This feature is taken from the Winter 2015 edition of our stakeholder magazine WLV Dialogue
BE A CHAMPION FOREVER ...
That was Dame Sarah Storey’s message to graduates when she collected her honorary award from the University in September 2014. And Sarah knows more than most what being a champion in your field is all about.
Sarah is one of Great Britain’s most decorated Paralympians. In an international career spanning more than 20 years, Sarah has won 11 gold, eight silver and three bronze medals across six Paralympic Games. She is one of the most versatile athletes in the world having won World and Paralympic gold medals for her country across both cycling and swimming, comprising 11 different events. At London 2012, Sarah topped the medal table for the British team with four gold medals from four events, and set a new World Record in the C5 women’s 3,000m individual pursuit.
She added to her accolades when she was awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Wolverhampton in recognition of her outstanding contribution to sport and sport education.
During her speech at the Grand Theatre, Sarah inspired the hundreds of students and their families with her experiences and the dedication needed to reach the top of her sport.
“As an athlete, I was not always the most skilful person but it was the hard work I put into my sport that has helped me to reap the rewards I have gained,” she said.
“As students, you will have shown drive and determination, and you will be able to take that on to the careers you choose. Never forget this time as you move on. Be a champion forever.”
The award marked a return to the University for Dame Sarah, who was a Visiting Lecturer at the Walsall Campus in 1997/8. It was during the period when she was an elite Paralympic swimmer and spoke to School of Education students on the Adapted Physical Education module.
She explained: “I used to talk about adapted sport and the benefits. The Paralymics was lower profile then and I talked about the changing pathways that were available. I spoke about the governing bodies and how they were different for Paralympic sport. But everything I said would be turned on its head now. It was during the advent of lottery funding – the cusp of two eras really.”
Creating and grabbing opportunities was a key theme of the graduation ceremonies, a fitting message as Wolverhampton is the University of Opportunity. It had a particular resonance for Dame Sarah, who, having competed for the Great Britain Para-Swimming team from 1992 until 2005, found her second sport of cycling almost by accident. She was forced out of the water and onto the bike for much of 2005 with a series of ear infections. It was a sequence of events that changed her sporting career forever.
“Opportunity is sometimes something you create for yourself, sometimes being in the right place at the right time or taking a risk on something that interests you. Never turn down an opportunity. You have to create your opportunities and look to do so for others at the same time.
“Look for the positive. The journey is not easy, whether you are on the podium or are a graduate.
“To be the University of Opportunity is such a great message to anyone looking to come here and to send graduates away with as well.”
Storey was born without a functioning left hand after her arm became entangled in the umbilical cord in the womb. She began her Paralympic career as a swimmer, winning two golds, three silvers and a bronze in Barcelona in 1992 at the age of 14. She continued swimming in the next three Paralympic Games before switching to cycling in 2005.
At the 2008 Paralympic Games, her fifth, Storey won the individual pursuit – in a time that would have been in the top eight at the Olympic final – and the road time trial. Storey also competes against non-disabled athletes and won the 3km national track pursuit championship in 2008, and defended her title in 2009.
Storey qualified to join the England team for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, where she was the first disabled cyclist to compete for England at the Commonwealth Games against non-disabled cyclists.
But many people will remember her best from the London 2012 Paralympic Games, where she won Britain's first gold medal, in the women's individual C5 pursuit. She went on to win three more gold medals, one in the Time Trial C4–5 500m, one in the Individual Road Time Trial C5 and finally one in the Individual Road Race C4–5. Following the London Games, she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2013 New Year Honours.
After the Games there was a great deal of talk about legacy, and how the country could capitalise on the amazing atmosphere, the incredible new facilities and the inspirational stories of the athletes.
Sarah has her own thoughts. “We are given the bones of a legacy – the buildings and the new facilities inside. Legacy is what you make of the gift of the buildings. It is a new way of life for sport. Cycling has created a huge legacy – we have seen an influx in memberships and there are pathways for both young and older riders.
“Legacy is lived – it is not something given to you as a finished article. Cycling can be very proud of what was achieved.”
And Sarah has created another kind of legacy with the birth of her daughter Louisa in June 2013. She took a short break from sport but she came back with force to take two gold and one bronze medal at the 2014 World Track Championships.
“Louisa is such a super baby and she loves being around bikes,” Sarah says. “It is a whole new challenge, but with my husband Barney and my parents it’s a whole team effort.”