“If you’ve got a dream it can take you all over the world” - Halifax’s golden girl Hannah Cockroft reflects on another year to remember

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 10: Hannah Cockcroft of Great Britain celebrates winning the Women's 100m T34 final on Day Four of the IPC World Para Athletics Championships 2019 Dubai on November 10, 2019 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 10: Hannah Cockcroft of Great Britain celebrates winning the Women's 100m T34 final on Day Four of the IPC World Para Athletics Championships 2019 Dubai on November 10, 2019 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

You can take the lass out of Halifax, but not Halifax out of the lass.

Hannah Cockroft may have moved across the Pennines, but Halifax is still where she calls home.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 14: Hannah Cockroft of Great Britain is presented with gold medal after winning the Women's 800m T34 final race on Day Eight of the IPC World Para Athletics Championships 2019 Dubai on November 14, 2019 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images)

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 14: Hannah Cockroft of Great Britain is presented with gold medal after winning the Women's 800m T34 final race on Day Eight of the IPC World Para Athletics Championships 2019 Dubai on November 14, 2019 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images)

“My Yorkshire accent’s not going anywhere!” she said, having moved to Elton in Cheshire earlier this year, half an hour’s drive from her training base at Kirby High School in Liverpool.

“I’m still in Halifax as often as I can be, I’m always driving home!
“I still feel like I live there and my house in Chester is like I’ve gone to uni.

“All my stuff’s still at home so I’ve not really moved out!

“It’ll always be home. It was a big decision to make the move because I moved away from my friends, my family, everything I know.

“Everyone knows me in Halifax and goes out of their way to help me, whereas here I’m just another face in the crowd.

“I miss people stopping me in town saying ‘oh, you’re Hannah Cockroft’.”

Even by her own high standards, 2019 has been some year for Cockroft.
Aside from showing off her culinary prowess on The Great Celebrity Bake Off, two gold medals at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai topped off a year that also saw her compete at the British Wheelchair Racing Association Track Championships at Stoke Mandeville in May before flying out to Switzerland, where she broke the 400m world record at the Swiss Nationals.

She then competed domestically around Britain for the rest of the year, as well as helping to create the Muller Para Track Grand Prix in Liverpool in September.

“I organised it, competed in it, ran it on the day, and generally stressed myself out with it!

“I noticed that the competitions available for wheelchair users were getting less and less, and the opportunities for para-athletes to compete in the north were minimal, if not non-existent.

“So I wanted to change that, give northern athletes the chance to compete without travelling ridiculous hours, and give myself an opportunity to compete somewhere my parents and friends could watch me.

“It went really well, we had 60 athletes competing from paralympic champions right through to a guy who had been in a race chair for three weeks, so a complete range of people.
“We had a lot of spectators and it was a really good day.”

Then it was the World Championships.

“I knew I’d worked as hard as I could, there was nothing else I could’ve done to make myself any better or any faster.”So on race day I was really calm, really content, and thinking ‘whatever happens is where I’m at’. I haven’t felt like that in a few years, I’ve always felt ‘I should have done this or I’ve forgotten to do that’ or I’m worrying about another competitor, so it was quite an odd feeling to be so relaxed.

“But I was sat on the start for the 100m thinking ‘if I do what I do in training then I’ll be fine’ and I broke the world record and lowered my personal best by 0.4 seconds, and generally smashed it, which was quite nice!”

Cockroft says her first defeat on the international stage, a silver in the T34 100 metres at the World Para Athletics European Championships in Berlin last year, was the catalyst for her move to Cheshire, which she believes has been a springboard to her successful year.

“It definitely helped, not the living in Chester bit, but just having people to train with,” she says. “I spent 12 years going round Spring Hall track pretty much on my own, and it got to a point where you can’t really challenge yourself.

“When you’re training on your own you think you’re going 100 per cent, but actually you’re going about 80 per cent.
“When someone’s next to you, it really pushes you that little bit harder, spending three or four months leading up to the World Championships training with a group where every session was a competition.

“It returned a bit of the fun to the sport for me, made it a bit more social rather than just going to work, and showed me what I’d been missing a bit by doing those laps on my own in Halifax.
“They showed I’ve got the mindset of an athlete, I can do the sessions on my own if I have to, but I needed a bit of that fun, and it’s brought that extra 10 per cent out of me.

“I could sit on that start line knowing I could beat boys over 100 metres so I can beat some girls too.”

She now trains with a group in Liverpool three times a week, works with a new strength and conditioning coach, and has a new chair.

“It’s been a big year of change. I’m just trying to be the best athlete I can be and tick all the boxes.”

All the more remarkable considering Halifax’s golden girl never wanted to be a paralympian.

“Being an athlete was never a career goal for me,” he says.
“Starting wheelchair racing was a hobby, a way of proving people wrong and that I can do anything I want to do.

“To sit here 12 years after I started and be probably one of the most successful athletes in Britain, it’s a bit insane.

“If anyone had told me this when I was at school I wouldn’t have believed them. I didn’t even do PE!

“You always feel slow on Halifax hills but that was my dad’s thought, that if I could push fast up a hill I can push fast on the track.

“I’m not really someone who reflects on what they’ve done. It’s always ‘I’ve done that, let’s move on’.

“It’s not really a normal life for someone from Halifax is it!”

Cockroft admits she didn’t even know what the Paralympics were until she found para sport by chance.

“I started playing wheelchair basketball when I was 13 and racing when I was 15. Disability is a lot more mainstream now, it’s a lot more accepted, you see it on TV a lot more, a lot more para events get coverage.

“The number of competitors has increased massively, this year alone I’ve raced against nine new girls.

“After London 2012 we saw a massive spike, but since Rio it’s faded off a little bit.

“But everyone seems to be as excited about the road to Tokyo as they were about London.
“We just have to keep putting the performances in to keep people’s interest there.

“You want to keep inspiring people and make people watch what you do.

“It’s changed ten-fold since I started. Everyone keeps saying I’m a veteran, but I’m 27, I’m still a baby.”

Cockroft grew up in Mount Tabor, attending Wainstalls Primary School and Holy Trinity Secondary School, now Trinity Academy, and treasures her links to Halifax.

“I feel it wherever I am in the world,” she says. “I’m constantly getting messages on social media saying ‘we went to visit your gold post box’ or ‘we saw you train at Spring Hall’.

“I get messages from people at Halifax Harriers saying ‘I want to do what you’ve done’. It’s nice to see it’s so popular because it’s on the track where I trained.” 
“It’s nice to have those connections and feel like somewhere is home. I was gutted when I had to leave but I know I can always go back and be welcome.

“People don’t have to watch what I’m doing, I’m doing my job, but the fact they want to support me means a lot.

“I want to show people it doesn’t matter where you’re from. I went to a tiny little village primary school and then to a secondary school that got shut down after I left.

“But if you’ve got a dream it can take you all over the world, and that’s what mine’s done.”

Cockroft’s globetrotting continues next year. She will spend the first six weeks in Australia warm-weather training with her coach before a trip to Tokyo in March to prepare for the Paralympic Games.

The season starts in Switzerland in May before the European Championships in Poland in June and then the Paralympic Games in August.

“I’m aiming for two gold medals, I would never aim for anything less,” she adds. “Winning them is getting harder every year.

“It’s a job, and it’s hard work, but it’s a lot of fun. no two days are the same.

“It’s not just about the training, it’s the people you meet and the other things you get to do.

“I love it. Sitting on the start line is probably the worst feeling in the world, but I love finishing a race, the feeling at the end.”