Paris 23 Worlds: Hurricane Hannah hungry for more

Great Britain's Paralympic legend looking forward to achieving more greatness in back to back trips to the French capital 08 Jun 2023
A female athlete with a helmet smiliing
Great Britain's Hannah Cockroft picked two gold medals in the last edition of the Para Athletics World Championships in Dubai 2019
ⒸBryn Lennon/Getty Images
By Ryan Hills I For World Para Athletics

Just when you thought Hannah Cockroft had achieved everything possible, she goes and does something new. And yes, it is something extraordinary. 

When World Para Athletics spoke to the athlete known universally by her ‘Hurricane’ nickname, she had recently broken an astonishing four world records in the Dubai Grand Prix: 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m history was made. But by the time this article was ready to go live, Dubai history was long gone. Nottwil history was here. Hannah, once again, is here. She sat a new world record in the 100m T34.

It is a sign to the rest of the world that a true Paralympic great has only just started to achieve what she wants to. And for anybody who is to come up against Cockroft on the track at the Para Athletics World Championships in Paris in one month's time, that is a terrifying prospect. 

“Training had been going well” Cockroft explained prior to Nottwil, “but I didn't feel like it had been going amazingly well. [Dubai] was still February, so there was no real expectation to be going super quick, and while we were actually in the races, I had no idea how quick we were going. I was just focusing on the person ahead and, and just trying to go with them. The 800m is probably the one I'm most proud of. That's the fastest any female wheelchair in Britain has ever gone. But now I’m scared going forward that I’m not going to be able to do those times again!”

That week in Dubai was huge for Cockroft beyond simply the record breaking times she amassed for fun. Due to the nature of the event, it also saw her share a track with Catherine Debrunner, the Swiss T53 athlete who has taken the world by storm. At Nottwil, Debrunner set three new world records on home soil less than three weeks after winning the Laureus World Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability Award. 

“She's absolutely epic” Cockroft admits. “I was laughing and joking and just like, ‘watch your back, Catherine, I’m coming!’

“I think she did a 1:42 in the race, so I knew deep down I wasn't going to get her. But just to have that challenge and just to have that element of competition, people who were so far ahead of me, there was two or three girls just so far ahead of me off the gun. I knew I would never be able to go with them, but I think it's a level of competition that I've always wanted.”

Games greatness 

And if it is competition Cockroft wants, it is competition she is going to get as she heads on the home straight to her fourth Paralympic Games of a truly mesmerising career.

When it comes to those Paralympic Games, few individuals know the last few editions better than Hannah. Beginning with a home Games at London 2012, the girl from West Yorkshire became a poster girl for the entire Movement with an icon-making pair of performances in the 100m and 200m.

Rio 2016 brought three more gold. Tokyo 2020, Hannah left with another two. But in every Games, they were about more than the medals. With the Games continuing to grow at rapid pace, each instalment offers brand new opportunities to reach brand new audiences. And after the difficulties of a Paralympic Games in a pandemic, the great of Great Britain has big hopes for what Paris will bring in a World Championships and then a Games.

“I can't wait to hear that crowd again. I can't wait to hear that noise. I can't wait to be back in front of them. 

“I think Paris has the opportunity to put on a Games so that can outdo London. It can be massive. Because I've got schools I go to now and I ask, ‘does everyone remember London 2012?’ ‘Miss. I was born in 2017.’ That’s great, you don't remember the best time of my life! So, we need a refresh and a restart. And I think that's what this could be. We’re coming out of a pandemic; we’ve got the new names. Why not put them out there and, and let them show what they can do?”

But first there is the World Championships. And having not had one since 2019 – and having two in the space of a year is an exciting proposition. With increased demands on training, additional travel requirements and an almost constant focus, it is a period of time no athlete has ever had before. 

“We have a hard-hitting three championships that people are going to want to watch, that hopefully will get massive coverage of. The two World Championships [Paris 2023 and Kobe 2024] can just catapult that interest and that audience through the roof before we even get to a Games.”

There are changes too for Hurricane Hannah in 2023. Her longstanding relationship with coach Jenny Banks came to an end last year, with Banks moving to Australia, meaning a new setup has formed in Cockroft’s team with Paul Moseley. But as daunting as it may be to have a switch of such magnitude at a crucial point in the racing calendar, this new duo represents a return to sporting roots.

“I've known Paul literally since day one of wheelchair racing, at Leeds City Athletics Club.” 

It is the scene that got Cockroft into the world of Para athletics in the first place, and having worked together one-on-one in the run up to the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, the transition to full-time coaching has been a natural. 

“It seems to be going quite well. The training is very, very different to what I did with Jenny I think in some ways, I was with Jen for 10 years, so it was quite a big scary jump. And you don't know if someone's going to be right for you until, until you kind of put your head out there. So that's exactly what I did. But I've known Paul for 15 years and I knew that we got on. It's not been a bad start!”

Next stop, Paris

With the new pairing delivering major results already, who knows what’s next or for how long Cockroft can go for? She joked about being a mascot for Los Angeles [2028 Paralympics] if she does not reach the event on the track, but for a name so renowned, the world is in her hands. She has her own podcast, she is a licensed coach, a television presenter. And above this, she is still the one to beat in her class.

But it is that final line there that is most crucial to the Hannah Cockroft of 2023. She is still at the very, very top of her game as proven by her blistering times so far this year. And her ambitions of adding to those seven Paralympic gold medals is as high now as it has ever been.

“I think I've still got the opportunity to go for two golds in the 100m and 800m. The dream's always the same. I don't believe in going to the Games and expecting anything less, I want to be the best and I have the ability to be the best. I just have to get it right.”

With added hopes comes added pressure. “At London 2012, no one knew my name and they were going to cheer for me whether I came first or last or somewhere in the middle. Every year since then, it's like, ‘oh yeah, Hannah will do it. It's easy.’ People look at it and I think they don't see the work, the hours that go into it, behind it. They just see you light up and you track and, and do what you do. It definitely puts the pressure on.

“There's girls coming through all the time and you have no idea what they're doing, and there's always the potential that they're going to just show up part of the Games and you don't even know they exist! 

“Everything can happen on that day. A flat tyre, I'm not fit. Whatever happens. There's a lot of expectation, but I also thrive off that because pressure is belief. It's people believing that you can do it, that you can be the best.”

Cockroft has achieved so much already. Ask anybody to name a current Paralympian in her country, and her name will be mentioned pretty quickly. And it has been the same now for more than a decade.

New stars are emerging every event, stars who are following in the pathway that Cockroft and many others have built over the years. But her time is as far from being up as it ever has been. If 2023 has proven anything to the watching world, Hannah Cockroft’s time is still now. And it will be for as long as she has that burning desire to be the very best. Next stop, Paris 23 World Championships.