Katie Toft has spent her life defying the odds.
Her parents were once told she would never walk, she was always picked last in PE and she never thought sport would play any part in her life.
Fast forward to 2019 and Toft, who was born with cerebral palsy, is a five-time para-cycling world champion with her sights set on representing her country at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.
Having only burst onto the international scene in 2018, winning C1 individual pursuit gold at the Para-cycling Track World Championships, Toft’s rise has been both rapid and unexpected.
As she prepares to compete in the UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships in Emmen this week, Toft admits she cannot believe how far she has come.
UCI Ostend Paracycling World Cup Time Trial this morning, it was a tough ride. Really happy to come away with a GOLD medal 🥇!!!. Thank you so much to @StoreyRT, @BarneyStorey and @DerbyshireIS for their help getting me ready!! 🚴🏼♀️💨🎉 https://t.co/VVXV7RJAml— Katie Toft (@KatieToft) May 17, 2019
“If I could compete at Tokyo, it would just be fantastic – it’s that simple,” said Toft.
“It would be ridiculous really considering my journey. I wasn’t ever the kid who was sporty. I liked the idea, I just couldn’t do it.
“I was the person in school who was always picked last in PE – I think I only really have a handful of good memories of doing sport in twelve years of school.
“I actually saw an old PE teacher the other week and she said to me, ‘You were the least likely person to go into sport!’ I just can’t believe I am where I am now.
“I’m competing at the same level as the people I aspired to be, and that is amazing.”
Seven years ago, Toft was sat at home watching the London 2012 Paralympics – now she’s training and competing alongside the very best.
At last year’s Para-cycling Road World Championships in Italy, Toft won gold on the same day as one of her greatest inspirations, Britain’s most successful female Paralympian, Dame Sarah Storey.
She has since joined her cycling team, Storey Racing, where she is coached by Sarah’s husband, three-time Paralympic medallist Barney Storey.
For Toft, there is no better position she could be in – and she knows none of it would have ever been possible if she hadn’t had the courage to just get on the bike.
“I remember watching Sydney, Athens, Beijing and London growing up and always thinking, I would love to have a go at cycling, but I just never did,” she added.
“There’s so many athletes I remember watching and thinking I want to do that. I remember watching Rebecca Romero in Athens and thinking ‘god, that’s fast, I want to go fast’!
“When I watched London, I thought ‘you know what, even if I don’t do that much with it, let’s just get on a bike’ – and it went a bit crazy from there!
“Once I learned to cycle, I found riding a bike easier than walking.
We're here in sunny Emmen for the @UCI_paracycling Road World Championships 🌈— British Cycling (@BritishCycling) September 12, 2019
Plenty of action on this morning with Time Trials from:
Matt Robertson - MC2@DameSarahStorey - WC5@CrystallLane - WC5@KatieToft - WC1
Start Lists and Results ⬇️https://t.co/9tMDkYPQLf pic.twitter.com/8sPArVmzuq
“When I walk, I always feel like my legs are in a vice, moving through mud or something. It’s hard work.
“It was meant to just be fun, and it still is fun, but it’s gone further than I ever anticipated which is amazing.
“I didn’t realise it at the time but when I was younger, I used to time trial myself around the village where I live and compare myself every day. I used to get really frustrated if I went too slow one day - it’s that competitiveness that you’re just born with, I guess.”
She has already made a name for herself on the road and on the track, but Toft’s talents don’t stop there.
She is a fully qualified primary school teacher, having completed her master’s in education at Sheffield Hallam University in 2014.
Tokyo is her ultimate goal, but Toft has another dream to pursue.
No one expected her to qualify as a teacher, let alone become a para-cycling world champion – now she wants to encourage others to overcome the odds too.
“If I had access to a bike at school, everything could have been different. Perhaps this would have all happened earlier, who knows,” she added.
“There are kids I know who hate sport because they can’t access it. To turn around and say, I couldn’t access it either, but look where I am, is amazing.
“Some of the stuff I do in the gym now would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Sport opens up so many doors. I just can’t believe I am where I am now.”