say the injuries have been quite different. In swimming the injuries were constant niggles and I would always be having maintenance physio to try and prevent my shoulders from getting worse than they were. It was all overuse acute pain that never fully went away but was generally manageable.
In cycling you do a proper job, whether it be a broken bone or the need for stitches. I raced the Track Worlds in 2007 with my second broken collarbone because it was a risk worth taking for the chance to win a World title the year before the Paralympics.
I don’t think anyone really knew whether I would win anything in Beijing. I had the chance of winning two but all of my events were not straightforward races due a shortage in medals that could be handed out in women’s Paracycling. A decision was made to combine the 6 women’s classes into 2 groups of 3 and each group would race for 1 gold medal. In order to try and create some kind of handicap system so that it was fairer on those who had more of a disability within that group of three classes, the organisers decided to use a system whereby the rider who got closest to the world record in their class would be the winner.
The biggest problem with this system was I had been regularly lowering the 3000m World Record from a 4.01.1 down to a 3.48.666 in the 3 years from 2005 to 2008. The other two classes combined in our group had not lowered their world record at all so it would be far easier to potentially break it.
In the event I had to train for a ride that would have placed me in the top 8 at the Olympic Games, I rode a 3.36.637 and only won by 0.23 of a second! A similiar factor system was used for the Road Time Trial, based on the average speeds of the winners in the Road Worlds in 2007. I was absent from those Worlds because the collarbone had been too painful on the bumps of the road to attempt what I had done of the Track [the Track and Road events were held at the same location that year] so it probably worked in my favour as everyone had hoped I would have won the 2007 World title had it not been for the injury. I won the Road Time Trial by 90 seconds after the factor had been applied, but by almost 2 minutes on actual time.
Yes factors are the worst part about paracycling and only used because their are not enough medals to give out. Obviously there are also some disability groups who don’t have many competitors and normally an event can only be held at international level if their are 6 entries from 4 nations, but still that isn’t a great scenario. I have always been able to race in a class with a good number of women and in Beijing we were penalised because the other female classes were so small. Some nations still don’t seek out female cyclists and that applies to the able-bodied side of the sport as well!
In London more medals are available than were in Beijing and so factoring is only affecting the track time trial events for the solo riders. In Beijing it was mainly the women who were affected by factors but now it is both men’s and women’s classes and only in one event. It makes it better for the women, but it is tough on the men. The Time Trial is the only event that can be factored and not adjust the event, everyone will still be doing a Time Trial over 1000m for men and 500m for women, but each rider’s time will be adjusted according to a factor based on the third fastest time in every men’s class over the last 5 or 6 years. Using 3rd fastest time and men’s results for everyone is a fairer system than the world record system we faced in Beijing, but it still means the World Champion in each event only had a 50-50 chance of converting that to a Paralympic Gold. I guess the only good thing is that it makes the Paralympic harder to win than the World Championships, which is how it should be.
Ultimately in the Olympic Games a change in the rules [meaning only one rider per nation per individual event] means the strongest nations who have 2 or 3 riders in the top ten will only be able to field one of those and so ironically making into the Olympic Top Ten will be easier than at the World Championships.
It was an amazing experience to be in Delhi in October 2010, but after suffering a chest infection that went undetected for six weeks I was a bit down on my usual form. I wish I could have been on top form because I was definitely capable of winning a medal. Another time!
Not at all, I have always just had the goal of trying to be the best I can be and ultimately race at the highest level I could. I have a good physiology for the Team Pursuit so when the opportunity came up I jumped at the chance to train in the squad and ultimately ride at the World Cup.
It was an amazing experience obviously but it was an event that is part of a bigger picture aiming towards London 2012. I was so excited when I saw how fast we had ridden and to win a gold medal was just the icing on the cake!
Naturally I was gutted, but I understood the reasons why. The Paracycling Track Worlds had taken me away from the team for a week and so I had missed out on a crucial part of the teams preparation. It is an event that brings three riders together and so my absence could have had a negative affect one a relatively new line up. It’s important to look at the bigger picture in team selections and just something as an individual you have to take on the chin. Everyone wants the team to go fast and they won the World title, so it’s a huge confidence boost to everyone. The strength in depth we have in women’s team pursuiting in the UK is really quite superb so that will always create difficult selection choices.
Being dropped didn’t come as too much of a surprise as the squad had gradually been whittled down throughout 2011 so everyone was watching their backs and wondering if the squad would go down to the final four riders prior to the London World Cup. I couldn’t have done anymore. I met all the targets and was producing more power than ever before but in a team event the bigger picture is what counts, not an individual. British Cycling had a large group of talented female endurance riders, some of them left the team pursuit to pursue the road events and I left to pursue the Paralympic events. The four girls that were left were solely focusing on Team Pursuit.
It was about making the best use of the personnel available to British Cycling and ensuring that no riders were spread too thinly. Of the girls that originally started in the team pursuit squad, we had 8 events to contend in London – 4 Olympic and 4 Paralympic events. The results speak for themselves, with 6 gold and 1 silver. The right decisions were made when it mattered.
