When Anya Waugh watched the London 2012 Paralympics, there was one person who she immediately identified with, Hannah Cockroft MBE. It was the first time the then seven-year-old thought ‘wow, I could do something like that.’
Anya and her mum Nicola had been looking for an activity for Anya to do after school. Anya, now 14 and a wheelchair user since birth, had tried a few sports clubs and classes, but couldn’t find anything that felt right. But then they saw Hannah Cockroft win Great Britain’s first gold of the 2012 Paralympics track and field.
After Hannah’s amazing win, Anya couldn’t talk of anything else. Nicola says, “It was about this time I was looking for some way for Anya to get active and burn off some of the energy she had. We hadn’t had much luck up to that point. Some of the classes in the area that were advertised as accessible, sadly weren’t.
“That’s when I saw the Paralympics was putting on SportsFest and I thought it would be a good idea to go along. Firstly, so Anya could meet her idol, but also to show her that there were opportunities out there for her. And I was hoping someone could point me in the direction of them!”
Lucky for Nicola someone did, and it was the one and only Hannah Cockroft who pointed Anya and her mum in the direction of the Stockport Harriers.
Anya says, “I loved SportsFest, it was a great experience for me. Not only did I see other people in wheelchairs achieving whatever they wanted to, I also got to sit in Hannah Cockroft’s racing wheelchair. I was so inspired. I’m so glad she had the time to talk to me, to tell me what wheelchair racing was like, and knew of somewhere I could try it out.”
Anya didn’t just ‘try it out’, she flourished at the Harriers. She’s been competing both locally and nationally for seven years – including the Greater Manchester Juniors Gold and becoming the U14s National Champion. “She’s got a room full of medals and trophies,” says Nicola, “I’m not sure we can fit anymore in! Though we’re going to have to, as she keeps winning them!”
In preparation for a busy racing year in 2020, Anya had been training hard all winter, but then the pandemic hit. All competitions and race meets were cancelled, the track was closed, and the Harriers couldn’t get together or train. Anya says, “At first I carried on with my training at home. I couldn’t go to the track, but I had rollers set up in the living room and continue to train daily. At first I just thought it was going to be a month or so, but then the lockdown continued.
“With no race meets in the diary I started to lose focus. Keeping active and training isn’t just about the competitions, it’s also about the friendships I have at the track and giving myself something to work towards. Without this I started to become a bit despondent and struggled to keep going. It became harder and harder to motivate myself. Because of this my mental health took a massive toll. If I’m being honest, I wasn’t in the best place.”
As lockdown eased, training could begin again. Anya had decided to give herself 2020 off from racing. Instead it was her plan to just concentrate on her training and get into peak performance for 2021.
“As soon as I could get back to the track I did. I’d made the decision during lockdown that I’d move clubs, as Hannah Cockroft and her partner Nathan had started coaching at Kirby AC. I couldn’t give up being part of the same club as my hero! Getting moving again and having a focus again really put the smile back on my face.
“I was meant to be taking 2020 off and just concentrating on training for the 2021 season, which starts next April. But as soon as I switched clubs British Athletics invited me to compete alongside Hannah and Sammi Kinghorn in the wheelchair 400m at the British Championships in Manchester in September. It went out live on BBC 2! I was on the TV!”
Anya’s move to Kirby AC meant a new coach – and it was none other than Hannah Cockroft herself! Together they’ve developed a new training plan, which sees Anya training five days a week with a mixture of track training, home roller sessions and strength and conditioning to keep her fit and healthy. Anya fits all this around school and a social life!
“I’m really happy that I’ve got my determination back. I’m now looking forward to the winter, my new training plan and getting fit for 2021 and beyond. I’m also looking past that and have my sights set on the Paris 2024 Paralympics.
“I don’t want people to read this and think that they have to become a wheelchair racer who trains five days a week. I loved seeing people like me racing, and it inspired me to get moving. But it’s about finding what makes you happy and doing that. If you like it, you’ll stick at it.
“It’s not about being the fittest or the best. It’s about finding time to do something you enjoy, make friends and give yourself a bit of space from everything that goes on in your day to day life. Listen to your body and what it wants to do. There may be times when you feel that you can't, and that's ok. Take a moment to rest, regroup and refocus, but make sure you get back out there, because it will be so worth it.”