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How Sarah Storey overcame bullying and eating disorder to become Britain’s greatest female Paralympian

Written by on 24/08/2021

She has won 14 Paralympic gold medals and broken 75 world records, but Dame Sarah Storey is clear about what she believes is her greatest accomplishment.

The swimmer-turned-cyclist is aiming to make history at the Tokyo Games, which got under way on Tuesday, as she bids to become Britain’s most successful Paralympian ever.

The 43-year-old will be in Japan without the support of her family as COVID restrictions prevent her husband Barney, their eight-year-old daughter Louisa and three-year-old son Charlie from attending.

Dame Sarah Storey celebrates winning gold at Rio 2016 with her daughter Louisa
Image: Dame Sarah celebrates at Rio 2016 with her daughter Louisa

As she prepares to compete at her eighth Paralympics, with her first event on Wednesday, Dame Sarah admits she did not expect to continue her sporting career after becoming a mother.

“Being able to come back after two pregnancies – that’s got to be my biggest achievement,” she told Sky Sports News ahead of this summer’s Games.

“I never expected to come back (from having children), and it was certainly not a pressure that I had to come back.

“I’d achieved everything I could have wished for.”

More on Tokyo 2020 – Paralympics

In the build-up to this year’s delayed Paralympics, Dame Sarah spoke about her struggles in her youth as she was bullied and faced an eating disorder after achieving early success as a swimmer.

Born without a functioning left hand after her arm became entangled in the umbilical cord in the womb, she began her Paralympic career in the pool at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

Great Britain's Sarah Storey during the Women's C4-5 500m Time Trial final at the Olympic Veleodrome during the third day of the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday September 10, 2016. Photo credit should read: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Image: Dame Sarah is competing in her eighth Paralympics

Aged just 14, she won two gold medals, three silvers and a bronze, but after returning to school to focus on her GCSEs, she was tormented by other pupils.

Speaking to Judy Murray on Sky Sports’ Driving Force programme, Dame Sarah recalled being a “walking conversation-stopper” as girls talked about her behind her back, including mocking her for coming into school with wet hair.

She said: “One of the instigators was someone who had been quite close to me; I knew her really well, but she didn’t like where my career was going. It wasn’t where her career was going and maybe that was the jealously side.”

The Paralympian from Eccles, Greater Manchester, told how she was taunted over constant “nit-picky stuff” and described her time at school as “a lonely experience”.

“I told my parents and we tried to be as pragmatic as we could, because you can’t control someone else’s behaviour and if they don’t like you, they don’t like you. You can’t change that a great deal,” Dame Sarah said.

Her experience would have troubling consequences, with Dame Sarah telling Cyclist magazine in 2017 that she had “an eating disorder as a 15-year-old”.

She said her weight loss was only noticed when she competed at the national junior swimming championships and a parent asked her father if she had been ill over Christmas.

“I was painfully thin, and it wasn’t a great situation because I didn’t really want to eat during the day at school,” she told Driving Force.

“It was probably the only thing I could control during the day was the food intake; I couldn’t control the behaviour of the other kids.”

Dame Sarah said her mother took her to a GP who warned her about the impact her eating habits could have on her sporting career and advised her to keep a food diary.

Great Britain's Sarah Storey speaks to the media during a ParalympicsGB press conference at ParalympicsGB House, London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Sunday September 9, 2012. See PA story PARALYMPICS Press Conferences. Photo credit should read: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire
Image: Sarah Storey has spoken about being bullied and having an eating disorder at school

“Doing a food diary was a really good way to justify to myself that I was eating okay,” she said.

“It showed that I was still in control of something and it was me correcting something to make my career better. When it was framed in that way, it was a lot easier to handle.”

Despite her difficulties at school, Dame Sarah continued her success at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics, winning three more swimming golds, a silver and a bronze.

But her achievements at such as young age took a physical toll.

“When you win five gold medals before your 19th birthday people assume you’re invincible, but I ended up with chronic fatigue syndrome,” she told Cyclist.

Sarah Storey pictured competing at the Beijing 2008 Paralympics
Image: Dame Sarah began competing in cycling in 2005

Despite battling the condition, Dame Sarah added to her tally of swimming medals at the Sydney Games in 2000 and the Athens Games in 2004, winning four more silvers and a bronze.

But persistent ear problems – which reportedly could have led to her going deaf if they had been ignored – led to a career change in 2005.

After taking up cycling to maintain her fitness, by the end of the year Dame Sarah had broken the para-cycling world record in the 3km individual pursuit.

At the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, Dame Sarah won two cycling golds, with a time in the individual pursuit that would have placed her in the top eight of the Olympic finals.

In a heart-warming moment at the Games, she and husband Barney Storey, a fellow track cyclist who she had married a year earlier, both won gold medals on the same day.

Sarah and Barney Storey
Image: Sarah and Barney Storey celebrate with their medals at London 2012

Dame Sarah made history in 2010 as she became the first para-cyclist to compete for England at the Commonwealth Games against non-disabled cyclists.

As the Paralympics gripped the nation at London 2012, she excelled in both track and road cycling events, winning four gold medals.

It led to recognition further afield as the Paralympian was made a dame in the 2013 New Year Honours List and was nominated for BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

Sarah Storey wins gold at the London 2012 Paralympics
Image: Dame Sarah won four Paralympic golds at London 2012

After missing the 2013 season as she gave birth to her first child Louisa, Dame Sarah continued her medal-winning form at the Rio 2016 Paralympics.

She won three golds at the Games, making history as she became the most successful British female Paralympian of all time.

Ahead of the Tokyo Games, it emerged that Dame Sarah had taken the asthma drug salbutamol at a level higher than the permitted limit during the London 2012 Paralympics.

Sarah Storey pictured at London 2012
Image: Dame Sarah pictured at London 2012

The Times reported that a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) was applied for the cyclist after the adverse analytical finding in a urine sample.

At the time, Dame Sarah told the newspaper, through a lawyer, that she had been diagnosed with asthma as a child and had “breathing difficulties” after winning gold in the individual pursuit and used an inhaler before needing to speak to journalists.

Following the report, British Cycling said it understood that both the British Paralympic Association and Dame Sarah “followed the appropriate processes”.

The cyclist now kicks off her quest to make history at the Tokyo Games in the 3,000m individual pursuit on Wednesday.

Retaining that title, in addition to successfully defending her time trial and road race crowns next week, would move Dame Sarah on to 17 Paralympic golds, one more than swimmer Mike Kenny claimed between 1976 and 1988.

But whether or not she reaches the milestone, Dame Sarah has no imminent plans for retirement and she revealed her son Charlie wants to see her compete at Paris 2024.

“Charlie really wants to go to the Games, so I’ve got to make sure that he can,” she said.

“It’s a huge motivator when you see the delight of your children actually at an event that you’re competing in and watching them take it all in.

“Being in Paris is a huge motivator just from a family perspective, as well as trying to keep continuing to push myself to be the best that I can be.”

 Sky News

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