There is a big spread in distance but with carefully balanced training each of the events compliments another in some way. In terms of the road events, there is no doubt that road training is the bread and butter of our sport, everyone needs a base of endurance on which to build their speed and power and for me the Road Time Trial is a briliant threshold and higher effort that gives me the stamina for the track. Speed of the track also helps with accelerations and sprints in the road race and ultimately the long base miles we do for general fitness allow me to have the endurance for riding the road race too. I love the fact it all slots together like that because it means that everyday you are working on all 5 events in some way, that is hugely motivating.
The Team Sprint was an event I did at the 2012 Track Worlds, but chose not to pursue beyond that event. I didn’t want to risk spreading myself too thinly as I knew 4 individual events was going to be a big ask on their own.
In all honesty I was never focussing on riding in both Games, I was just concentrating on the events that I could ride. I really enjoyed Team Pursuit but it wasn’t the right time to try and spread myself out across all five events.
It is quite difficult to pick a typical week because there is so much variation. In general it is 6-10 days of training and a rest day and during the training days I can be on the bike from 2 to 7 hours. Track training is usually done in 2-3 hours blocks and often with two sessions on the track in a day. When it is a specific road block then the session is usually one longer one of up to 7 hours, but then there are days when I would do a 2-3 hour ride around lunchtime and then race in the evening. It averages out at 20-30 hours a week.
I personally don’t do gym work, but that is not to say that others doing my events wouldn’t too. It is all very individual and in my case combines some of the experience I have brought in from swimming.
I do some specific strength work on the laboratory at the English Institute of Sport and this has been helping with my start on the track. I generally find though the time pedalling is so valuable and I can do all the various elements of work I need to do, on the bike.
Not at all, one of the beauties of a balanced and healthy diet is that everything is okay in moderation.
The general rule of thumb is 1g of protein per pound of body weight a day and then low GI carbohydrates with every fruit and vegetable you can imagine. I always opt for the fresh produce and try to steer clear of the processed foods like too much pasta, opting for potatoes or pulses instead.
I am about 6kg lighter and have lost 12cm across my shoulders. All told I am smaller all over than I used to be, but it has been a gradual process. Having an eating disorder as a teenager has meant I have learnt a lot about weight loss and how to do it without being completely paranoid about how big you are. I was always a lean swimmer, just had lots of muscles in my upper body to lose and that is not something that can be done overnight, especially not as a female.
I lost the weight gradually over about 4 years and have gradually gone into smaller and smaller sizes of cycling kit.
My parents are obviously the first influence and continue to be there for me and my now husband and cyclist, Barney. Together with Barney’s parents and our siblings we make a pretty super team I think!
I am also fortunate to work with Dr Gary Brickley for my cycling coaching and have access to some track experts at British Cycling, in Chris Furber when I need track work in my programme. My London training was definitely very positively affected by my long term relationship with Manchester Metropolitan University and being able to use their Environment Chamber played a huge part.
My swimming coaches Colin Hood in the later years and prior to that Alastair Johnson and Dave Calleja were all key people at various times of my swimming. Colin was the saviour of my swimming career when I had chronic fatigue syndrome and built me back up to being the training animal I am today.
In all honesty I didn’t know what to expect. I was so focused on the job I was doing I didn’t allow myself to worry about that kind of thing. You have to perform whether the Games are a success or not.
The crowds in London were incredible, the noise, the generosity of spirit and the way they cheered everyone home. It was an amazing place to compete and when you won a Gold medal it did make you feel like the most powerful person in the arena, because all eyes were on you and you could wave at one person and everyone in the stand waved back!
It feels amazing and in some ways quite surreal to be able to say, mission accomplished after such a long build up.
I guess the main change is in how recognisable I have become. Meeting people on the street, on trains and buses, in restaurants and shops is really amazing. And for the first time people know why you won the medals and have their experience of that day to tell you about. It has been such an incredible time since the Games and without doubt the horizon of Paralympic sport has been changed forever.
In the UK it has certainly changed the prominence of Parasport and given us the opportunity to share our sport with a wider population. More people have come to realise that Parasport is not just about athletes in wheelchairs, it is about athletes of all kinds of impairments who are competing at the pinnacle of their sport.
I think there is probably significant work to do on the value of Parasport in other nations, the USA in particular are a long way behind the ideal we have in the UK, but there is no doubt that London gave Paralympians an equal footing in terms of audience numbers and coverage, so we now need to ensure we see that happening in the future and not just once every four years.
Being made a Dame is such a huge honour it is so hard to put it into words! I am so grateful for every opportunity I have received and the chance to be able to do sport at the highest level for so long. So many things have contributed to the longevity of my career, from the Lottery Funding that allows us to train full time, to the support of my family who have been there from day 1. I have worked with some incredible coaches, raced with some amazing people who have pushed my to my limits and helped me improve and have also been supported by so many sponsors and associates, that I feel we all deserve to share this honour and make the most of it.