Dame Sarah Storey made history as she became ParalympicsGB’s most successful athlete of all time with a stunning 17th career gold – and she did it the hard way.
Storey, who made her debut as a swimmer at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, would have felt right at home on arrival at the Fuji Speedway, skies were leaden, rain torrential and the temperature was positively chilly.
Indeed it’s due to be warmer today back home in the Peak District.
But after individual pursuit victory on the track and time trial success on the road, this C4-5 road race was no procession.
Germany’s Kerstin Brachtendorf, six years Storey’s senior, had threatened to blow the race wide open as she stormed clear of her rivals, her advantage 75 seconds with just over 26km to go.
Storey worked hard to close the distance in a small chase group that included team-mate Crystal Lane-Wright.
With cornering treacherous, it was hard to force the pace but eventually it was clear no-one was going to stop this bid for sporting history.
Brachtendorf was overhauled and Storey and her ParalympicsGB team-mate powered clear, gold and silver duly banked, any doubt about which order soon dismissed.
“I couldn’t have imagined going to eight Games, let alone winning medals at every Games, and 17 of those medals being gold,” said Storey.
“It’s the dream I didn’t think would come true. I just wanted to be a British athlete, I wanted to compete for my country for as long as I possibly could, and to still be going strong in Games number eight is truly amazing.
“I never felt a weight on my shoulders. You’re defending a title and it’s added to a tally afterwards. I’ve never really felt that pressure to be overwhelming before a race. It’s just each race as it comes.
“It is the sweetest feeling to know that I go back to my room and there are a couple of gold medals in the safe to put this one with. That makes that tally very real then.”
Storey became Great Britain’s most successful female Paralympian in Rio, overtaking the record of close friend Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson.
This victory means she overhauls the tally of swimmer Mike Kenny, who won 16 golds between 1976 and 1988. No British Paralympian has more gold in their collection.
Lane-Wright confirmed this would be her last Games, after three silvers here in Tokyo, to add to her one from Rio, all behind Storey.
“Right now, I never want to look at a bike again,” she said.
“Five years was a long time, and in order to get through lockdown and get to these Games I had to almost tell myself, ‘no more’. When we came up the climb I told myself, ‘last time I ever have to do this’.
“When Sarah and I got away, I told her it was her gold medal. I said, ‘you don’t have to worry, I’m not even going to attempt to take it away from you’.
“This is part of history now and I didn’t have the legs, she went so hard. It’s easy for me to now say I gave it to her, but she won that fair and square.
“Gold medals aren’t the only thing that define it, you also have to look at her as a professional. And even if she’d won silver today, she is still one of the greatest athletes we will ever have.
“I’ve piggy-backed on that because I’m in the same category and now on the same podium. There are times when I think, ‘what would Sarah do?’ She inspires me that much.”
There was also a British 1-2 in the men’s C1-3 road race, Benjamin Watson leading home team-mate Fin Graham, with Jaco van Gass just missing out on a podium sweep in fifth.
“After three laps the rain really started coming down and that was when we took our opportunities. It started really getting whittled down on the climb,” said Watson.
“Forty started and then ten were left. We communicated really well – instinctively.
“As the third lap came through we knew were a bit fresher than everyone else. We were absolutely motoring. We came with plans to win this today and it paid off. It’s amazing.
“Cycling has been a huge changer. The illness [Guillain-Barre Syndrome] has been a huge life changer too but it makes you a stronger person. It helps in a situation like this. You can put it all out.”
Graham, who was left in tears after missing a medal by just two seconds in the time trial, was all smiles after securing his second silver here, following a second place in the pursuit at the velodrome.
“With three of us in the race we knew we could control it and the goal was just for one of us to get the win, there was no specific person we had in mind,” he said.
“Ben got away and we let the gap grow and then I just gave it a bit of a go at the end, he was far too strong to catch. We’re gutted to miss the 1-2-3 but gold and silver is pretty nice.
“Paris is just three years away and we build towards that straightaway. Being in this amazing squad just drives you to do the same, it really helps with motivation.”