FROM the playground to the podium – four years is a long time in sport.
Sophie Thornhill had not long completed her GCSE’s and wasn’t even yet a member of the Great Britain Cycling Team when London hosted the Paralympics in 2012, but the visually impaired athlete rode to 1000m tandem time trial gold in Rio this summer alongside pilot Helen Scott.
The modest 20-year-old, who also picked up a bronze in the 3000m tandem pursuit, explained her seemingly meteoric rise wasn’t all that uncommon in the cycling world.
“Sometimes it can take 10 years for someone to reach their peak and win a gold medal,” she said.
“But sometimes it can take a couple of years, luckily I was in that category.
“People like Laura Trott, she did the same, she went to her first World Championships at 18, won a gold medal there, then went to London two years later and won another gold medal.”
Using the unofficial queen of British Cycling as a barometer, it is perhaps no surprise that the Poynton-born rider, alongside her partner Scott, went into the competition with big expectations weighing heavily on her shoulders.
So, did she feel the pressure coming into her first Paralympics?
“I did,” she said, without hesitation.
“Sport is a massive pressure cooker.
“We went to the World Championships earlier in the year in March, came away with two silvers and went away wounded. We came back and analysed every little thing we could from that.
“That kick and motivation really spurred us on and we came away from Rio with a massive personal best and gold.”
Avid Manchester United fan Thornhill was born with oculocutaneous albinism, a form of albinism that amongst other things causes visual impairment – in Thornhill’s case she has less than 10 per cent vision in comparison to an average person.
This means a fully-sighted athlete, known as the pilot, is required at the front of the tandem bike to take control of the steering, which in turn creates a level playing field for all the para-cycling riders within the visually impaired category, regardless of the severity of their condition.
Having tasted success at the 2013 World Championships with Welsh cyclist Rachel James as her pilot, Thornhill then paired up with Scott in Glasgow to claim gold and a Commonwealth Games record in the process.
It was with great relief that the British cycling selectors were responsible for choosing who partnered Thornhill at the Paralympic Games rather than herself.
“I’m glad it wasn’t my choice,” Thornhill admitted.
I’m great friends with both of them and I couldn’t have picked. It was a hard situation to be in, but luckily I had two brilliant partners at the time.”
It was Scott who the selectors went with and Thornhill pinpoints their close relationship as one of the key factors in their success.
“We’re really good friends, she always says we’re like sisters and that’s brilliant because with what we do we spend so much time together.
“It’s really great to have that kind of relationship because not a lot of people do, so we’re really lucky – it makes training a lot easier.”
GB’s Cycling Dominance
Team GB dominated inside the Rio Velodrome and out on the road topping both the Olympic and the Paralympic medal tables winning a combined total of 33 medals.
Can Thornhill, the woman responsible for two of those medals, shed any light on why British cycling is so successful?
“I don’t know,” she exclaims before giving it some more thought.
“We just have a brilliant set-up.
“British cycling provides us with everything that we need in terms of good coaches, good people behind the scenes, brilliant technicians and mechanics, right through to our nutritionists and psychologists.
“Just having that strong base makes it easier for our athletes to perform well.”
After absorbing a smorgasbord of top quality Olympic action spread over the course of nearly three weeks, the timing of the Paralympics is seen as far from ideal in some quarters, including disabled athletes that feel overlooked.
Six-time Paralympic gold medallist David Weir has previously suggested combining some disabled and non-disabled events, but Thornhill isn’t necessarily a fan of the idea when it comes to the Paralympics.
“I went to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, that was integrated, and a lot of the Paralympic sport was overshadowed by the bigger stars and the Olympic sport, so keeping them separate is key.
“I suppose maybe putting them (the Paralympics) into a separate year is a good idea, to have your own coverage and media attention, that could work.”
Integrated games, or not as the case may be, you get the sense from speaking to Thornhill that she will once again be standing tall at the top of the podium when Toyko 2020 comes around.
By Joe Canavan