Growing up with a disability in 21st century Britain is something that I can relate to. Born in Halifax West Yorkshire in 1992 Paralympian Hannah Cockroft unfortunately suffered 2 cardiac arrests at birth which left her with partial brain damage resulting in weak hips, mobility problems and issues with fine motor skills. Her parents’ determination that she attended mainstream education meant that Hannah grew up amongst able bodied children and her disability became secondary to her hopes and aspirations. Yet exercise and physical education was something which she always enjoyed and an activity which should have been discouraged from Hannah, eventually became her biggest passion.
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Competing in junior trials from a young age was the first time that Hannah had mixed with fellow disabled people and realised the buzz in which competitive sport offered. As a child, she always recognised the importance of staying fit and healthy in order to make it easier to get around but now Hannah had discovered another incentive to maintain her physical fitness. An avid swimmer, the young athlete experimented with different sporting disciplines but it was only when she got her first racing wheelchair that Hannah truly realised her calling. In October 2007 Hannah attended an open day at Loughborough University where she met Ian Thompson; husband of Paralympic legend Tanni Grey-Thompson who agreed to become her trainer. Unbeknown to either of them, this would be the start of a successful relationship which would reach the very top of Paralympic sport.
By 2010 Cockroft was being coached by Peter Eriksson, head Paralympic coach at UK Athletics which brought success at the Knowsley disability athletics challenge in May where she broke her first world record in the T34. This spurred her on to more success and in December of this year she won the Best British Paralympic Performance award. Knowing that a home Olympics was a matter of months away gave Hannah the determination to build upon this success and by May 2012 she became the first Paralympic athlete to break a world record in the London Olympic Stadium, recording a time of 18.56 seconds to win the T34 100 metres. This was the perfect start to what would become a defining year not just for Hannah but for sport itself.
Up until 2012 the Paralympic Games had forever wrestled with being the poor, undervalued relation to its able bodied equivalent. Battling patronising attendees of Christian well wishers or disabled rights campaigners, the Paralympics were desperate to reclaim their own identity and prove to the world that they were professional athletes in their own right. With this being her debut games, Hannah hadn’t experienced the prejudice and discrimination of her predecessors and instead fully embraced the inclusivity of such a new era for sport. The Olympic village was totally accessible for all athletes irrespective of ability so was able to house many athletes. Suddenly the Paralympics weren’t just a subsidiary of the Olympics but a coveted tournament in itself.
Such inclusivity wasn’t just reserved for the facilities. Indeed London 2012 heralded a new era for not just sport but the awareness of diversity in general. This was created when Channel Four won the exclusive rights to broadcast wall to wall coverage which was seen as a breakthrough. Despite forward thinking broadcasters like the late Helen Rollason presiding over the Paralympic action, giving it the same presentation as the Olympics, Paralympic athletes realised that they would never be as celebrated as their able bodied peers. Yet as soon as Channel Four took over with its original, revolutionary wrap-around coverage, it spawned a sea of change within the sport and the cheeky advertisement campaign with a sarcastic nod to the able bodied games with the tagline “Thanks For The Buildup”. Suddenly these games took on their own identity and in time would transform such athletes into household names.
The 31st August 2012 shall forever remain in the hearts and minds of fans of Paralympic sport and indeed anyone associated with Hannah Cockroft and one which is among her proudest achievements. Being Britain’s first track and field medal winning athlete in eight years was a big moment for the young athlete and propelled her into the spotlight. Indeed Great Britain’s success at these games were slowly gaining an increased amount of attention from world media and suddenly figures including Hannah Cockroft, Johnnie Peacock and Ellie Simmonds were considered not just household names but national heroes. This was the first time that the Paralympics had taken on its own identity and shows including The Last Leg helped to break down the barriers of taboo and showed disabled people in a light which had rarely been seen on British television. The public slowly realised that there was a human side to these athletes which was easily relatable and irrespective of their physical limitations, we started to see ourselves in them.