is Britain’s greatest Paralympian, with a total of 11 gold medals. She was ennobled in 2010 and is now a (hard-)working crossbench peer.
Brian Draper tried to keep up with her at the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham on 24 May 2012.
Photography: Andrew Firth
In your 2001 autobiography, Seize the Day,1Seize the Day: My autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton) you wrote: ‘For me, disability has not been about overcoming things. That is why I find it hard to understand when people say I’m a role model.’ It seemed to me, as I read about (for example) the metal rod that was put in your spine, that you have overcome adversity. Isn’t that, in part, what makes Paralympic athletes seem so special to many people? Or is that a misapprehension?
No, because some of them have had to deal with a huge amount of adversity. You know, I grew up in a middle-class family, with a dad who was an architect in a well-paid job, a full-time mum and a brilliant older sister. I had a good education, and supportive parents, and we had two cars and we went on nice holidays – there’s no adversity in that. And there’s no adversity in me wanting to be an athlete and training hard and it happening. Most athletes don’t get to do one Games, let alone five – I was hugely fortunate. I happened to be in a wheelchair but there was no adversity in that.
People come up to me and say: ‘Oh, wow! How do you cope with being in a wheelchair?’ but there’s not ever a bit of me that thinks, ‘I wish I could walk!’, because walking wouldn’t give me anything I don’t have now. Not being able to walk has never stopped me doing anything I wanted to do. If I wanted to go parachuting, I could. If I wanted to go scuba-diving, I could. I mean, it’s a bit of a pain sometimes when it’s tipping down with rain and it takes you a bit longer to get in the car…
I got it a lot more when I was younger – ‘Oh, isn’t it marvellous what you do?’ It’s the tone of voice, it’s not the words – people going, ‘Ohhh, you’re so brave!’ Not really. You know, the metal rod – if I hadn’t had that rod put in my spine, I probably would have died; and it was my fault that I then snapped it and had to have it taken out. I hadn’t really got any choice, you know…
How would you characterise your upbringing?
My parents were amazing. I was born with spina bifida but they didn’t wrap me in cotton wool or ever let anybody treat me differently. They always said they probably weren’t very good at having children, because my older sister was born with a heart condition and dislocated hips; but they were both very positive people who just got on with things – you know, ‘Come on, stop moaning! If you want to do it, do it!’
Sport was a massively important part of my life, but there was always other stuff I wanted to do and now it just feels like it was a stepping stone to what I’m doing now
I think that made a massive difference to my life – at the time, disabled people were pretty much locked away. A doctor told my mum that if I’d been born even a few years earlier I probably would have been taken away and not fed. And Mum and Dad were always really open about that – they didn’t shy away from talking about these things with me so it wouldn’t upset me if anyone else did. You know, as a disabled person you do experience a lot of discrimination and people do say some horrible things, but it never bothered me because I’d already worked out all that stuff with my parents.
You say in the book that you dislike the term ‘disabled person’ and you prefer to be known as a person with a disability…
Oh, did I? I think that’s all changed. Now, basically, it’s ‘disabled person’.
Growing up, I was tagged as ‘the disabled child’ and I suppose I spent a long time trying to argue that being disabled is just one small part of me. I think it’s easy to define me by my impairment, because that’s the first thing you see. For most of my career as an athlete I had really short hair, so it would be, like, ‘that disabled boy’. You think: You’re not even looking at my face, you’re just looking at my wheelchair. So, some of it was about saying to the public: Just look beyond the most obvious thing that you see!
But I suppose I’ve become more hardline in my disability-rights campaigning, certainly in the last year, and actually I am ‘a disabled person’, because I’m handicapped by society. The fact that there are lots of places I can’t go to because I’m disabled means that I will only ever become ‘a person with a disability’ when I can do exactly the same thing as a non-disabled person can do – and we’re not even close to that yet.
I think I’ve become much more aware of language. When you’re competing as an athlete you have so little time for anything else: you just have to keep your head down – you can’t afford to settle for second-best. But I kind of knew that if I was successful, I would have a platform to talk about other stuff: how disabled people are treated, or how women in sport are treated.
For me, that was really important. Sport was a massively important part of my life but there was always a list of other stuff I wanted to do, and now it just feels like it was a stepping stone to what I’m doing now. I was meant to do something else. I don’t know what it is yet, but sport was only part of what I was meant to do.
Recently you had to crawl off a train because there was no member of staff to help you get off.2bit.ly/2cvBna0 It strikes me that if Sir Steve Redgrave had been humiliated in that way, there would have been a national outcry. How far do you think our attitude to disabled people has moved?
