This month we caught up with former British wheelchair racer, Tanni Grey-Thompson, who amassed a remarkable medal haul over 16 years and five Paralympic Games of 11 gold, 4 silver and a bronze. We spoke to Tanni about her experiences growing up and playing different sports, improving access to sport for disabled people and her work with UK Active.
How old were you when you joined your first sports club and what was it called?
I think I was 6 when I joined my first sports club. I joined ‘Riding for the Disabled’, the local Cardiff club which was just starting, and a swimming club called “The Cardiff Whales”, which was a funny play on words. I wasn’t a terribly good swimmer, but I loved horse riding. Back then the world wasn’t a very accessible place, but my parents decided that it was really important for me to be physically active. Just to be fit and strong, to be able to push my chair around and to be able to get up and down curbs so it wasn’t about any kind of pathway; it was about being physically active.
What do you remember about the club / your best memory?
Well, horse riding was cold, I remember that! Actually, a big part of my life involves food, so we used to have hot pot when we came in from riding and we used to be allowed to have a tomato soup by the swimming pool which we got from the machine, which was really fancy and quite high-tech at the time. I remember having a lot of fun and it being really enjoyable and wanting to go back every week. That’s what I remember most, as soon as the session was over, I was excited about what I was going to do the following week. It was also about making friends as well as the amazing volunteers around.
How important was grassroots introduction to sport in your development to a professional athlete?
The grassroots development was hugely important in my development to become a professional athlete. It was about trying lots of different things, and not just concentrating on one sport at a very young age. I found out the things I liked doing and the things I didn’t like doing. You would be doing a whole pile of cross training so you were developing muscle groups without even realising you were doing it. I was pushing a bit of weight through my wheel chair and I was swimming and riding, as well as doing PE in school. I was doing different things all the time so actually that was hugely important. The biggest thing, though, was being able to move between sports and not feeling that I had to do one, but having the opportunity to try lots of different things. If I hadn’t had that, I probably would have been encouraged to stay with swimming, but actually that wasn’t my strongest sport or my best sport. Trying lots of different sports gave me the chance, at the age of 13, to try wheelchair racing.
What is your fondest memory of sport when you were younger?
My fondest memory of sport is actually a combination of watching sport, going to rugby matches and that kind of camaraderie. The fondest memory of me doing sport were the different milestones. It was when I learnt to ride a horse on my own and wasn’t being led around anymore, and when I learnt to trot. It was also when I swam my first width on my own, then my first length. At the time, leading up to it, it seemed as though it was completely unachievable, and then once you’ve done it you think, “oh cool I can do that, what am I going to do next?”. So, there’s so many different things that I loved about doing it. Probably the best thing was the encouragement I received, motivation from the volunteers getting me to do more each time.
Is there any particular volunteer or club member from anywhere along your journey that’s made a real impact on your life and if so, is there anything you’d want to say to them?
My first coach was a guy called Roy Anthony at Bridgend Athletics Club and he was hugely encouraging. He had a big squad of young women who were all probably quite hormonal and he helped and guided us, and was always that really encouraging person. He was the reason you would go back, because you knew you would get this amazing support from the coach and the club. Roy was there week in, week out. David Williams, who was my coach at Cardiff, was the same, he used to turn up everywhere with this big bag of stuff and we used to joke whatever the weather, something would appear from his bag whether it was a bobble hat or a poncho or a t-shirt, he was prepared for every eventuality. In a slightly different context, athletics can’t take place without judges and there’s two, John Tanner and Ross Altmann who have been there pretty much throughout my whole career as athletics judges. They officiated my very first race in 1982 and they were there at my last race in Manchester when I retired so those guys who turn up week after week, rain or shine, day after day, making sure athletes get the chance to show how talented they are. Without those people, we know sports just wouldn’t exist in this country.
Do you think access to disability sports has improved over the years and would you have any advice for clubs to improve access for disabled people?
Access to disability sports has changed over the years, in many places it has got better. The biggest barrier usually is the point of contact or it could be about finding out where the nearest club is. What I would say to anybody is don’t be afraid. If a disabled person turns up at the club and wants to do the sport treat them the same as you would with anyone else who wants to play that sport. Ask them questions, don’t be afraid to ask about whether they have any access needs or what they think needs to be done. Disabled people are really good at being resourceful and having to make very complicated decisions at how they integrate. It is about making that as easy as possible. Don’t hide behind red tape and think it’s all going to be really difficult because it’s absolutely not. I was the sort of child that would turn up at a sport and go “right okay, here I am, I want to do it”, and if people looked at the chair first of all, they might think it was much harder than it is because of my love for sport and trying to do different things. Those barriers got knocked down pretty quickly so, it’s massively important that disabled people have access to physical activity and to make it as easy as possible for them.
Do you have any tips for clubs that want to get more people active in their wider community?
Try to get something for the local newspaper, if the local community has a website, or let the council know or libraries. People still go to libraries to find out a huge amount of information and that’s where they keep a lot of lists as well for email enquiries. It’s just to let people know you exist, to be welcoming and opening. So many clubs are incredible when they get new people who come along and keep that level of enthusiasm because a lot of people who are volunteers in clubs, they don’t often have people saying thank you for what they do, and it can be pretty relentless. If you are running a sport that plays outdoors in the middle of winter that’s a tough place to be so keep that level of enthusiasm. The reason why you love your sport, is the reason why others will love it as well. You need to get as many people involved as you can.
Is there any message you’d like to give to the volunteers who help run thousands of sports clubs up and down the country?
My message to the volunteers is just really simple: “thank you.” Sports wouldn’t exist without you. Giving people the opportunity to be physically active, play sport and have fun is a huge gift and there are times when it’s been difficult, challenging. Fundraising can be difficult, but please stay involved because you’ll be changing hundreds and thousands of people’s lives just by giving the opportunity to be physically active. You are also giving young athletes that chance to build a pathway to get to be the best, it doesn’t matter if that’s to be an Olympian or Paralympian or County athlete, or just someone who pushes their own personal boundaries more than they ever thought possible, you’re changing lives by what you do.