On Thursday 9th March, Sophie Thornhill MBE very kindly made the long trek down to Cambridge from her home and British Cycling base in Manchester. After a series of train delays, Sophie arrived at Churchill at 7.30pm on the dot and so jumped straight on stage with CUCC Women’s Captain, Jess Atkinson, to talk to the gathering of cycling fans about her golden cycling career.Sophie Thornhill and Jess Atkinson
Sophie began by explaining how she was born with Oculocutaneous Albinism, a condition that affects pigment in her skin and eyes, and has caused her vision to be limited to about 8% of what the average person can see. She recounted stories of many a hairy moment when riding solo bikes as a child, before being given the opportunity to ride as a stoker (on the back) of a tandem in her early teens. Since then she hasn’t looked back, and now at the age of 21 she has one Paralympic Title, seven World Titles, two Commonwealth Titles, eleven National Titles and let’s not forget the MBE!
Sophie’s first title came back in 2012 with her pilot at the time, CUCC’s Jess Atkinson, in the Paracycling Road Race National Championships. Amazingly the day of the race was the first time they’d met and it was Jess’ first time ever piloting a tandem – by their own admission they “still do not know how that happened, but it was great!” They went on to win a few more races that year in their national stripes jerseys, but Sophie then made a move to concentrate on track cycling and with it found new pilots. It was at this point that Sophie realised cycling could be more than just a hobby for her, and less than a year later she had made it onto the Great Britain Cycling team at the age of 17.
The next few years proved to be challenging both physically and mentally for Sophie due to persistent back and knee injuries, however she soldiered on and still managed to take home World and Commonwealth titles in 2014 and 2015. In 2016, Sophie and her pilot at the time, Helen Scott, struggled to defend their two-year dominance at the World Championships and had to settle for silver in both the tandem kilometre time-trial and the sprint. This was a tough hit to take in the lead up to the Paralympics in Rio, but Sophie and Helen went straight back into training before going to Rio with a renewed sense of determination. There they restated their dominance in the kilometre time-trial by taking the Gold and a new Paralympic Record to boot! Unfortunately, the tandem sprint even was not held in Rio, so due to the requirement to enter at least two events they also entered the 3km pursuit. The pursuit is not one of Sophie’s preferred events (“it’s awful”) and they had not trained specifically for it in the run up to Rio. Therefore, for the afternoon of the bronze and gold medal finals, they had “made plans to go to the beach, but [they] had to change them because [they] somehow made it into the bronze medal final”, which of course they won!
For the latter half of the evening, Sophie fielded a wide range of questions from the audience. Included amongst these was how she has managed to adapt to riding with so many different pilots (four in her professional career and many more before that), and yet still always comes out on top. Sophie’s reply was simple: “you just do it”. She went on to explain how some stokers take a really long time to adjust to a change in pilot, but how she attributes her versatility to the fact that as a young rider, if she didn’t accept regular changes of pilots she simply would have not been able to ride tandem! Nationally (and probably world-wide) there is a shortage of riders who are willing to sacrifice their own potential careers in order to pilot a tandem for another, a fact Jess knows all too well as she is still piloting when she can today (please get in touch if you’d be interested in piloting tandems! – jka34). Finally, the Q&A session was rounded off with “what music did you listen to whilst warming up for the Paralympic gold medal final”, and she was quick to reply with “house”.
Looking to the future, Sophie has yet to decide whether she is going to continue on to the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo (as well as the Commonwealth Games and multiple World Championships between now and then), but she spoke of plans to go to university after her cycling career has finished as she would like to be a teacher.
Although Sophie has already accomplished so much at the age of 21, her laid-back and welcoming nature makes it hard to feel intimidated by her success. She gave a wonderful talk and it was thoroughly enjoyed by all who attended. CUCC would like to thank Sophie for coming to speak for us and we wish her all the best for the future!