It’s miles better than it ever was, absolutely miles better. But I think the reaction to that story, especially online, was a litmus test of where we are as disabled people – you know, people were writing: ‘People like you should be on cattle trucks at the back of trains so you don’t contaminate normal people.’ Really? OK…
Are you serious?
I’ve had that pretty much said to my face before. But it only makes me more determined to keep going, to keep trying to change things.
Do you feel that there is an essential you that lies behind all the different labels?
Yeah. I think the core of me is that I try to be a certain way. I set myself quite hard goals for how I want to behave and I try to live my life like that. It doesn’t matter whether I can walk or not, or all those other things – they’re just incidental, really.
Was your upbringing religious?
I have a faith, but I find it incredibly hard to articulate. For me, it’s not about going to church, it’s about how you live your life – about community and charity
Mum and Dad both had very strong faith, though they never talked to me much about it. Mum always said that you’re never given things that are too great for you to deal with, and she believed, I think, that having me was part of what she was meant to do.
But in your book you say that you’re not religious now…
No… I don’t know whether it’s because we moved around so much. I was christened in the Welsh-speaking church, but Dad didn’t speak Welsh so we were brought up English-speaking Methodist, and then I went off to Lourdes when I was 11, so I went to Catholic church for a bit; and then we had a vicar who would get everyone to stand up and hold hands and he would point at people and say, ‘Would you like to pray?’ and that wasn’t us at all! We moved around loads. My parents ended up low Church of England, but I’ve never quite found the right place to go. I don’t know whether I’m actively looking for it, or hope it will appear to me one day…
I have a faith, but I find it really hard to articulate, incredibly hard. For me, it’s not about going to church, it’s about how you live your life – about community and charity and just helping other people. The way Mum and Dad brought us up is still a massive part of my life.
And you have a sense that things are ‘meant’ to be?
Yeah, I do. Everything happens for a reason. (We’ve got loads of sayings in our family!) I don’t know what my destiny is but I remember someone telling my dad when I was 21 that I’d end up in the House of Lords – and 20 years later that’s where I am. So, I don’t know, I kind of think there is a plan. Not for everyone – oh, it’s really difficult to articulate some of this – but for a lot of people I think there is. I think you make choices that deviate from it but, yeah, I think there is something there.
You have a strong sense of Welsh identity…
Completely, yeah. To the point where I made sure that my daughter was born in Wales. I’m very proud that I was born in Wales.
Can you sum up for an Englishman what Welshness means to you?
That’s even harder than trying to explain my faith! Actually, it’s probably very similar to faith, really.
You have said you were frequently sick before big races, often at the side of the track; but you also talk of almost a serenity before some races. What was going on there?
When I was sick before races, I think it was mostly fear of not being good enough – for myself – fear of not doing the best I can. That’s what used to make me ill. But yeah, there were a few races where I almost remember every single push. One was the 400m in Gothenburg [in 2000], where I broke the world record. I remember really clearly coming round the final bend – I can almost play it back in my head like a video. I remember what it felt like, how my breathing was and my heart rate. I can almost feel the sun on my face.
The races I remember – and I’ve had that feeling probably three times in my career – are the ones where it’s a perfect day, you’re in the best shape you can be and everything just clicks. Obviously, if I’d lost the race it wouldn’t have been quite the same, but…
Actually, all of them [involved] breaking world records, two of them at 400m and one at 100m.
Eric Liddell, who won the men’s 400m at the Olympics in 1924, famously said that God made him fast and when he ran, he felt God’s pleasure. Do a lot of athletes feel that kind of sense of fulfilment on the track?
In certain races at certain times it feels like you’re on a different plane. Occasionally, it feels like it’s not quite you there. Which is weird. I can’t explain it.
With athletics, sometimes it feels as though you are in the absolute flow of it physically and sometimes it feels as if you’re working hard against the limitations of your body. What was it like for you?
You know, even though I talk a lot about being disabled I don’t particularly feel like a disabled person, so for me it was always just about trying to push my own physical boundaries, just being as strong and as fast as I possibly could be. That was it. It was just about being good.
Athletes are a strange breed, aren’t they? What is it that sets them apart? Are they trying to prove something?
What were you trying to prove?
I used to be asked: Are you trying to prove something because you’re in a chair? No, actually, because I’m the same personality as before I became paralysed [by the age of seven]. But it was about proving to myself that I could be good: that I could focus on a goal, train really hard and achieve it. And it was a little bit about proving it to my family. The rest don’t matter, but my family is the most important thing to me.
