Sandra Stöckli's path to victory

In August 2022, V-ZUG sponsored athlete Sandra Stöckli won the overall World Cup in paracycling. And that is just the most recent podium in a career that started more by fate than by choice. Today, it is fueled by two things: joy and passion.

Sandra Stöckli, you ride your hand bike up to 90 kilometres per hour. Do you still have eyes for your training environment at all?  

A hand bike is nothing other than a racing bicycle for us wheelchair users. I can ride all the routes that a racing cyclist rides. I am not tied to a sports facility, for example a 400-metre track. I can go out into nature, I can go out into the world! I have already ridden across Oman. And training — over the Albula Pass, for example, or 100 kilometres in the freezing cold in Ticino — can be extremely rigorous, but in the end, I've seen many beautiful things. Gentians on the side of the road, or a whistling marmot. Then it was also just a beautiful bike ride.  

You are not tied to a sports venue, but to a sports device, the hand bike… 

That's right — and it's a high-tech device. Or rather two: I have two hand bikes that are both top of the range. They are 100% identical. If I were blindfolded and put on a bike, I couldn’t tell whether I’m on the blue one or the red one. That has to do with the fact that I have to adapt the material depending on the track: if I'm at a World Cup race in Belgium, where it's flat but windy, I ride different material than if I'm doing a mountain time trial in Germany. In Belgium, where we race right by the sea, I can't use wheels with high rims — or I'll be pushed off the road in a crosswind. A race at the 2021 Paralympics in Tokyo took place at the Fuji Speedway. When it rains, the surface of the racetrack becomes very slippery. This meant that there were two bikes made for me, a rain bike and a sun bike. In the meantime, however, we have been working on further developing the bikes. I am very dependent on my team, on my experts. I am neither an aerodynamics specialist nor a bicycle mechanic. I am simply a sportswoman. I have ideas that I would like to see implemented, and then the experts are called upon to test them. That's where worlds collide. What good is a position on the bike that is aerodynamically ideal, if it causes me back pain?  

Where does a sponsor like V-ZUG come into the picture?  

Financial support is important. For the Paralympics in Paris in 2024 and for the home World Championships in Zurich in 2024, there are many ideas on how we could optimise the materials. If they succeed, that will save several watts of my power — which would make me faster. But implementation also means costs. That's where I have to rely on sponsors. And  in general, the financial outlay is immense. The fact that I can do the sport the way I currently do it is only possible thanks to my long-term sponsors like V-ZUG. If you, as a hand biker, must work part-time on the side, it is an illusion to go to a Paralympics. You won't be able to compete.

At 15, Sandra Stöckli’s life was turned upside down, after she fell from a climbing wall and was left paraplegic. She found her way into athletics and took part in various competitions in her racing wheelchair, including the World Championships in New Zealand. After an injury, she discovered hand cycling: Vice World Champion 2021, in 2022 she won the Overall World Cup. She’s now training for the World Championships in Zurich in 2024.

When did you decide to focus entirely on sports?

Until a few years ago, I worked at the land registry of the city of Rapperswil-Jona. At some point, I had to decide. Did I want to advance in sports, specifically in top-level sports, with the goal of the Paralympics and World Championships? Or did I want to continue working part-time? With this multiple loads of training, competitions, and my employment, I reached my physical and health limits. I dared to take the step into topclass sports. Those were difficult times. There were situations when I needed a new sweater but couldn’t afford one.

What drives you to continue at such a time?

Joy and passion. It doesn’t really matter what you do, whether in sports, at work or in your private life: the fire must burn, not flicker. The effort and the sacrifice are so big, that if the fire is only flickering, it won’t last long…

It certainly also took courage—just like a downhill run at 90 kilometres per hour…

Courage is always an issue. When I have interval training, it takes courage to go beyond the pain threshold. In life, too, you have to have the courage to try new things. Even if you keep hearing, “You’re crazy, don’t do that, it can’t go well!” Even if everyone wants to talk you out of it. It takes courage to stay on your path. If it doesn’t work, you can always go back. But if you don’t find the courage and don’t try, then you may regret it all your life.

It occurs to me that readers may have overlooked the fact that you are on a wheelchair. Are there moments when this reality suddenly plays a role?

There are situations in which I must make more of an effort as a wheelchair user. The time it takes to get ready for training is much longer than for a non-disabled athlete. When I travel, I have to make sure that hotels are wheelchair accessible. And then there are simply unbelievable situations: in Tokyo, at the Paralympics, a shuttle bus came into the Olympic Village to take us to the competition site. A beautiful vehicle drove up—but unfortunately it was not wheelchair accessible. It had regular steps, so we couldn’t get in. You have to be resourceful, uncomplicated, and take it all with humour.

"It takes courage to stay on your path. If it doesn't work, you can always go back. But if you don't find the courage and don't try, then you may regret it all your life."

Have such realities already led to you not achieving the hoped-for result in a competition?  

Not really. For me, everything is always very carefully planned. It starts with the fact that I never travel to an important competition with just one pair of sunglasses. I always have two sets of everything. And yet not everything can be planned. At the first World Cup race in 2022 in Belgium, for example: during the last training session, another athlete crashed into my bike very clumsily. All I heard was the crackling of the carbon and thought that didn’t sound good at all. But I took it in stride because I had such great confidence in the skills of our national team’s mechanic. And he did everything he could to fix the bike. I made the podium at the World Cup race one day later — with a bike repaired with a wooden cooking spoon! And if I hadn't started there, I wouldn't have won the overall World Cup in 2022.  

Are the media interested in you and your sport?  

People are taking more and more notice of my sport. In terms of the media, it was a quantum leap between the two Paralympic Games in Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2021. In Tokyo, my races were broadcast live on Swiss television. And the media interest in my person was also immense. The more the sport is reported in the media, the more people see it, and that gives you a completely different perception. But we also have to be realistic: my media presence is, of course, still very low compared to that of a footballer. When I'm negotiating with sponsors, I'm honest and say, “I have some media following, but if you want thousands and thousands of people to see it, you're in the wrong place”. It's still a fringe sport — but we're pushing.  

With the passion you have for your sport as well, I suppose....  

If you want to get ahead, you have to be demanding towards yourself, towards your team, but also on a larger scale — in terms of sports policy, for example. In training, I have to push my limits again and again. I have to get out of my comfort zone. Then I can demand the same from others.

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