Sarah Storey was one of the stars of the recent Paralympic Games in London, where she was one of Great Britain's top performers as she claimed four gold medals in track cycling. This brought her already sizeable haul of medals at the games to 22, 11 of which are first-placed accolades, dating back to 1992 when she was a world-beating swimmer at just 14.
The 35-year-old is also an avid Manchester United fan, however, and FIFA.com caught up with the multi-talented athlete to ask how she began supporting the Red Devils, how she appreciates football as a competitor herself and her advice for penalty takers.
FIFA.com: How did you first get into football?
Sarah Storey: Probably with my younger brother, he used to play football and used to ask to go to [Manchester] United. My dad took him a couple of times but he really preferred [Manchester] City so I used to go with him instead. So I support Manchester United, thanks to my brother. I’ve got a season ticket; I go with my husband as often as I can, obviously around my own training. We try to get to as many of the games, and the cup games as well. Usually about 90 per cent of the time we can go, which is really great.
What’s your favourite memory of United?
Any game that they have won! I’m rubbish at remembering the scores; I have to remember so many figures and facts from my own sport, my husband is the one who can remember the scorelines better. But I remember watching all the cup games they have won, when they won the Champions League in 1999 to do the treble. I wasn’t there in the ground but watching that on television with all my club-mates from swimming and being in Manchester afterwards, driving around to drop people home – the atmosphere after that was fantastic. And again, obviously, when we beat Chelsea in Moscow that was fantastic as well.
How do you find the atmosphere at games?
I haven’t been to any other grounds. Red was always my favourite colour as a kid and my brother wanted to go to Old Trafford so I was quite happy to go with him. So I don’t really know about any other grounds. I will be going to some other grounds, as it happens. Since the Games, I’ve been invited to some away games so I’m going to some away games before Christmas. So it will be interesting to see what the atmosphere is like.
I really love seeing the interaction between players and the way that they try to build the performance on the pitch. I look at it from an athlete’s perspective as much as a fan’s. I love the way that you see it all work together.
Do you enjoy the rivalry with City?
I suppose there’s more banter. One of the things about football is the tribal nature. It has been quite difficult to swallow after the Olympics because everyone was just so friendly and the British people were cheering the opposition, whereas in a football stadium you would never see the opposition getting a cheer from the home fans. So it’s quite a different atmosphere to see that happen and see that once you get back into a football stadium, the tribal nature comes back again. There’s obviously banter with friends who are Manchester City fans, but for me sport isn’t a matter of life and death. So it’s good, fun banter and hopefully not ever going to create a bad atmosphere. I hate to hear about those bad atmospheres and anything happening negatively as a result of football support.
Did you used to play?
No, if I had grown up as a kid kicking a ball around then maybe. I played netball when I was a kid. I was in school when football was for boys and netball was for girls so you never got the chance like perhaps now, where girls do both. So I never have, but I enjoy being able to go to a stadium and watch other people compete on a regular basis. Normally I’m the one being watched so for me it’s a great way to watch the teamwork and the way the teams operate. I really love seeing the interaction between players and the way that they try to build the performance on the pitch. I look at it from an athlete’s perspective as much as a fan’s. I love the way that you see it all work together.
Have you learnt anything from football that you use in cycling?
Not especially, I think it’s more just seeing what we do and looking at similarities, or thinking ‘If only I could tell them this, it would help’. Especially when the penalties are being taken, you think ‘Please don’t make a mistake, do not think about the crowd, just concentrate on the job, you’ve done this in training…’ I guess for us, we don’t compete in front of 80,000 people all the time so maybe it would be harder to be mentally strong if it was that way. I know some people who competed in front of 80,000 people at the Games found it tough because they had never had that many pairs of eyes watching them before. So it’s a different scenario but sometimes you can empathise or sort of recognise something that you’ve done well or see that they have done it well as well. I like being able to people watch or athlete watch.
Do you follow the women’s game?
I don’t actually [follow it] but then I don’t follow the men’s side outside of what I’m doing when I go to a game. So I’m not on the internet looking up stuff or scores; I wouldn’t be able to tell you the league table at the moment. It’s just the way my life has been! I rely on my husband for facts and figures. I’m a fan of football but from an easy position, if you like. I’m a bit like my mum is with my sport, she’s just happy to watch me compete.
Any chance you’d swap your medals for trophies?
Probably not! It’s nice to be able to see inside someone else’s world for a while, but they wouldn’t swap their medals for some of mine and likewise, I wouldn’t swap mine for some of theirs. I think that’s great, we should have those differences and be proud of our little world.