In my whole career, I never felt I’d done enough. I was happy, but – you’d win races and break records and you’d be like ‘OK, that’s lovely’ and then I’d be: ‘Right, how do I get quicker? I need to be better.’ And in sport that’s dead easy, because you can target the medals; but now it’s harder, because what do I want to do? I know the issues I want to tackle, but I can’t say: Right, I want to enter 40 amendments next year…
Are you still just as driven?
I’m much more relaxed now I’ve stopped competing. I think one of the things that led me to retire [in 2007] is, I wasn’t becoming a very nice person. Certainly in the last 18 months, I’d had enough of training, I’d had enough of travelling with the team and I could see that I was becoming a bit bitter. You know, in your twenties it’s brilliant fun travelling with a team and living out of a suitcase in some really dodgy accommodation. When you get to 35 and you’re married and you’ve got a kid, it’s no fun any more. I was struggling in training, I was getting injured a bit more and it was like: D’you know what? I’m done. I’m going to go and do something else.
Looking back now, do you still think you didn’t achieve enough as an athlete?
No, it was OK what I did. But I’m a better person now I’m not in athletics.
I mean, the things I did in my career, like arranging my wedding day to fit in with my competition schedule! And the birth of my daughter – I knew I wanted to do the Commonwealth Games in 2002, so I counted back six months, which is what I thought I’d need to get back into really good shape, and then another 40 weeks, and I said to my husband: ‘Right, that’s the date we need to be pregnant by.’ At the time, it just felt completely and utterly normal. I missed Christmases and birthdays. My sister based her wedding around my season so that I could be there. You’re quite selfish as an athlete, and my family allowed me to be.
In your book, you said one thing that really shocked me: ‘Wheelchair racing can be dangerous, fierce, bitter and frightening.’ Sport is often put on a pedestal, much like the arts, as something ennobling or uplifting, but is it all, when it comes down to it, just a bit of a selfish scrap?
Watching people achieve the best they can and win within the rules is amazing – and I think it teaches you a lot about life, actually. And you can still do it and be a nice person
It can be. I think there’s people who behave incredibly ethically in sport and there are people who don’t – but that’s true in everything. And some people choose to break the rules a little bit and some choose to break the rules a lot. In Britain, we’re quite good at staying within the rules, I’d say. Mostly.
But watching people achieve the best they can and win within the rules is amazing – and I think it teaches you a lot about life, actually. I don’t think you have to be a nasty person to win. You have to be tough and focused – I think ‘focused’ is probably a better word than ‘selfish’ – but you can still do it and be a nice person.
Would you change anything, looking back?
No. There are times when I look back to see how I can learn, and there are certain races I lost that I think it would have been nice to have won. But it’s not as strong as ‘If only…!’ – and actually everything I’ve won and everything I’ve lost makes me who I am now, and makes me better for what I’m trying to do.
I’m also quite fatalistic – you can’t change it, so… It’s a bit like being in a chair: I can’t change it, so what’s the point of wasting any energy over it? You know, I’ve got a friend who’s still waiting for the day the cure’s going to come, and he’s wasting his life waiting for it and it’s like: D’you know what? It’s not happening. Or it might come, but probably not in our lifetime.
After the Barcelona Games in 1992, when you began to notice that you were becoming a ‘celebrity’, did you get a sense that people expected something from you?
When you’re an athlete and people have actually paid money to come and watch you race, they either want you to win or they want you to lose – and people come for both reasons and, you know, that’s fine. But dealing with other people’s disappointment is really hard. After the Athens 800m [in 2004], when I’d lost badly, loads of British supporters walked past me as they were leaving the stadium and every single one of them said: ‘That was rubbish!’ Yeah, I know. I was there.
Are the general public really that unkind?
I remember the first time I was on Question Time, when I was in my late twenties, a woman stopped me in the street in Cardiff and said: ‘Oh wow, you’re Tanni! You were on Question Time last night!’ And I said, ‘What did you think?’ – you know, it’s a big deal being on Question Time. And she said: ‘We all hated your lipstick.’ Great. I thought I looked quite nice. I said, ‘What about what I said?’ And she went: ‘Oh, we didn’t really listen.’
I get people who walk past me in the street now and will just say, ‘Hi, Tanni!’ – they don’t want to engage. You get people who want to chat. And you do get people who just want to have a go. Very, very occasionally they want to be really nasty, but mostly, you know, it’s a bit of bravado and they just want to be a bit edgy.
I suppose it was really good training for the Lords, because if people don’t think I do a good enough job they write and tell me. On welfare reform, I’ve been criticised for some of the things I chose not to take to a vote. You know, sometimes when we were discussing welfare reform I had four seconds after the minister sat down to decide whether I was going to divide the House or not – and you’re not trying to weigh up just that vote, you’re trying to weigh up everything on the list – what has priority, what you’d rather get through – and you’re making a series of complex decisions in seconds. And that’s quite hard – but, again, you see, like racing. Racing’s so good for stuff!
