Interview with Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson

By Anne Sebba, VS Magazine, June/July 2008

“It’s frustrating, annoying, hard work and incredibly rewarding” says Dame Tanni Grey-Thomspon, Britain’s greatest ever paralympic athlete about her new role as a volunteer coach. “My life was changed by sport and volunteer coaching so now I get as near as possible to competing by coaching a young lad called Brian Aldiss. I’m a horribly competitive person,” she admits. “I desperately want him to succeed.”

Aldiss, 21, is like his coach, a wheelchair racer who competes at all distances. He’s hoping to be selected for the GB team for Beijing when the team is announced next week.
Tanni is also in charge of a major review of anti-doping policies called for by UK Athletics and is adamant that those caught cheating through use of banned drugs must be penalized. She is involved in a mentoring programme with Steve Redgrave, she is also an ambassador for London 2012 and has just started work on an initiative called Sporting Chance, which aims to give youngsters access to free sports during school holidays. In her “spare” time she is a mother to Carys, 6, and is designing a sportswear range for disabled athletes.

Dame Tanni, 38, awarded a DBE in 2005 for services to sport, was born with spina bifida in 1969 and needed to use a wheelchair from the age of seven. At 13 she began wheelchair racing. At 17, after major surgery had grafted a metal rod on to her spine, she joined the Rookwood paraplegic club in Cardiff and started her competitive career. She went on to train for the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul from where she returned with a bronze in the 200 metres. She lost a year when she had to return to hospital for further surgery on her back, but, undeterred, she focused on the Barcelona Paralympics of1992 and promptly hit the headlines with quadruple gold medals in the 100, 200, 400 and 800 metres. She has an incredible
11 gold medals in all.

Tanni Grey-Thompson may have retired from competition herself – she raced in her last competitive event last year – but is unlikely to retire from the public arena and is now turning her fearsome energy and drive to sports administration. Her strong views on the organisation of British sport are more important than ever with the London Olympics looming. She believes the vast army of volunteer coaches, without whom so many success stories would not have happened, are largely unrecognised.

“British sport is based on volunteer local coaches and I think we need to
value them more.

“When you’re paid you get recognition and if you coach the top performers you get recognition. But when you have to turn out to coach 20 kids on a dark Thursday night in November and it’s raining, that’s another story. At the very least they deserve a thank you. My own coach would never allow us back on the bus until we had thanked everyone, including the track officials,” she recalls. “It’s not a bad thing to say thank you, after all they give up hours of time each week not to help themselves get better but to watch somebody else get better. They do it just because they love the sport.”

British sport has a lot to thank Dame Tanni for. But she believes there is a need for a major “cultural change” so that more disabled people are seen doing sport.

“The main challenge facing all kids today is getting access to sport; just knowing where to go can be quite hard if you’re a wheelchair user. Imagine just turning up at your local athletics club and saying I want to play basketball if everyone else is running around. If you’re a young non- disabled kid the organisation may not be any better but you can find enough other kids in your local environment to play foot ball with. If you’re vision impaired or a wheelchair user it can be quite hard to get into sport in the first place.”

Another problem -exacerbated by the number of disabled kids now in mainstream school – is making sure they get enough access to PE. Tanni is critical of primary school teacher training which devotes just 2 hours in a one-year PGCE course to showing how to deliver sport to disabled children.

“I think PE is one of the hardest subjects to deliver. If you are not very good at maths you don’t get isolated every time you take a little bit longer to solve a problem whereas in PE, if you’re a bit rubbish, everybody sees how far behind you are.”

“But sport,” she explains, “takes a long time to develop. I spent years training before winning at the Barcelona Olympics. Winning gold medals in four events was like twenty Christmas all wrapped up together; it was such a huge dream come true.”

Her advice to others kids is just to be physically active in any way they can because it changes everything you do for the rest of your life, including maths. “Working out the trajectory of a ball is forcing your brain to go through a deeply mathematical process. Sport helps you breathe properly, concentrate and study better.”

But in spite of the problems, there are encouraging signs that some things are getting better for Britain’s would-be paralympians. One of them is a new website which guides young people to the sport best suited to their impairment, advises them on what further support is available and how to qualify for funding through the Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme (TASS), delivered by SportsAid in association with the national governing bodies of sport. And Tanni is convinced that the London Olympics – the first where the bids to stage the Olympics and Paralympics had to be mounted at the same time as previously this had been cobbled together after the bid had been won – will have a major impact throughout the UK. She cites the example of the way various cities are already offering to host teams from other countries while they train in this country and how these facilities will remain long after 2012 and above all the example of seeing more disabled athletes compete.

She has been to Beijing twice and will go again later in the year for the games themselves, fiercely believing in the importance of attending rather than boycotting the event.
“It’s hard to separate sport from politics because how society copes with disabled people is deeply political,” she says. “But if you want to change things, then go and speak in a positive way afterwards.”

Grey-Thompson is intensely critical of those who would be quick to judge China for its policy towards disabled athletes while seeing nothing wrong with the Embryology Bill currently being debated in Parliament. “I don’t condone China’s Human Rights record, and people must campaign. But there are different ways of doing things. Before we take the high moral ground and criticise others we might help change by guiding and encouraging.” Then she adds more sombrely. “Around 60 years ago, someone like me probably wouldn’t have survived.”

Her parents were always incredibly supportive, she says, but you can’t sit around and rely on other people to make a difference. You have to find a way yourself.
Her own daughter, Carys, does a huge amount of sport and dancing thanks to Tanni and Ian, her husband, taking and encouraging her. Does Tanni want her to be a sportswoman?
She pauses before answering.

“Well…Her father wants her to a cyclist, I want her to be a human rights lawyer and she wants to be a hairdresser.”

Watch this space.

Anne Sebba is the author of Jennie Churchill : Winston’s American Mother (John Murray)