Grassroots to Glory - Claire Cashmore
Claire Cashmore is heading into her fifth Olympic Games, but her first in a new sport.
Claire Cashmore isn't even joking when she suggests the long, cold British winter was just the right preparation for sultry and stifling Tokyo temperatures.
She made her Paralympic debut aged 16 in Athens. This is her fifth Games, but the first in her new sport of triathlon after making the swap from swimming.
With eight medals in her collection, including a first gold five years ago in Rio, there isn't much Claire doesn't know about the experience of a major Games. But the 33-year-old is embracing her status as a newbie in her latest sport, even though she arrives in Tokyo having won the world title in 2019.
"This was the first winter in a long time that I've been in the UK and I feel it has made me mentally much tougher," said Claire, who is one of over 1,000 athletes to benefit from National Lottery funding, allowing her to train full time and access world class facilities, technology, coaching and support teams.
"It's really hard when you've got a four-hour ride or a long run and it's absolutely freezing, wet and grey. I've just embraced it as another challenge to conquer. So standing on that start line, I know that I've been through a winter. How pathetic is that?"
"There's been so much noise and negativity around these Games and I think that will challenge quite a few people. People not in the sporting world would be like, get your head out of your ass, it's just sport you know, there are a lot bigger problems and that is completely the case. But at the same time when you focus all your energy on this moment, it's a weird thing in your head to get yourself around."
Claire arrived at the 2008 Beijing Games ranked number one in the world in the 100m breaststroke but finished third, a disappointment that still haunts her despite finally making that podium top step in Brazil.
This time around her biggest challenge could come from team-mate Lauren Steadman, another former swimmer who switched to triathlon and won Paralympic silver in Rio. Both compete in the PTS5 classification, one of the most competitive in the sport. Steadman won the recent World Series race in Leeds and claimed gold in the Para Cup in Coruna, with Claire just behind on both occasions.
"I’ve learnt over time from the knock backs, after Beijing people told me not to be tough on myself but when you go there and think your name is written on that gold medal, it's tough. I just freaked out on the day and didn't perform," added Claire. "I learned how driven I was by that gold medal, but I didn’t understand how to get to the gold medal and the process that it takes. That has taught me – being right at the bottom, being so low and having your dream shattered – how to build yourself back up to being at the top again."
Claire’s latest sporting endeavour came as no surprise to Lindsay Boardman, who taught Claire PE at Hagley Catholic High School in Worcestershire.
“I said, ‘you should be doing triathlons,’” recalled Lindsay.
To which the perennially ambitious athlete replied: “But there aren’t any for Paralympians, so I’ll stick with the swimming.”
Time in Claire's entertaining company is rarely without a quip and a good quote. She famously jokes she her lost her left forearm in a shark attack. Boardman fondly remembered a time when the class was learning to kayak.
She said: “Claire never hid the fact that she might have a problem. She told the teacher, ‘I’m hoping, sir, you’re going to be able to teach me not to go around in circles.’ She was just delightful like that.”
Always sporty, Claire’s love of swimming was forged when her parents moved to Dubai and she had a pool in their back garden. Admitting to being self-conscious about her appearance throughout school, she claims 'sport was the only time I felt comfortable in my own skin', with athletics and riding both passions before swimming became the focus.
And that's the inspiration for her lockdown project, a children's book called Splash - a story of fun and perseverance with a bold heroine not unlike the author.
"One of the biggest lessons I've learned is you've got to realise you are more than just an athlete," she adds.
"There's more to me than Claire Cashmore the swimmer, triathlete or Paralympian. I think it is really important to describe yourself as something else, other than an athlete. Writing the book was really exciting, stepping out of my comfort zone and doing something I've never done. It's all about girl with one arm, who is afraid of water but conquers that fear.”
The protagonist’s disability is deliberately never mentioned. You’d only know by the illustrations.
"I think we put too much focus on disability, draw too much attention to it,” said Claire. “I wanted this girl to be a kid that is just cracking on with life and achieving things, who her friends see as normal and cool."
For Claire, the prevailing narrative for some around the Paralympics has become tiresome, an obsession with the detailed personal journey of every athlete taking away from what they achieve on the field of play. This is sports story and never a sob story.
“Paralympians are always seen as these really incredible, inspirational people for just turning up," said Claire, one of a generation of athletes who has seen the fortunes of ParalympicsGB transform over the past two decades thanks to National Lottery funding.
"I was running down the canal the other day and a guy was like, ‘oh, well done you!’ and I’m thinking, just because I have one arm it does not affect my legs. We want to be inspirational for breaking down barriers and doing absolutely incredible things in our sporting arena. I don’t want to be inspirational because I tied my shoelaces."
No one does more to support our Olympic and Paralympic athletes than National Lottery players, who raise around £36 million each week for good causes including grassroots and elite sport. Discover the positive impact playing the National Lottery has at www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk and get involved by using the hashtags: #TNLAthletes #MakeAmazingHappen