Outstanding Paralympian, member of the House of Lords, television presenter and disability rights campaigner, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson tells Bernardo Moya how disability must never limit your aspirations
Carys Davina Grey-Thompson was born on 26 July 1969 with spina bifida, a birth defect which left her paralysed below the waist from an early age. Brought up by a father set on empowering her physically and mentally to counter society’s limitations, she was taught to be strong enough to crawl up steps and drag her wheelchair with her. Indeed, that’s pretty much what she had to do in 2012 when no-one would help this 11 times British Paralympic Gold winner alight from a train.
Despite such challenges, Tanni (her older sister called her “tiny” when she first saw her and the nickname stuck) Grey-Thompson remains positive about the way ahead for disabled people. She personally influences national policy through her parliamentary work and is staunchly committed to improving health and fitness not only for the disabled, but for the nation as a whole.
So what factors created one of the most successful disabled athletes of all times? Her story begins in Cardiff, South Wales where she attended “an ordinary school” as she calls it. Her father, an architect who knew the difficulties she would face in an environment largely designed for the able-bodied, was just one of many people to instill a can-do attitude from early on.
“He very much encouraged me to be physically active and to go into sport,” she recollects, citing his desire for her to be physically strong. A strong advocate for education, he insisted learning would empower her by giving her more choices. She loved school, which provided an outlet for her competitive nature.
“For me, the balance between education and sport was really important in terms of helping me to fulfil my dreams,”
she admits, even though at the time she would roll her eyes at her father’s insistence that education would provide her with more choices.
One attribute that singles Grey-Thompson out is her early vision to be an athlete, long before the Paralympic movement had become such a powerful force.
“Back then nobody knew anything about the Paralympics; there was a view that if you were disabled you couldn’t possibly be an athlete. For me I figured I needed to be good at school because I needed to get a good job to pay for the things I wanted to do in sport.”
Describing herself as “annoyingly competitive” she admits she competes “over anything.” And importantly, if she’s told she can’t do something, she becomes very stubborn.
She is also driven by curiosity. In her later sporting career she talks about wanting to speak with the best coaches, the best athletes, the best scientists and the best chair designers and always being willing to try something new. With that comes the ability to recognise talent where it is and see how it is useful to her.
“I might not be the expert but I know lots of people who are and it’s about making those connections and joining those people up and it’s about learning something every day,” she says.
These traits – competitiveness, inquisitiveness, open-mindedness and a strong dose of stubbornness combine to produce two of her key traits – resilience and determination.
As a girl, her dream of being an athlete came closer when at the age of 13 she found wheelchair racing. The sport gave her a life-changing focus, enabling her to be in charge of her own destiny, while simultaneously allowing her to train with others. She knew straight away it was for her.
“Every decision from 13 was based around competing for GB,” she tells me. That driving purpose dictated which university she chose; even whom she married – a fellow athlete. Competing for team GB was, “the most important thing in my life until the end of my career where I decided I wanted to do other things,” she says frankly.
Hand-in-hand with focus came dedication. The training culture for Grey-Thompson was arduous. “I was training 12 to 15 times a week, 50 weeks of the year. It’s not always a very balanced lifestyle as an elite athlete because it’s seven days a week; you’re always thinking, not just of your training, but competition planning, chair design, what you eat, how much you sleep.”
Her approach to the rest of her life gives another insight into her obsessive dedication to her sport. Take for example, planning a family.
“I wanted to compete in the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England, so I counted back six months and I counted back 40 weeks because that’s how long it takes to have a baby and I said to my husband, you know, this is the date I need to be pregnant by. So we have a daughter who was born exactly six months before the Commonwealth Games.”
As her experience in competing grew throughout the 1980s and 90s, so did her confidence. She deliberately sought to stretch her abilities through difficult training:
“One thing that I did was race against the British men a lot and they used to push me round the road; they used to make my life really hard but then when I was racing against the best women in the world, I’d been through just about every experience you could imagine. I remember this one race – a half marathon – where my husband literally pushed me into every kerb he could find, he pushed me into every corner, you know, messed around and tried to drop me out the back of the pack. Then when you’re in a race that really matters, if that happens, you’ve got the skills to deal with it… you need to have practised everything you possibly could in the lead up to it.”
Her work paid off, and she went on to win 16 Olympic medals, including 11 golds, and 13 World Championship medals, with six golds. She also won six London Marathons. Yet how high she set the bar for herself is revealed by her modest analysis: “I did 17 Londons, so winning six out of 17 – maybe not great.”
But, modesty to one side, another statistic shows how powerful an athlete she was. At one point she was the holder of 30 world records. While it is true that Grey-Thompson has an extraordinary sense of motivation, it’s also true she didn’t do it all on her own. So who were her inspirations?
“My first coach, a guy called Roy Anthony, at the local athletics club was amazing, he was a volunteer coach.” She tells how he gave up much of his own time to teach “hormonal” girls who didn’t really appreciate him at the time.
Another inspiration was wheelchair athlete Chris Hallam whom she watched win the London Marathon in leopard print, with long blonde flowing hair. When she was 12 she saw that win and announced to her mum that she would do the London Olympics, too. “I don’t think she thought I had any idea what I was letting myself in for, but six years later, at 18, I did my first London Marathon!” So, what was the ultimate drive for her? “You know, for me, it was always about winning as many medals as I possibly could, breaking as many world records,” she admits candidly.
But there have been other rewards; being made a Dame and being asked to sit in the House of Lords have added to the sense of satisfaction in her life.
Since retiring from sport, her go-getting mindset has proven transferable. She has presented television shows and she was invited to join the House of Lords, giving special insight into the 2012 Olympics and Paralympic Games, regarded as the most successful Paralympics of all time.
Yet perhaps one of the most telling things about her approach to practical issues and outcomes is revealed when she is asked what she would like her legacy to be. After some thought, she says:
“What I want is for disabled people to have the same opportunities as anyone else, to be in education, to be in work, to have families and to be integrated into society so a big part of what I do now is fighting for rights for disabled people because, although we’re in a pretty good place – if you look at every other country around the world we’re incredibly fortunate as disabled people – we still have some way to go.”
“I would like to teach people that you can do a lot of amazing things in your life. You have to be open-minded, you have to be resilient but you have to have a goal and a dream. I think sometimes with young people we shut off goals and dreams. Sometimes people don’t want to say the things they want to achieve in their lives in case people laugh at them or think they’re stupid or will say well you’ll never do that. It’s about giving people the freedom to think about the opportunities that they have and to grasp the opportunities they have around them.”
They’re great words that sum up her approach to life. If anyone shows it can be done, it’s Tanni Grey-Thompson.