Still, I guess you are widely seen as a national treasure. Does that carry its own burden of expectation?
Most people are really lovely – I would say I get stopped in the street several times a week by people saying: ‘Oh! It’s Tanni! Hello! How are you? You’re lovely! Wow!’ Or they’ll get their camera out and they’ll make some poor child stand next to me to have their picture taken with me. And sometimes I find that really hard to deal with, because I don’t see what they see. I’m just Tanni. Somebody stops me in the street and it’s like: ‘Oh! It’s you.’ Yeah, it is me. ‘Oh, you’re amazing!’ And what do you say to that? ‘Yes, I am’? I mean, it’s lovely [but]…
My husband always gets asked, ‘How does it feel having your wife winning loads of medals and you didn’t win any?’ And he just says: ‘She never beat me’
I certainly don’t get my family treating me as if I’m special. They’re very objective about what I do, good or bad – to the point of rudeness sometimes. My family are very grounding – that’s the best word for them. My husband was my coach for a big chunk of my career and without him I couldn’t have done it. He was a Paralympic athlete as well and he always gets asked, ‘How does it feel having your wife winning loads of medals and you didn’t win any?’ And he just says: ‘She never beat me. I was better than her.’
What’s the best piece of advice anyone’s ever given you?
My grandad had a saying, which I often quote: ‘Aim high, even if you hit a cabbage.’ I wish I knew where it came from. It means: Don’t mess about, don’t turn up for things half-prepared. If you want to do it, do it, and if you don’t want to do it, don’t do it – but don’t turn up and moan about doing it. I mean, I saw plenty of youngsters when I was racing who’d be at the start line: ‘Do I have to?’ If I’d ever said that to Mum and Dad, they would have said: ‘Right, you’re not doing it.’
The other thing is: Don’t be afraid to fail! Mum and Dad brought us up to have confidence in trying things. However nervous I was on the start line, you’ve got to try and win the race. It’s a bit the same in the Lords – I kind of threw myself in at the deep end and there were times when, with some of the amendments I took forward, it was like I was the only one who was prepared to do it. So, you know what? You’ve just got to try. With everything I do, I try to do the best I can.
Do you see a difference between losing and failing? Elite athletics seems to be all about winning.
Yeah, there’s loads of races I’ve lost but I’ve very rarely failed. I think ‘failure’ is a horrible word, actually.
It’s easy to walk away from things sometimes, actually. It’s easy to say, ‘I’m not going to bother’ and not put yourself in a position where you challenge yourself. I remember the first amendment I took through in the House of Lords, throwing up in the toilet before I went into the Chamber, thinking: ‘Oh my God!’ Sport is quite frivolous, really, but the House of Lords affects people’s lives big-time. It’s a massive responsibility, and one that I take really seriously – but, you know, you’ve got to give it a go.
Are there parallels between what goes on in the Lords and the world of sport? The pressure? The game-playing?
I think everything I learnt from being an athlete helps me in the stuff I do now. In terms of dealing with pressure, in sport you’re doing it in front of 85,000 people, on the Legal Aid Bill3The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which became law in May 2012 [I was speaking] in front of 60 law lords and lawyers. So, it’s a different scale, but…
There’s a lot of similarities. I think honesty is important in both worlds. If you fib in the House of Lords, you will get caught out. And loyalty is hugely important. I try to be loyal – I hope I am.
Does that loyalty extend to party politics? I know you’re a crossbencher but you had some kind of affiliation once with the Labour Party…
I appeared in an advert, yeah. I’ve never been a member of a party – and the brilliant thing about being a crossbencher is, I can change my mind. You can go into a debate thinking, ‘Right, I agree with this side’ and you sit and listen to the debate and you think: ‘D’you know what? That makes far more sense…’ And that’s a huge privilege, to be able to do that.
I would really struggle to join a political party, really struggle. I don’t know the party I could join, right now. It depends what the issue is, quite where I sit. Sometimes I wish I could say, ‘I agree with that group all the time on everything,’ because that would be easier; but it doesn’t work out like that. I think the best thing in the Lords is, no one tells me how to vote – and the hardest thing is, no one tells me how to vote. So, you have to listen.
I’d like to be remembered as a good athlete and somebody who kind of made a difference. But to what, I don’t know – there’s just so many things I still want to do!
Also, party politics is very adversarial, which doesn’t suit me as an individual. You know, to sit on opposite sides screaming at each other I don’t think is positive – if I heard my 10-year-old daughter speak to somebody the way you hear people speak in the Commons sometimes, she’d be grounded for months. And I don’t think it encourages young people to engage.
