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Dame Sarah Storey isn’t usually one for public displays of emotion. The 43-year-old has competed relentlessly for almost 30 years, across two sports and at eight Paralympic Games, but has rarely shown so much as a glimpse of vulnerability. But as she clasped her 15th gold medal in the Izu Velodrome on Wednesday, the thought of her absent family made her break down in tears.

“It’s hugely difficult being without them,” she said after her victory in the 3,000m individual pursuit. “It is really, really hard. You know, they are the biggest motivation. But now I can’t be with them and share it with them and after all of the things they put up with. They do so much to enable me to do this. I am hugely grateful to them.”

Storey was speaking in the cavernous velodrome, empty bar the athletes, their teams, media and volunteers. When she romped to success in the pursuit final, there was some supportive cheering. There was enthusiastic applause at the medal ceremony too. But it wasn’t the same and everyone there knew it. Storey is not alone in being deprived of the support of her family by the pandemic, or in experiencing the strictures imposed suddenly and protractedly by Covid-19. But to see this enduring champion red-eyed and raw in the countryside south-west of Tokyo was a reminder of how universal the challenges of the past 18 months have been.

“It’s quite overwhelming, being in an empty stadium,” said Storey, who won her first Paralympic medals, in swimming, in Barcelona in 1992. “We have to be prepared to race like that but once you finish racing that’s when it hits you, literally the stands are empty. It’s when you want to celebrate with people that you realise you don’t have your friends and family here. We can celebrate with the team, which is obviously amazing, but there is a bigger team behind the team you see here today and now more than ever they’re missed.”

Storey’s 15th gold leaves her two events away from becoming the most successful British Paralympian of all time. She also came to the Tokyo Games with the aim of breaking her own world record in the pursuit for a fourth Games in a row in a time under 3 minutes 30 seconds.

This was a target she achieved in qualifying on Wednesday, at 3min 27.057sec some way clear of her previous best (in the final she was riding at an even faster pace, only to overtake fellow Briton Crystal Lane-Wright with 1,000m to go and thus bring the race to an end). In the reflective state she found herself in on this day, however, Storey found herself pondering even these targets.

“You know, your own personal targets are nothing to shy away from,” she said. “If you want to do things and can have the right support to do them, it’s possible. But equally you also want to be the best mum in the world and that is why not having [the family] here makes it so hard. I am only an athlete for a few hours a day. I’m a mum 24/7. So that is why leaving them and not having them here, not being able to pick them up when they have wobbles … They are picking me up probably more than I am them. Which doesn’t feel like it is the right way round.”

Storey has already ringed the date in the diary when she will next see her family: Friday 3 September, her son Charlie’s first day at school. But before that there is more work to do. “Obviously there are two more races,” she said, referring to the C4-5 road race and C5 time trial which take place on the Fuji race track in Shizuoka next week. “I need to make sure I preserve my legs and keep on pushing the boundaries that I keep on setting for myself.”

Most observers expect Storey to breeze to victory in those two contests just as she did in Wednesday’s pursuit and seize sporting immortality as a result. But for Storey it is not so simple.

“I am my own biggest competitor. My flatmates will tell you that this week, I have been like: ‘Have I got enough in the tank?’ I never like to assume everything is in that place. You cannot make those assumptions. I just like to let the legs do the talking on race day.”

While Storey’s achievements were the standout in Izu on Wednesday, they were not the only ones. No fewer than eight world-record times were recorded on the first day of cycling competition. Records fell across every classification in the pursuit, with China’s Qian Wangwei recording a time of 4min 31.476sec in the C1 category, the classification for cyclists with the most severe impairments, in the very first race of the day.

Particular kudos must go to the Australian Paige Greco, who responded to the Chinese Wang Xiaomei breaking her record in the C3 category pursuit, by first breaking it back in qualifying, then outdoing herself in the final with a time of 3min 50.815sec, which took almost 10 seconds off the previous record.

Finally, the Dutch men’s duo of Tristan Bangma and pilot Patrick Bos broke the world record in the blind cycling B 4,000m event, with a time of 3min 59.470sec, with an average speed of 60km/h, to take gold. Britain’s Stephen Bate and pilot Adam Duggleby took silver.

The cycling events continue at the Paralympic Games on Thursday and continue until Friday 3 September.