When I think back to my first Paralympics in 1992, it seems a lifetime ago. It was a lifetime ago. I was a child back then, a wide-eyed 14 year old who had not yet started preparing for her GCSEs. The previous autumn I had no idea I would even be travelling to Barcelona. It had, though, been my ambition since the age of six to be there after watching Sarah Hardcastle compete at the 1984 Olympics aged 15.
I was very driven. When my swimming club stopped during the school holidays, Stockport council opened a lane in the local municipal pool for me to use.
I remember sports day that year, competing in the long jump, the shot put, the track events. Everyone wanted to wrap me in cotton wool but I had the fearlessness of youth and the unquenchable thirst to always be doing sport.
By the time Atlanta came around it was different. There was an expectation on me to perform because of my success in Barcelona and the profile of the Paralympics was growing. I was doing my A-levels but it started my love affair with the jigsaw puzzle that is putting together a series of big performances.
My advice to those going to their first Games now would be the same as I was offered in 1992 by my heroes Tanni Grey-Thomson and Chris Holmes – two of the best mentors anybody could ask for. They told me to treat it like any other competition. Like a school swimming gala. Don’t worry about the external stuff, all the noise. That is all irrelevant. Focus on the process you have rehearsed so often in training. Once the competition is over, there will be time to soak up the razzmatazz but while you’re competing, focus on what you can control. That is easier said than done, of course, particularly for para-athletes.
The Paralympic Games are often the first time they have experienced large crowds. And they are going to feel huge expectation to perform. The adrenalin and the emotions will be ramped up. The best advice I can give is to try to be prepared to compete as if you are in an empty room.
I am in a different boat now, 12 months out from my eighth Games. Just writing that makes me feel old! I will be 42 by the time Tokyo comes around, although in many ways I am not all that different from that wide-eyed schoolgirl. I just have more experience and I think it helps that I chose to switch from swimming to cycling. I am doing it because I want to, I love the process of piecing together a great performance and I can make it work to include my children, Louisa (6) and Charlie (1), who are happy to see me race.
That has its own challenges in terms of accommodation – for this next Paralympics, the logistics are even more challenging than usual as the cycling events are not in Tokyo and the velodrome in Izu is about 90 minutes’ drive from the road events at Fuji Speedway – but I would not have it any other way. I perform better and the kids are happier if I don’t disappear for weeks on end. Charlie is still breastfeeding at the moment anyway and if I could not juggle it the way I do then I would not continue.
Plus, I am not fazed by much any more. I have been through pretty much everything – injuries, illness, loss of form.
There is no doubt motherhood has given me greater perspective. I remember when I lost a race in Sydney by a millisecond, being crushed by it and bothered by the reaction of others.
Now if I have a poor performance I will go home and play Lego with Charlie, or take the kids swimming, and I will soon forget about it. My life is not defined by a poor performance and I have plenty to keep me busy so there is no sitting on a hotel bed and worrying about things.
My next 12 months will be spent planning for Tokyo and developing my performance strategy; honing and refining everything from my time trial position to my equipment.
My husband Barney is instrumental to everything, working closely with my coach Dr Gary Brickley and other key advisers and sponsors, managing the resources and opportunities so I can perform optimally in both track and road events. To give two examples, I am going to the Boardman Performance Centre shortly to work on my time trial position in the wind tunnel (I am like an ironing board on a bike) and I am looking at having 3D bars printed, which had previously been too expensive.
I am really proud of how we have managed this. It isn’t a bottomless pot of money and that is all part of the unique jigsaw puzzle of each performance.
Then there is the training and competition schedule over the next 12 months.
How do you prepare for four events, in two locations, miles away from each other, in a week? It is not easy. You almost have to reverse-plan it. And having Louisa at school is another consideration. Her school is great and supports us to home-school her when it is unavoidable, but it is another new piece of the jigsaw since Rio.
As I said, I love that challenge. In fact, just thinking about it makes me excited. I may not be the wide-eyed 14 year old who needed permission to skip school to compete in Barcelona, but I don’t think my motivation levels have dipped in the past 27 years.
On the contrary, I am looking forward to Tokyo 2020 more than ever.
Dame Sarah Storey is working with ŠKODA to close the gender gap in cycling. To find out more, search ŠKODA DSI Cycling Academy.