In diabolical conditions on the foothills of Mount Fuji, Dame Sarah Storey completed a journey she began 29 years ago, as she won her 17th gold medal to become, outright, the most successful British Paralympian of all time.
As rain lashed down and waves of fog rolled across the extended speedway circuit, the 43-year-old Storey crossed the line first in the women’s C4-5 road race in a time of 2:21.51. Her ParalympicsGB teammate, Crystal Lane-Wright, followed close behind and chose not to engage in a sprint finish as she claimed a silver medal.
Reflecting on her success is not something that comes readily to Storey, who, after her victory, practically confirmed she intends to race again when the Paralympics head to Paris in 2024.
“I just wanted to be a British athlete, I wanted to compete for my country for as long as I possibly could,” she said of her youthful ambitions. “I couldn’t have imagined having eight Games, let alone winning medals at every Games, and 17 of those medals being gold. It’s the dream I didn’t have coming true.”
The most successful athlete, Storey is also the most decorated in British Paralympic history, with another eight silver medals and three bronze to her name. She made her maiden Paralympic appearance in Barcelona as a swimmer at the age of 14. She competed in the pool at the following three Games and won five gold medals before switching to cycling in 2008. Since then, her success has only accelerated, winning nine golds across Beijing, London and Rio before her latest treble in Tokyo took her past the total set by the swimmer Mike Kenny between 1976 and 1988.
Storey said she had never felt pressure as she approached her historic landmark – any thinking beyond how to win the next race being simply not her style.
“I never felt a weight on my shoulders,” she said. “You’re defending a title and it’s added to a tally afterwards. It’s just each race as it comes. It is the sweetest feeling to know that I go back to my room and there’s a couple of gold medals in the safe to put this one with, and that makes that tally very real then.”
Expectations before the race had been conditioned by prior experience: an easy Storey win was predicted by all. But it didn’t quite turn out like that – the 79.2km road race proving by far the toughest of the three competitions she has entered in Tokyo. This was in part down to the conditions, which started bad and deteriorated, not only limiting visibility but making a highly technical course dangerous to ride on. It was also the result of an unexpected challenge from the German rider Kerstin Brachtendorf.
After a quiet start in which the British pair stuck to each other like glue and sat six seconds behind the leaders, the 49-year-old Brachtendorf “just slipped away”, in Lane-Wright’s words, and started to build a convincing lead. By halfway she had a lead of a minute; with four of the six laps of the circuit completed, that lead was 1min 15sec.
In a chasing group of five, Storey planted herself at the head of the pack and threw herself into the challenge as they tried to chase the German down. Eventually Brachtendorf cracked, first slowly, then all at once, and as Storey crossed the line to begin the final lap she had taken the lead.
There remains perhaps a question over quite what happened next as the two Britons left the rest behind. Despite it being the strongest weapon in her arsenal, Lane-Wright chose not to engage Storey in a sprint finish and settled for second place.
Lane-Wright said that all the work Storey had done in the chase meant that she, in turn, would not challenge at the finish. “I have some morals,” Lane-Wright said. “That’s just not the done thing. If I’d done all the work on the front then it’s different, but I’ve done no work. I told her it was her race. I also had no legs.”
Storey’s take on events was that there had been no conversation before the race, “but once we’re in that race-winning mood, she was able to tell me that she just needed to get up the climb, and that I was just going to take it on to the finish.”
In the men’s C1-3 road race, which began shortly afterwards, there was a mirror image of British success. Benjamin Watson led from the front to claim gold, and he was followed in second place by Finlay Graham for a second 1-2. Watson finished the 79.2km course in 2:04.23, with Graham 1 minutes 20 seconds behind.
It will now be a quick turnaround for Storey, who hopes to be back in the UK in time to welcome her son Charlie back from his first day of school on Friday. On the day she made history, however, it was perhaps appropriate that this ultimate competitor seemed at her happiest when talking about the race and speeding around in conditions more commonly associated with her native Peak District.
“The preparation and racing in the rain at home really paid off today”, she said, clutching a small bouquet of flowers and sporting a medal and a big smile. “I know that I can go … as quick in the wet as I can in the dry. And it was great fun not touching your brakes when you went through the corners.”