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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Tanya Aldred

Jody Cundy: ‘I don’t know what the real world is like. That scares me’

Jody Cundy
Great Britain’s Jody Cundy is aiming for gold in the 1km time trial this summer. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

Around the bikes go at the Manchester velodrome, faster and faster, interrupted only by the occasional hooter. For once Jody Cundy is sitting in the stands, wearing a T-shirt despite the cold percolating in from the wind and sleet outside.

Beside his easygoing grin, Cundy is a sporting phenomenon who won three Paralympic and three world titles in the pool before switching disciplines to jump on a track bike. He has since collected five more Paralympic gold medals (in the C4/5 kilo and the mixed team sprint) and 20 world championship titles. Paris will, incredibly, be his eighth Paralympics.

But even now, at 45, he is still not totally sure if he will be hanging up his skin suit for good in September. “I thought London was going to be my last Games and here we are 12 years later talking about the next ones,” he says. “I surprised myself in Tokyo with the performances, how I’d almost untapped something. We’ll see when I actually perform at the Games. Thirty years of my life have been dedicated to sport. I don’t know what the real world is like. That scares me a little bit.”

Cundy was born with a disfigured right foot that was amputated when he was three. He sunk to the bottom of the pool at his first school lesson aged five, was swiftly enrolled at a local swimming club by his parents, and hasn’t looked back. After an 11‑year swimming career, he tried out a disability open day at the Newport velodrome, was talent-spotted and has been part of British Cycling since 2006. That’s 18 years of wheeling away at the track face.

Jody Cundy celebrates on the podium with his gold medal for the men’s C4-5 1000m time trial at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games.
Jody Cundy celebrates with his gold medal for the men’s C4-5 1000m time trial at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

“All of the training we’ve ever done, it doesn’t matter how many different styles we do, there’s only so many ways you can skin a cat,” says Cundy, who is one of more than 1,000 athletes on UK Sport’s National Lottery‑funded world class programme. “You have to do the hard work.

“My race is the 1km time trial, so we just break it down into the different phases. The initial phase, which is from starter gate to the quarter to the back straight where you’re basically accelerating the bike; then the bit where you sit down and accelerate the bike and get into aero position, then it is getting all the way up to top speed – that’s taking you through the first two laps – the rest of it then is about form and function and basically all the suffering you do in training to learn how to suffer for those last two laps.”

It sounds awful. “It’s not a nice event. If you can empty yourself … I’ve been passed out in the track centre for 15 minutes after winning, you can’t celebrate as you’re on the floor with lactic acid filling your legs, but you’ve got the satisfaction of getting it right and doing it well.”

To the layperson, it seems almost unbelievable that someone would want to continue to put themselves through the pain barrier after so much success over so many years. “It’s a different hunger as time has gone by,” he says, mulling it over. “At first it was, ‘I’m going to prove people wrong, I’m going to do this, I want to win’. Then it turned into, ‘I enjoyed winning, I want to do it again’. Then, when I transitioned from swimming to cycling, I had the sensations I had as a teenager because every time I got on the bike I got a bit faster, everything was just enjoyable.”

He won in Beijing and then came London, where he was disqualified in controversial circumstances after a problem with the starting gate, and Cundy, in his words “lost it”. That gave him the motivation for Rio. From Rio to Tokyo was harder, “but I knew I still hadn’t achieved my best performance”, he says. “Then we had Covid and the Games were postponed and in that year I found a new way of training and how to understand my body as I was getting older, and I ended up with some of the best performances I’ve ever done.”

Jody Cundy celebrates winning the mixed team sprint final in Manchester during the Paracycling International.
Jody Cundy celebrates winning the mixed team sprint final in Manchester during the Paracycling International. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

Unfortunately, the drive then stalled, first with illness then injury. He couldn’t get on a bike so his fitness seeped away, he put on weight, lost momentum. A year ago he was at his lowest ebb, with a few personal issues thrown in for good measure.

“I put a post out on Instagram at the nationals, just saying I was at my lowest, because I’d won but in a terrible time. I felt as if I could walk away from the sport there and then. But all of a sudden, I had so much support off lots of people that I didn’t know cared or didn’t really have any interest in what I was doing. It actually meant something and that got me back on the straight and narrow.”

Since then, there have been peaks and troughs, a 20th cycling world title at Glasgow last summer and a stint off the bike with the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing. Ahead, the world championships in Rio, the national championships and then the Paris Olympics this summer. He thinks six or seven athletes are in with a chance of winning the kilo, and he can’t wait.

“It’s a lovely track, it’s bigger than here [Manchester], the same length but with higher bankings, which doesn’t mean anything for the event I do but for the sprint events for the able bodied there will be some fast times because you’ve got more height to drop from. When you’ve got athletes who are riding a track which is fast and easy you start getting performances that are world bests, and who doesn’t like a world record?”

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