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A legend on the track and now a tireless campaigner for disability sport, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson talks to SEN’s Peter Sutcliffe

Life hasn’t slowed down much since Tanni Grey-Thompson called time on her professional athletics career five years ago. Far from taking it easy, she has thrown herself into a succession of new roles and challenges. As a TV presenter, campaigner, motivational speaker, wife, mother, sports administrator, and now peer of the realm, she seems able to reinvent herself at will and excel at everything she turns her hand to.

In a glittering wheelchair athletics career, she collected gold medals and world records like some collect postage stamps or rare butterflies. It was a remarkable achievement, by any standards, and her record places her firmly amongst the greatest athletes of the modern era. Along the way, she etched herself into the national psyche to an extent that perhaps no other disabled athlete has managed before or since, and she captured the attention of a public that had always been, at best, largely ambivalent to the sporting endeavours of athletes with disabilities.

Away from sport, the accolades have also flowed freely. Tanni holds honorary degrees from 24 academic institutions and is Pro Vice Chancellor of Staffordshire University. She was awarded an MBE in 1992 and an OBE in 2000, before being named a Dame in 2005. Now Baroness Grey-Thompson, she sits in the House of Lords where she is an enthusiastic campaigner on disability issues and a tireless advocate for inclusive sport.

{pullquote}“When I first tried a racing wheelchair, at the age of thirteen, I thought it was something I could enjoy”{/pullquote}

For all the titles, though, to the millions who were awed and inspired in equal measure by her unparalleled success on the track, she will always remain, simply, “Tanni”. This was not, however, the name her parents initially chose for her. She was christened as Carys Davina, receiving her more familiar moniker when her two-year-old sister, Sian, called her “tiny”, pronouncing it “tanni”. The name stuck.

Tanni was born with spina bifida and wore callipers as a young child, first using a wheelchair at the age of seven years. What was it like, though, I ask her, growing up and going to school as a wheelchair user in the 1970s and 80s?

“I attended my local primary school in Cardiff, Birch Grove”, she says. “Then, with my parent’s persistence, I went onto St Cyres comprehensive school in Penarth, nine miles away. I would have liked to have followed my sister and gone to our local secondary school, but attitudes to disabled young people were different then, and some mainstream schools didn’t make many allowances in order to take wheelchair using pupils.”

Her new school had around fifteen wheelchair using pupils, although, viewed through contemporary eyes, some of its manual handling practices may seem more than a little archaic. “We used to get carried up and down stairs by bigger, stronger pupils. The logistics of moving wheelchairs around in breaks meant that I was late for quite a few lessons. The staff were fine with me, but what I found hard was that, because the school wasn’t near home, it wasn’t easy to see friends after school; it was socially isolating.”  

Tanni was always interested in sport and, with early passions for archery, swimming and horse riding, she quickly became an accomplished all-rounder. Back in the 1980s, sport for those with disabilities had a much lower profile than it does today, so how did Tanni’s school respond to her burgeoning interest and talent.

"Wheelchair sports were not widely known at the time”, she says. “So if I wanted to do a sport like tennis, it meant I had to compete against non-disabled pupils. Wheelchair using pupils were encouraged to go to the special school nearby for sport. This was something I didn’t feel was right, but going to sport there meant that I missed French lessons, so it was a good compromise at the time.”

When it comes to her childhood sporting heroes, Tanni’s Welsh roots are well in evidence. “My mother was an ardent Welsh rugby fan and my first sporting hero was Gareth Edwards. I met him a few years ago and was still in awe.” Tanni was also impressed by a flamboyant wheelchair racer, also from Wales, Chris Hallam. “I watched Chris win the London Marathon”, she says. “He had flowing blond hair and wore a leopard print racing suit; he was an inspiration to me and is a good friend.”

Tanni’s parents nurtured her adventurous spirit from a young age, and it was with their support that she developed her love of sport. “They encouraged me to try everything. I used to ride, swim and play basketball, but when I first tried a racing wheelchair at the age of thirteen, I thought it was something I could enjoy and, if I tried hard, do well at.”

In 1981, Tanni was chosen to represent Wales at the Junior National Games at Stoke Mandeville. “I went to Junior Nationals for the next few years”, she says. “Then in 1987 I represented Great Britain at my first international event in Vienna.”

In 1988, Tanni competed in her first Paralympic Games, in Seoul, where she won a bronze medal in the 400m. It was to be the first of many medals, though she was not to settle for third place again. Tanni went on to compete at a five different Paralympic Games, winning a total of sixteen medals – just the one bronze, four silvers and an incredible eleven golds.

