Paralympian Hannah Cockroft – I was told sport wasnt for someone like me

She’s a seven times Paralympic champion, with an OBE for services to athletics. But growing up in Halifax in West Yorkshire, wheelchair racer Hannah Cockroft lost count of the times she was turned away from playing sport. “It was all red tape and health and safety,” says Hannah, 31. “I was told sport wasn’t for someone like me. When you’re disabled you live a life of being told what you can’t do.”

Twelve hours after being born Hannah suffered a cardiac arrest, with another following four hours later. She was clinically dead for 20 minutes and, as a result, was left with brain damage.

“It became apparent that I had problems with mobility. I can walk short distances, but it’s not a traditional walk as I bend back and to the side. It’s tiring and painful so I rely on my wheelchair most of the time,” she explains.

“It’s only recently been diagnosed as cerebral palsy. Doctors sent mum and dad away saying they had no idea what my quality of life was going to be like.”

But Hannah grew into a happy and confident child.

“Mum and dad just treated me like my two brothers. My friends too – if they were doing handstands, they’d hold my legs up,” she says.

At school, sociable Hannah joined every club she could, including choir.

“It was up two flights of stairs, and the teacher met me at the bottom to walk me up slowly each time so I could join in,” says Hannah, who lives in Chester. “That’s real inclusivity.”

But when it came to sport, she consistently met a dead end.

“I was told ‘no’ so many times. It was always like, ‘what if she trips and falls, or hurts herself ?’.”

And Hannah is by no means alone. Research from Bupa reveals three out of four disabled people feel excluded when it comes to work, community, or going about daily life. As a result, almost half say they are isolated, leading to high levels of loneliness, anxiety and sadness.

“I read the stats and I want to say I’m surprised, but I’m not – this is how it has always been. I accepted the ‘no’, like a lot of disabled people.”

Luckily, her PE teacher didn’t.

“She wanted to find a way I could get involved so she brought in the local wheelchair basketball team to do a demo for the class,” says Hannah, who joined the team, but was the only girl in the squad.

“So I tried wheelchair tennis, which I was rubbish at, and wheelchair rugby,” she says.

Then at 15 she sat in a racing wheelchair for the first time – and it changed everything.

“My dad had taken me to an athletics open day and I looked at the chair and looked at my dad, and said ‘no way am I sitting in that’.

But in a true Yorkshire style, my dad said ‘we’ve driven 100 miles, you promised to try everything – get in the chair’.”

Wheelchair racing gave Hannah a sense of freedom.

“Nobody could tell me to be careful, to slow down – it was all about me,” she says.

Hannah made her international debut in 2011 aged 18. Since then she has become the most decorated

British athlete in World Championship history, with 12 World Champion titles to her name, representing the UK at the Paralympics in London, Rio and Tokyo and winning seven golds.

“My disability is a superpower,” she says. I’m the quickest girl in the world. I can lift heavier than most guys in the gym,” she says.

”My is my I’m the quickest in the “So many disabled people just get put in a box and treated as if they are less than, and that they can’t do things. Sport has made me stronger.”

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But even Paralympians can’t escape the horrific abuse levelled at people with disabilities on a daily basis.

“So many times people have pointed, stared and laughed at me. As a Paralympian, people expect you to escape that, but absolutely not.

“When I get in the race chair, people say ‘that’s so cool, you’re so fast, you’re so inspiring’. But when I’m walking around I don’t get called inspiring. Instead of saying ‘wow, against all the odds you learned to walk’ they say, ‘you walk weird’.

“I’ve had grown men follow me around the supermarket when I’m walking just to stare at me. That is so scary as a woman.”

Bupa research found 20 per cent of disabled people have experienced insensitive comments about their disability, such as being talked down to or asked ‘what is your disability.’

These experiences have caused around a quarter of people to report they have low self-esteem and heightened anxiety.

So what can be done? “The place to start is simply having people with disabilities be more prominent. We still celebrate when we see a presenter on TV with a disability and organisations pat themselves on the back when they put a disabled person on their cover or advert. But it should just be second nature now. It should be because they’re the best person for the job – not a token,” Hannah says.

And sport should be far more inclusive, she says. Bupa found those who are part of a team are 80 per cent more likely to report they are happy.

“When training for Tokyo in 2020, I was told I couldn’t use my local track on club nights because I was a health and safety risk. That was as a Paralympic champion. How many gold medals do you have to win to change that mindset?

“We need to make disabled sports easier to access. It should be they can just turn up to a club, and the door is open. Having opportunities like the wheelchair team coming into schools is so important, whether there’s a disabled child at the school or not.

Opportunities should be equal for everyone.”

Despite a glittering array of gold medals, Hannah is hungry for more.

“I want to be selected for the Paralympics in Paris next year, and we have the World Championships in May in Kobe, Japan. I started training with a new coach last year and I’m still getting quicker and stronger.

“I’m going to see what this body can achieve. It’s already proven a lot of people wrong. I’m excited to prove them wrong again.”

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