Hannah Cockroft: Wheelchair racing champ happy to be called 'crazy'

Story highlights

  • Cockroft wins three world titles in Doha
  • Wheelchair racer also hoping for more Paralympic gold
  • Briton has cerebral palsy caused at birth

(CNN)Hannah Cockroft talks to her wheelchair. It even has a name.

At first she hated the idea of using one -- hated the very idea that she might be disabled -- but the three-wheeler she calls "Boo" has been her ticket to a life that far exceeds the bounds of "normal."
"Wheelchair racing gave me this sense of adrenaline and speed and individuality -- I was out there doing it on my own and it was something I had never felt before, so I fell in love from the second I sat in my first chair," the 23-year-old Briton tells CNN's Human to Hero series.
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    Up until then, Cockcroft had struggled to get around by herself, let alone dominate a discipline she describes as "like being in a pack of lions."
    Within a week of being born, she had suffered two heart attacks. The brain damage they caused left her with deformed feet and legs, mobility problems and issues with her fine motor skills. Severe epilepsy meant her heart could stop again at any time.
    Doctors said she would never walk, and maybe never be able to look after herself, but she has proved them wrong -- and then some.
    "I hate it when people say I can't do things," says the two-time Paralympic gold medalist, who also owns four world titles and multiple global records.
    "I think I just like a challenge, I like to be motivated, I like people to wind me up. When I first got to school they said, 'You'll never do sport.' OK, well now I'm an elite athlete, so who is wrong? Not me."
    Her success in the last seven years has defied her difficult introduction to the world as a baby.
    "No-one has ever been able to diagnose what I have or what happened at birth or why it happened," Cockroft says in her bubbly Yorkshire accent. "Everyone simply sees me as Hannah, and I have Hannah syndrome and I am totally unique -- which I love."
    Born in the northern English town of Halifax, she credits her parents for teaching her how to be independent.
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    "I see it a lot in the Paralympic world -- parents who have sat back and said we will wrap them up in cotton wool and they'll never do those things," she says.
    "I feel sorry for them. They go to places and they can't just climb that one step to go and look on a balcony, they can't pick something from the top cupboard because they can't have the ability to walk or do something else."
    Hannah's parents -- her father Graham is a welder and her mother Rachel gave up nursing to look after her as a child -- decided that she must try to be mobile.
    "At three years old I probably hated them. I had every contraption going -- standing frames, walking frames, Zimmer frames, wheelchairs, crutches, splints. You name it, I've had it, but it got me on my feet."
    As the only disabled child at her school, she found her recreational options limited. But a visit by a wheelchair basketball team opened up a new world for her, and winning a medal at an age-group event competing in seated discus led to Cockroft being spotted by British Athletics.
    Encouraged to take up wheelchair racing, she was initially not sure.
    Having previously thought of wheelchairs as "unacceptable" and "uncool," the teenager was surprised to discover they offered "something I wanted for so long."
    "When I took my first push, it was freedom," Cockcroft says. "That freedom made me fall in love with it."
    Having spent £3,000 ($4,500) on her first racing chair, ordered from the United States after extensive fundraising in the local community, Cockroft and her family were dismayed when it didn't fit her.
    "My dad is pretty amazing. He spent weeks and weeks, every night after work with his friend, cutting my chair up and rebuilding it around me," she recalls.
    "He made the chair fit, and I broke my first world record in that chair, so he must have done something right!"
    Cockcroft now races with a state-of-the-art model she named after a character in Hollywood film Monsters Inc. -- a sponsor gave her the accompanying toy to complete her collection.
    In the animated movie, "Boo" is a young girl who crosses over into the monsters' world, and is protected by champion child-scarer Sulley and his buddy Mike.
    "Sulley, you're not supposed to name it. Once you name it, you start getting attached to it," Mike warns his friend, who breaks the rules by befriending the girl.
    Cockcroft says she has a similar relationship with her chair.
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    "I talk to my chair all the time," she reveals. "Sometimes a race can be quite daunting and lonely and sometimes you want someone to say, 'It's alright,' but none of the other girls on the line are going to say that.
    "There's got to be a connection there -- you spend every single day in the chair, she's your partner when you are on the track, she's the reason why you can become a champion, because I wouldn't be able to do it on my feet.
    "People think I am crazy, and that's fine, but it works for me so I'll just carry on."
    In 2010, Cockroft broke four world records at a British wheelchair event. Two years later she was the first athlete to set a world record at London's new Olympic stadium.
    In another few months, she would return to that venue and bask in the unprecedented attention received by the Paralympic Games.
    Previously a long-distance competitor, Cockcroft quickly adapted to sprint events ahead of London 2012 and won gold in the 100 meters and 200 meters T34 categories in record times, living up to her nickname of "Hurricane Hannah."
    "It was better than your wildest dreams, it was better than you can imagine a Paralympics ever would be," she says.
    "We went in the food hall and I was like, 'Wow I have never seen so many disabled people in one place at the same time.' It is the most mind-blowing thing to see ever."
    After getting off the track as soon as possible following her 100m victory, set in a new Paralympic record time of 18.06 seconds, Cockroft was determined to savor her second success.
    "I milked this one a bit, got shouted at by security because I had missed my medal ceremony, caused trouble," she says, having eclipsed the record she set in the heats with a new time of 31.90s in the final.
    "One thing I regret was when I bought my parents tickets to the Games, I made sure they were on the very back row where I could not see them or have anything to do with them, so they couldn't distract me -- and at that moment I wished more than anything I had put them somewhere I could find them."
    Her godmother and two brothers were also watching, while her aunt almost put her off when she shouted out "Go on Hannah" as the 200m final began.
    "I was 20, and it was scary realizing all your dreams have just come true and you have no idea how to handle them," she says.
    At the 2015 IPC World Championships in Doha in October, Cockroft went one better than the 2011 and 2013 competitions by adding a third gold in the 800m.
    That longer distance will be one of her two events at next year's Rio Paralympics, along with the 100m title defense.
    "The 800m is worrying. It's scary, it's a lot for me to learn, a lot of tactics, a lot to build up to body-wise, endurance-wise and strength-wise, but it's a challenge and I like that -- I think I can do it."
    Cockroft hopes Rio 2016 can continue to boost the profile of disability sport, as London did three years ago.
    "I want people to come and watch us race and fall in love with the sport as much as I have because it is phenomenal," she says.
    "There are people who have incredible stories, who have gone through all sorts in their lives to get to where they are, and they have put themselves day-in day-out through physical pain just to do something they love.
    "It's so worth it, so amazing winning that gold medal, making your dream come true and doing what everyone said you can't."