Tanni also dominated the World Championships for over a decade, held more than 30 world records and won the London Marathon no less than six times. But with so many great moments to choose from, what was her proudest achievement on the track? “I have quite a few”, she says, “but at the Athens Games in 2004, my last Paralympics, the gold medal I won in the 100 metres means a lot to me. I had a pathetic start to the Games in the 800 metres and people were questioning whether I was too old to compete. Winning my next race, the 100 metres, proved to myself that I had trained well and it reinforced my belief.”
{pullquote}“Television has helped to raise public awareness of disability sport; we have still got some way to go, but it is getting better”{/pullquote}
Despite the regularity with which she did it, it is clear that the sensation of winning gold is an extra-special one for Tanni. “It’s an amazing feeling”, she says. “For me, it’s a feeling of immense satisfaction that all the hard work and planning has been worth it. Being a full-time athlete isn’t easy, training 50 weeks of the year, six days a week, two sessions a day, but the feeling of crossing the line knowing that your race plan has been exactly right, makes it worthwhile.”

With the 2012 Olympics now little more than a year away, Tanni is, of course, heavily involved, working hard to promote the Games and on practical issues to secure the best facilities for the athletes involved. “I’m an ambassador for London 2012, and the Vice-chair of the Athlete’s Committee, which is involved in the village, organising things like transport for athletes, medals and ceremonies. I am hugely excited about the Games being in London and the Olympic Park is an amazing place.”

Tanni is one of a select band of Olympic and Paralympic medallists and sporting heroes who are acting as Ambassadors for International Inspiration, the Olympic legacy programme. Alongside such iconic figures as David Beckham and Denise Lewis, she is working to connect with people all over the world and to inspire them to improve their lives through sport.

“I think that sport has the incredible power to change lives for the better”, says Tanni. “We can give young people around the world skills and knowledge to make a difference and succeed in life; no matter what their ability, everyone has a chance, no child will be excluded and, ultimately, through the skills learned, the young people can make a difference in their communities.”

So what kind of legacy does she hope the Games will provide for young people with disabilities and SEN? “I do hope that young people will be inspired by the Games,” says Tanni. “As disabled people, we need to keep ourselves fit and healthy. Activity should be an essential part of our everyday life. Not everyone will make it to elite athlete level, but just doing some activity every day that you enjoy can make a real difference. I hope that seeing sport will encourage more participation.”

Tanni believes that much has changed for athletes with disabilities since she started out. “The equipment has changed; sport is as competitive, but much more technical”, she says. “Television has helped to raise public awareness of disability sport....It is 40 years since the Chronically Sick and Disabled Act came into force. We still have some way to go, but things are getting better. It’s an ongoing, evolving process.”  

So what of the future? What are Tanni’s hopes for the development of sport for people with disabilities and SEN in the UK? “I would like to see every sports club fully inclusive, and every venue accessible,” she says.   “I would like to see people with disabilities and SEN actively encouraged to take up sport and an increase in the participation levels in school sport.”

Tanni is clearly comfortable using her fame to help promote issues that are important to her? “I think that there are lots of ways for sports people to give something back”, she says. “I am a trustee of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, which believes in the power of sport to effect real change. The Foundation initiates and supports sporting organisations around the world. I visited a football project two years ago that runs joint leagues in Palestine and Israel. It has made a big difference to how young people view their neighbours in that troubled area; it’s just one example of the power of sport to change people’s perceptions.”

Tanni is also enjoying her new role, sitting as a crossbench (unaligned) peer in the House of Lords: “It’s very much like starting at a new school. I am learning the rules and just about know my way around now. I hope I can use my experience of growing up and living with a disability to raise awareness in that area. An area of concern to me is school sport, so I spoke in the recent debate about school sport partnerships.”

As someone who routinely packs so much into life and whose appetite for the new and different seems insatiable, Tanni has never been one to hang about. She will, we can be sure, continue to lead by example and push the boundaries, both for herself and for others. After all, resting on her (Paralympic) laurels simply does not seem to be Tanni’s way.

But with such a varied career already behind her, and a life so seemingly full of trials and self-made opportunities, I wonder, finally,  what has been her greatest challenge so far. “Life is constantly throwing up challenges”, she says. “One of my biggest ones right now is how to persuade a nine-year-old that it would be much better for her to eat a decent breakfast than run out of the door at 8.30 clutching a cheestring and packet of sweets.”

Only time will tell whether Baroness Grey-Thompson is up to this latest trial but, somehow, I wouldn’t bet against her. 

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