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Aug 24, 2015

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson talks about her sporting life

She was Britain’s greatest Paralympics athlete, with 11 gold medals and six London Marathon wins as just some of the highlights of a glittering career. But now Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson admits what scares her most are events in which she’s not even competing.

It’s when she has to watch her 13-year-old daughter Carys competing in white water canoe races. Earmarked as a future star, Carys has her sights set on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and is already in England junior teams.

Terrible watching
“As a mum, it’s terrible watching her,” says the 46-year-old former wheelchair racer who was made a life peer in 2010. “I don’t like moving water, so that can be a bit scary, but I also know there’s nothing I can do to help her. I now realise why my mum hated watching me compete.”

The proud mum, who smashed more than 30 world records in an astonishing track career, admits she’s sometimes worried about the burden of expectation put on her daughter’s shoulders.

“She was one day old when someone asked if she was going to be an athlete,” Tanni says. “We just try to be her mum and dad - we can’t coach her. I don’t think my dad could have coached me and I am conscious of the pressure on her. I think I overcompensate because I keep asking if she’s okay.”

Retiring from athletics has made no difference to Tanni’s whirlwind life. In many ways, she’s busier than ever. She’s active on the cross benches of the House of Lords and involved in numerous organisations and campaigns both on and off the sports scene. Recently she became a non-executive director of Join In, a London 2012 charity that puts volunteers into community sport.

“Volunteers played a massive part in my career as an athlete,” Tanni says. “Volunteers are the heartbeat of sport. Without them sport as we know it wouldn’t exist and I believe they should be praised, encouraged and thanked. Join In is the only charity that celebrates and supports volunteers and their contribution to grass roots sport.”

She must be great to work with. Any formal “Good morning, Baroness Grey-Thompson,” is brushed aside by: “I’m Tanni. How are you?” She’s honest, funny, relaxed and easy to talk to, but friends say the steely determination that made her an athletics legend is still very much intact in her new life. As one of the youngest members of the second chamber, the Lords must sometimes wonder what’s hit them.

Wheelchair racing
Carys Davina Grey-Thompson was a baby when she was nicknamed Tanni by her sister. Born with spina bifida and confined to a wheelchair from the age of seven, Tanni was her daughter’s age when, after trying a number of sporting options, she eventually settled on wheelchair racing. “I loved it,” she says. “It was me against everybody else.”

Tanni’s competitive career started when she was 17 after she had major surgery to graft a metal rod onto her spine. Her rise to the top of her sport was spectacular, starting with a bronze in the 1998 Seoul Paralympics.

She lost a year when she had to return to hospital for further back surgery but, undeterred, Tanni was back at the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics, promptly hitting the headlines by winning four gold medals.

In the same year she won her first London Marathon, a feat she was to repeat five more times - the last, in 2002, was just three months after giving birth to Carys. From then on, until her retirement in 2007, her determination in the face of physical disability made her a legendary sporting hero and dramatically increased awareness of Paralympic sports.

Today, busy on numerous boards and committees, Tanni is married to Dr Ian Thompson, a research chemist and former wheelchair athlete. They live in Eaglescliffe, County Durham, but Tanni is proud of being Welsh and made sure Carys was born in Wales.

Away from the track she fought just as hard on behalf of other disabled people to get rid of the stigma that they were automatically second class citizens: “My parents didn’t let anyone discriminate against me. My dad would say if you’re not happy, don’t just sit there - do something about it. And my mum always used to say you were given a tongue in your head for a reason.”

Her parents fought to keep Tanni in mainstream education and from an early age she wanted to be a lawyer: “I suppose I felt lawyers can change stuff.” But what she calls “the system” had other ideas.

Tanni explains: “I remember taking my A-levels and being sent to see a specialist careers adviser, who told me there was no point in doing A-levels because I was never going to get to university and, even if I did, I wouldn’t get a graduate job.

“He was going to send me to secretarial college and I was going to learn how to answer phones, because that’s all people in wheelchairs could do, apparently. I said: ‘Don’t you just pick it up and say hello?’ and my parents got a call saying I had been really rude to the careers adviser.”

Tanni did go to university. She graduated in 1991 with a degree in politics and social administration. Since then she has been showered with numerous honorary degrees and doctorates and was voted one of the 100 most powerful women in the UK.

In 2010, Tanni became Baroness Grey-Thompson of Eaglescliffe, five years after becoming a Dame Commander of the British Empire.

That young girl
“It’s a proper job in the House of Lords,” she says. “Some really serious and valuable work is done there. I was put in there to do sport and I’ve done quite a lot of administration and campaigning, so I’m not here just because I was an athlete.

“I’m still quite frequently called ‘that young girl’. People of my age have been patted on the head in the corridors, but the last chap who did it was 91 and comes from a different time. You have to pick your battles.

“I’ve got a big list of things I want to change. I was talking to a government body recently that said they were not doing more with women in coaching because women ‘can’t coach’. But if you go in and are really aggressive, you don’t get very far. You can actually achieve a lot more just by having cups of tea with people. Now I do it all the time.”

Disability rights campaigner
Tanni Grey-Thompson continues to campaign for disabled people’s rights and has personal experience of what the problems are.

Recently she found herself arriving at midnight at a London train station and the assistance she had booked failed to turn up.

She says: “I thought: ‘Here we go again’. I’m lucky because I could crawl off, but it made me think about people in electric wheelchairs who couldn’t get off.”

Tanni also says that even now she’s sometimes still: “Treated like I’m stupid and can’t do anything because I’m in a wheelchair. You’ll get some old lady in a shop trying to be kind, who’ll say: ‘Put your money back in your purse, dear’ because I was obviously going to throw my change all over the floor.”

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