Hannah Cockroft

What it’s like to be a world champion athlete but not be able to conform to society’s picture of health

Posted by for Wellbeing

You’d think that just making it to a world championship or Olympic games would be enough to firmly secure your spot in the ‘healthy’ box. But seven-times Paralympic gold medalist and Müller ambassador Hannah Cockroft still isn’t some people’s idea of health and fitness.

Very few of us can ever dream of winning anything at an Olympic or Paralympic games. Hannah Cockroft MBE, however, has won seven golds and currently holds the world record in five distances and the Paralympic records in wheelchair racing in four. She is the very personification of sporting prowess and health – if health means being in peak physical condition. Yet, when she won her first of two gold medal at London 2012, all anyone was talking about was her acne.

“I was 20-years-old and had really, really bad acne which had actually cleared up quite well before those games,” she recalls. “But I remember after winning my race, all the comments on Twitter were just about my skin and how I clearly wasn’t drinking enough water or eating right.”

It’s wild to think that such a mind-boggling achievement came second to skin, but then again, disabled athletes are used to people making assumptions about their health, fitness and abilities. “People have said to me that I don’t have to train as hard as other athletes because it’s ‘easier’ for me to win. I don’t have a six-pack, so I can’t be that good. They don’t realise that it’s physically impossible for me to have one.”

There’s still this common thought, she says, that you’ve got to look like an athlete to take part in sport. “Not just the Paralympics but the Olympics show us that you don’t have to be 6ft tall to be the best high jumper, for example,” Cockroft explains. And she’s right: a million different body types ran, threw, jumped, swam and shot their way to medals in Tokyo.

What Cockroft’s experiences do prove, however, is that society still doesn’t understand what it means to be fit and healthy. Perhaps because elite sportsmanship is so far out of our reach or because ‘fitness’ is a lot more desirable than ‘sports’, athletes are being held to standards that are simply irrelevant to their career goals.

Hannah is one of the most successful athletes in the country, but when she won her Olympic gold, people were more concerned with her skin than her performance.
Hannah is one of the most successful athletes in the country, but when she won her Olympic gold, people were more concerned with her skin than her performance.

Disabled people are expected to become Paralympians

And it’s not just the athletes themselves who suffer as a result of that warped way of thinking. The one thing that Cockroft never anticipated as a result of her success was the negative impact her career would have on other disabled people: “I’ve genuinely been getting messages from people on Twitter saying ‘You’ve ruined my life. What you do as a living has ruined my life’.” 

She goes on to explain that these people have been targeted by members of the public who either believe that Paralympians are proof that disabled people are ‘benefit scroungers’ (ie not as ‘feeble’ as they look), or who think that every wheelchair user should be out there winning world records.

The latter realisation blew her mind: “We don’t go around looking at everyone in the room going: ‘You’re going to be the next Usain Bolt because you can walk’, but suddenly, everyone was looking at wheelchair users and assuming that they were aiming for elite sports. Not everyone wants or can do that.”

Even gold medalists struggle with ACCESSIBILITY

Of course, Cockroft isn’t your average wheelchair user. She’s an elite sportswoman, known worldwide for her strength and power. Yet, she faces the same struggles as the next disabled person when she steps out of the sporting spotlight. “Just one step is kryptonite,” she says, explaining that many buildings and modes of transport are still totally off-limits for wheelchair users – even as one as celebrated as she is.

Cockroft’s boyfriend is also in a wheelchair and they’re often unable to travel together. “I can’t get on and off the Tube in London; in most places, a lot of taxis won’t pick you up and if I want to get on a train, I have to book it 24 hours in advance. It’s mad because people assume that because I’ve got a few gold medals, it doesn’t happen to me.”

The UK, she says, is one of the worst countries for accessibility – a point hammered home by the recent incident at Cop26 in Glasgow, when an Israeli minister was forced to wait for two hours to be let into the building because the door had no accessibility provisions, before giving up and heading back to her hotel room.

Why aren’t there more amateur disabled sports people?

The Paralympics, however, aren’t much better. You’d think that being a body that caters exclusively for differently abled athletes, the villages would be ultra-accessible but the opposite is true. “Within the Paralympic Village in Tokyo, there were no ramps to get onto the buses.”

Things have changed for Cockroft, but mainly because she’s now famous. When she was 15, she was told that she was a ‘health and safety concern’ when she approached her local club for training so had to drive 45 minutes to get to the nearest track. She says that she still sees that kind of thing happening now that she’s a coach to a 15-year-old. “Obviously now, for me, everyone throws their doors open for me to train but then I take my athlete out, they say no again. She’s a health and safety hazard. Disability sport is very, very hard to get in to.”

What, then, needs to change? “Firstly, we need better coaching and coaching knowledge around disability athletics,” she says. Cockroft got her own coaching qualifications a month ago, and says that parasport wasn’t covered once. When asked whether we should perhaps have the Paralympics more integrated into the Olympic games, she agrees. 

“It’s definitely not impossible because we have that with the Commonwealth Games. But before we get to that level, why don’t we see more integration in smaller events? We need to put it out there more, we need to see it on the TV. Seeing it in more places will bring more people through and it’ll be impossible to ignore.”

Hannah Cockcroft is a Müllerlight Ambassador and member of the Müller Athletic Squad. Müllerlight’s range of innovative and indulgent flavours means that you can have it all.

For more first-person stories, workout tips and interviews, follow Strong Women on Instagram (@StrongWomenUK)

Images: Getty/Müller

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.