From our March 2021 issue:
Maggie Poppa talks to a gold medal-laden Paralympian
Born in Halifax in 1992, Hannah Cockroft was in trouble health-wise from day one.
Within 24 hours of being born she suffered two heart attacks that resulted in brain damage and subsequent weaknesses in her lower body.
But Hannah was fortunate in that her parents, Graham and Rachel, listened to her doctors, who told them Hannah probably would not walk or do other things, and they decided to see what allowing her to lead a normal life would bring.
“My parents were so amazing. They both had jobs – Dad was a sheet metal worker and Mum was a school support assistant, but they spent so much time encouraging me. They never saw a reason for me not to be able to do anything.”
With that attitude Hannah grew up thinking that there were no holds barred in what she chose to do.
At three years old she decided she wanted to be a ballerina and instead of telling her she couldn’t, Hannah’s mother went round dance schools in Halifax until she found one that would take her for lessons.
Okay, she wasn’t as good as the others but she was dancing. Those dance lessons are such a happy part of Hannah’s early memories.
Choosing which school Hannah attended was also the same type of decision.
The first school was Wainstalls Junior and Infant School, where she was fully integrated with the rest of her year.
Secondary school choice featured more persuasion, again from her parents, as the powers that be wanted her to be sent to a special school, but after a fight she was allowed to go to Holy Trinity Secondary School, the same school where her older brother Joshua went.
“In both schools I was the only disabled child, but I was never bullied and I had plenty of friends.
“It was the PE teacher at Holy Trinity, Mrs Daniel, who was the most creative in what she found for me to do.
“There were things that the class were doing that I found too difficult, so she would always develop a version of it that I could do so as not to make me feel excluded.
“When I was in Year 8 she invited the Cardinals wheelchair basketball team to the school.
“I had been fighting against using my clunky NHS wheelchair, insisting on walking, which was still very painful.
“Then I saw this team and what they could do. I joined the team and my attitude to the wheelchair changed, as well as gaining the realisation that it was all right to be ‘different’.
“Lots of local fundraising gave me a wheelchair that was fit for sport.
“I played for the Cardinals for six years and with my new wheelchair I tried tennis and, in athletics, the discus. It was a regional athletics meeting where I got my first medal, a silver for throwing the discus.
“In 2007, I was invited to go to an athletics talent day where Dr Ian Thompson (husband of Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson) spotted me and persuaded me to get into a racing wheelchair.
“I realised straight away how different it felt and that I could go fast. It was the speed that had me hooked.”
Over the next few years it was a combination of sports training and school work, as she was aiming for good A Levels. The training was to improve her upper body strength, crucial in wheelchair racing.
The year 2010 was particularly good for Hannah. She broke her first world record – in fact she broke seven world records in eight days.
She got good A Level results too and, the ultimate crowning glory, she was voted prom queen among her school-leaving friends.
“I had found the right academic and sport-life balance.
“I would work hard at my training and then when I’d had enough, I’d go and do some studying.
“If I had been studying for too long I would leave it and go out in my wheelchair for a break and more training. Even on the prom night I enjoyed that evening and then flew to Switzerland the next morning
Perhaps it was at the Paralympics in 2012 that the public started to take Hannah to their hearts.
“I hadn’t been aiming for the London Paralympics; I thought I wouldn’t really be ready but to be there and peaking earlier than I had thought was extraordinary.
“Looking back, I didn’t realise how special it was. It seemed like two weeks filled with noise.
“I was so grateful for all the support from the crowd.”
Having won double gold in her class (T34) for 100 metres and 200 metres, it was around this time that the press, Channel 4 specifically, started calling her “Hurricane Hannah”: a nickname that she is proud of.
Following the 2012 Paralympics, she received her MBE in the New Year Honours.
The medal was presented to her by Prince Charles and I wondered what he had said to Hannah.
“Actually, he commented on what nice hands I had in spite of being a wheelchair racer.
“At first I thought that was a bit odd but I remembered that from the beginning of playing with the Cardinals they had pressed me to always treat my hands with cream day and night and I still do. I remember they said that I wouldn’t want to be a bride with rough hands covered in calluses.”
Over the past few years Hannah has been able to try out different roles, presenting on TV or being part of a reality show.
She enjoyed being a presenter on Countryfile and looks upon it as building contacts for the future.
Hannah has also become a motivational speaker and is able to speak anywhere without nerves.
Another departure from the norm was being asked by Dr Ingrid Roscoe, who was Lord Lieutenant of West Yorkshire 2004–2018, to become a Deputy Lord Lieutenant.
She asked Hannah to consider it as she wanted to open up the role to younger people.
When Hannah accepted she was the youngest Deputy by at least 30 years.
The duties she has carried out have mainly been presiding at citizenship awards ceremonies.
She will be happy to become more involved when training ceases to take up so much of her time.
Another unusual project that Hannah joined was with Panache Fashion Agency.
Hannah, alongside other celebrities, was photographed in glamorous outfits.
For Hannah this was not only a lovely opportunity to “get glammed up” but also a step along the disability campaigning trail, which she was happy to do.
“I am quite a disability activist, and it helped with some of the changes that I would like to make.”
When I chatted with Hannah she was going off to Dubai the next day to start her formal training for the Tokyo Paralympics, which were moved from last year to July 2021.
“We usually go off to Australia at this time of the year as with British weather it’s impossible to train on the roads in winter.
“This year Covid has stopped us going to Australia so Dubai was the alternative.”
By the time you read this Hannah will be training in pleasant warm weather.
On the question of Covid-19, I asked Hannah how difficult it had been to continue her training through 2020.
“Immediately we lost training on the tracks so we had to come up with alternatives.
“As I normally train in Liverpool, I now live in Chester with my boyfriend, Nathan Maguire, who is also a wheelchair Paralympian.
“We have a big drum roller that we can both use and we built a gym so that we could do all the upper-body training at home.
“We went out and scouted a network of roads that we could use for distance training. We’ve managed, which is what every other sportsperson has had to do.”
I was also wondering what plans Hannah had for the years after Tokyo. How long was she planning to compete?
“Initially, I thought Tokyo would be my last Paralympics but as Paris 2024 is now only three years away I might change my mind.
“I still want to compete as strongly as I ever did but it depends on my body.
“When I do stop I would love to work in the media using some of the skills I learned on my degree in journalism. I think I will also try my hand at coaching too. With all the experience I have it would be wrong not to try to pass it on.”
I can certainly see Hannah in the media, either campaigning or in sports commentary. She talks easily on whatever you throw at her.
She’s a perfect interviewee and I’m sure she could step round to the other side of the table without any qualms.