I go to a lot of schools with the Lords outreach programme and a while ago a group of young people said to me: ‘Why should we bother voting?’ You go: ‘What we do in the Commons and the Lords affects everything, from before you’re born till after you’re dead. That’s why you should vote.’ But lots of young people are a bit switched off by politics at the moment, which I think is a real shame. I think they are switched off by lots of things at the moment, which is not positive.
You seem to have gone through an amazing learning curve since you entered the House of Lords in 2010…
I’ve learnt a lot about politics, manipulation, all sorts of things – and welfare! You know, I wasn’t an expert on welfare reform, I was just very interested in the Bill4The Welfare Reform Bill, which became law in March 2012 because of the impact it was going to have on disabled people. I sat alongside another crossbencher who – welfare is her thing, this was her dream Bill. Really, I was there to learn all about the idiosyncrasies of voting and amendment and all that kind of stuff; but she has a few problems – she can only talk for about a minute and a half before she runs out of breath – so I read out her speeches, mostly because I talk really quickly and I can get about 11 minutes in in the seven-minute time limit. And then it kind of escalated. It went from me putting my name to someone’s amendment to ‘Right, no one else is going to table this, so I need to table it.’ I remember sitting there thinking: ‘I was just meant to be learning, I wasn’t meant to be trying to take anyone on!’
I rang my daughter in the dinner break and asked her, ‘How was school?’ and she was like: ‘Daddy made me watch the Parliament Channel. You talk a lot.’ I try to explain what I do – and she’s like: ‘H’mm! But do you think they really listen to what you’re saying?’ I hope so! But you know what…?
What do you think your greatest achievement has been?
Having a really good go at the legislation on legal aid – that’s probably the thing I’m most proud of. Could have done better, because I didn’t get a pile of stuff through the way I would have wanted. But yeah, I think so.
People always expect you to say races or medals and I am really proud of the stuff I did as an athlete, but even now that’s only one part of who I am. You know, as well as being an athlete I was a sister and a wife and a mum and all those other things.
I suppose that because I’m quite a positive person I always hope I haven’t had my greatest achievement yet. I’m kind of looking to do things better.
What would you like your greatest achievement to be?
That’s so hard, because it’s so hard to be tangible these days. I suppose I’d like to be remembered as a good athlete and somebody who kind of made a difference. But to what, I don’t know – there’s just so many things that I still want to do. Oh, it’s so hard!
But I’m not a politician. I might end up as one, but I’ll try hard not to. I never want to be cynical. I love being in the Lords – it’s the most amazing place I’ve ever worked, and I love every single day I go there. It’s just a brilliant thing to be part of.
This edit was originally published in the July/August 2012 issue of Third Way.
Tanni Grey-Thompson was born in Cardiff in 1969. She went to St Cyres School in Penarth, and read politics and social administration at Loughborough University, graduating in 1991.
She began racing at the age of 13, and in 1984 won the 100m for Wales at the Junior National Games. Four years later, she won a bronze medal for Great Britain in the 400m at the Seoul Olympics.
In 1992, she took four gold medals and a silver at Barcelona, breaking the world records in the 100m and 400m. These were followed by a gold and three silvers in Atlanta in 1996, four golds in Sydney in 2000 and two more golds in Athens in 2004.
She also won a total of 10 medals (five gold, four silver and a bronze) at the World Championships. She has broken 30 world records.
She won the Women’s London Wheelchair Marathon six times between 1992 and 2002.
She was voted BBC Wales Sports Personality of the Year in 1992, 2000 and 2004. Since 2000, she has had a career as a TV presenter, appearing on BBC1, BBC2 and S4C.
She retired from racing in 2007.
Her autobiography, Seize the Day, was published in 2001.
She sits on the boards of UK Athletics, the London Marathon and Transport for London, and is actively involved with many charities and councils. She [was] an ‘international inspiration ambassador’ for the London 2012 Games.
For services to sport, she was made an MBE in 1993, and a DBE in 2005. In 2009, she was admitted to the Gorsedd of Bards at the National Eisteddfod.
In 2010, she was created a life peer, taking the title of Baroness Grey-Thompson of Eaglescliffe in the County of Durham. She sits on the cross benches.
She has been awarded honorary doctorates by 16 British universities. She has been a pro-chancellor of Staffordshire University since 2005, and is an honorary fellow of Cardiff Metropolitan, Liverpool John Moores and Swansea Universities.
She has been married since 1999, to her fellow Paralympian Ian Thompson, and has one daughter.
Up-to-date as at 1 July 2012