Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson is one of the UK’s most successful Paralympians, winning 16 medals over five games – 11 of them gold. Post competition, she helps her husband coach 21-year-old wheelchair racing sensation Jade Jones while working to improve disability rights and welfare reform legislation in the House of Lords as a cross-bench peer. Last month, Tanni was invited to Teesside University to speak to aspiring disabled athletes as part of a Tees Valley Sport summer camp. Afterwards, she talked to Alison Cowie about the training and commitment it takes to be a Paralympian person and the biggest misconception about disability sports
How did you become involved in the Discover Your Ability Summer Camp?
I’ve known [camp organiser] Julie Sparrow for years, since I was on GB teams. She asked if I would come along to chat with the athletes and tell them about what it’s like to be a Paralympian and the training it takes.
How important is having camps like these?
It’s really important. We’ve got the least active generation of young people we’ve ever had; the fittest kids in school these days would have been the least fit 30 years ago. That’s a massive problem and we need to encourage more health and fitness. For young people who have the aspiration to compete for Team GB, it’s also important that they meet each other.
What does it take to become an elite sports person?
You must have a bit of talent as well as determination, focus, resilience and an ability to make yourself do the training that you don’t like.
When did you start wheelchair racing and how did your training develop?
I tried lots of different sports but when I was around 13 I started wheelchair racing. I joined an athletics club but my coach hadn’t worked with a wheelchair racer before and didn’t know about the technique, chair building, which gloves to wear – that kind of stuff. I found someone who could coach me on my racing technique while my athletics coach trained me on the physical stuff. I also spent time talking to GB team athletes and read lots of books about disability sports, physiology and psychology.
It sounds as though you had to be very proactive. Is it the same for aspiring disabled athletes nowadays?
Things have got loads better. There’s certainly more understanding and more funding. But actually, I do think it’s important for young athletes to take the time to learn as much as they can about their sport.
What’s the secret of good training?
Think about it as a jigsaw. You have to put the right training sessions, prehab and rehab, diet, nutrition and sleep together. It’s also important to have other interests outside of sport. Enjoying your sport is really important. If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t want to do it and won’t get the best out of yourself.
Have you ever got your training wrong?
When I was 19, I used to train with a mountaineering group. They were amazing because they trained really hard on upper body strength. At the end of one session, my training partner said to me, ‘you look tired, don’t do the last rope climb’ but I did it anyway. When I was coming back down the rope, I pulled a muscle and fell six foot to the floor. I snapped a rod that I had fitted to my spine. I was out of sport for three months. It was a very important and very painful lesson to learn about knowing when to push yourself in training and when to know enough is enough.
What’s been your sporting highlight?
Probably winning the 100m in Athens, as it was my weakest event. It was toughest medal I’ve won but probably the best race I ever did.
You’re now involved in politics – any highlights there?
I work on welfare reform and disability rights so there aren’t too many happy moments in this. There are a few votes that I’ve won and a few I’ve lost.
Have you transferred any of the skills you’ve learnt from sport into politics?
You use the same skills in politics as you do in sport. You need to work hard and be resilient. You must also learn to do things that you don’t particularly enjoy. The things you learn from doing sport translates in so many different areas.
What is the biggest misconception in disability sports?
There can sometimes be a patronising tone around disability sports. People will say, ‘oh, aren’t they brave, aren’t they marvellous’. Everyone is, of course, but in different ways. We can still be elite athletes and be very focused on achieving goals.
Is this attitude changing?
It doesn’t move in just one direction; it ebbs and flows. I do think disability sports is in a really good place, though what I still want to see is more disabled people in sport, more disabled people in politics, and more disabled people in work. It’s all about giving disabled people the opportunities to do what you want to do.