World of Tanni Grey-Thompson, former Paralympic champion

As the Olympic Games get underway tonight, a fascinating look into the mind and life of one of our greatest athletes – Tanni Grey-Thompson

Tanni Grey-Thompson, 42, is one of Britain’s most successful athletes, winning 11 gold medals at five Paralympic Games for wheelchair racing, breaking 30 world records and winning the London Marathon six times. Since retiring from racing, she has worked as a television presenter, and campaigns on disability and education issues. Last year she was made a life peer and sits in the House of Lords as Baroness Grey-Thompson of Eaglescliffe, as a cross-bencher. She lives in Eaglescliffe, Co Durham, with her husband, Ian  Thompson, a research chemist and sports coach, and their daughter, Carys.

Golden girl: Tanni Grey Thompson

Red Baby Some people think that because I’m in a wheelchair I’ve   never been able to walk. But when I was born, in Cardiff in 1969, I learnt   to toddle about and then walk like other children – although I did   fall over a lot. One of my strongest memories is clutching my favourite toy,  Red Baby, as I walked; she went everywhere with me, and I’d  scream if I couldn’t find her. She was never a beauty; she has an ugly   plastic face and bright-red lips, and had a covering of velour which has   long since worn off. She’s been stitched together many times. My sister,   Sian, two years my elder, tried to cut her head off once, so she has safety pins in her neck.

Spina bifida I developed spina bifida [when there is a hole in the sheath that covers and protects the nerves of the spinal cord] in the womb, plus an unrelated curvature of the spine. In those days people with spina bifida routinely died at birth; mine was relatively mild. When my mother learnt what the matter was, all she was worried about was whether it would   stop me being a mother myself, which it hasn’t. When I was about four or   five, the weight of the damaged spine pressed down harder on the bit of my   spinal cord that was sticking out of its sheath, damaging it beyond repair and causing my legs to lose the ability to bear my weight. My mother told me much later that had the technology existed, and my condition been revealed by a scan, she would have terminated the pregnancy. It doesn’t worry me – we all react differently to stuff like this.

Gallery My father was an architect and loved to paint in his spare   time. He collected framed maps, and paintings of boats and the countryside, hanging them in every spot in the house. When my sister and I left home he’d   visit us, arriving with paintings to hang up – our homes were extensions of   his gallery space. This particular bronze and copper 3D piece was very unlike his normal taste; it hung on the stairs of our Cardiff home for   years. I took it with me when I left home. I recall my mother asking him,   ‘Where on earth did you get that, and what did you pay?’ He told her it cost   £40, quite a bit for 1974, but confessed to me it had cost £60. He never   told her what he really paid for things, a habit I inherited. When I   splashed out £2,000 for a pair of carbon-fibre racing wheels in 1996, I told   my mother I’d spent £800. She’d have been horrified if   she’d known the truth.

Souvenir When I was seven I underwent serious spinal surgery to try to   prevent my back collapsing further. I was in and out of hospital for a year.   During that time Sian went with my father for a five-day trip to Holland. My   mother was convinced that there would be no decent food abroad and packed   lots of tins in their luggage. I love the idea of them sitting on a Dutch park bench eating Spam. Sian brought home a souvenir for me – a little   pillbox. Inside it there is another gift from her, a pink stone that had been a prized possession of hers. I thought it was a   really amazing jewel and was thrilled when she gave it to me.

Trophy You would never know that I’d been an Paralympic athlete if you came to my house. It’s not all trophies, medals and photos – we’re just not   like that. But this one, for coming third in the BBC Sport  Personality of the Year in 2000, is on display – it represents all my achievements in sport. The shortlist that year included the eventual winner,  Steve Redgrave, runner-up Denise Lewis – and even David Beckham, whom I  beat. What amazing company to be in. To come third was very humbling.

Carys This is my favourite photograph of Carys – she hates   it. She’s aged three, and looks so sad sitting there in her little dungarees, which she wore every day. I don’t have very good balance sitting   upright, particularly on the left side, so to pick her up I had to lean over   and lift her by the straps of her dungarees. She learnt quickly – if she   wanted a cuddle, she’d come to the right side of my chair. But if she was naughty she’d lie down flat on the left side of me where I couldn’t reach   her. Sometimes she’d hide under the dining table and I’d have to get out of my chair and crawl under there. At one point I resorted to a retractable dog   lead to ensure some parental control. Now she’s nine, and a delight.

House of Lords Carys doesn’t remember Mummy as an athlete. To her, I am Mummy the speaker, the boardroom director, and since last year, Mummy the baroness. Carys comes with me to the House of Lords, and sits in the chamber for hours at a time while I’m waiting to speak. She’s incredibly socially and politically aware for her age. She’s also a huge fan of the crumpets they serve at Westminster.

Hard work There are far fewer egos in politics than in sport.  Frustratingly, I don’t think the public have any idea how hard we all work in the House of Lords. I am there for more than 12 hours a day Monday to Thursday, and often Friday too, when the House is in session. It’s a relief to get home to Eaglescliffe so the weekend can begin.


First published February 17 2012 in the Telegraph Magazine

About the Author

Victoria Lambert has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and specialises in health and medical matters. She writes for the Telegraph, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Mail and the Mail on Sunday. She contributes to Saga, Geographical and First Eleven magazines – where she is the agony aunt.

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