More Power to her Elbow
Interview by Brian Draper
Britain's greatest Paralympian, Tanni
Grey-Thompson DBE was ennobled in 2010 and is now a
(hard-)working peer. Third Way tried to keep up with her
at the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham.
In your 2001 autobiography, Seize the Day,1 you
wrote: 'For me, disability has not been about overcoming things.
That is why I find it hard to understand when people say I'm a role
model.' It seemed to me, as I read about (for example) the metal
rod that was put in your spine, that you have overcome adversity.
Isn't that, in part, what makes Paralympic athletes seem so special
to many people? Or is that a misapprehension?
No, because some of them have had to deal with a huge amount of
adversity. You know, I grew up in a middle-class family, with a dad
who was an architect in a well-paid job, a full-time mum and a
brilliant older sister. I had a good education, and supportive
parents, and we had two cars and we went on nice holidays - there's
no adversity in that. And there's no adversity in me wanting to be
an athlete and training hard and it happening. Most athletes don't
get to do one Games, let alone five - I was hugely fortunate. I
happened to be in a wheelchair but there was no adversity in
People come up to me and say: 'Oh, wow! How do you cope with
being in a wheelchair?' but there's not ever a bit of me that
thinks, 'I wish I could walk!', because walking wouldn't give me
anything I don't have now. Not being able to walk has never stopped
me doing anything I wanted to do. If I wanted to go parachuting,
I could. If I wanted to go scuba-diving, I could. I mean, it's a
bit of a pain sometimes when it's tipping down with rain and it
takes you a bit longer to get in the car…
I got it a lot more when I was younger - 'Oh, isn't it
marvellous what you do?' It's the tone of voice, it's not the words
- people going, 'Ohhh, you're so brave!' Not really. You know, the
metal rod - if I hadn't had that rod put in my spine, I probably
would have died; and it was my fault that I then snapped it and had
to have it taken out. I hadn't really got any choice, you
How would you characterise your upbringing?
My parents were amazing. I was born with spina bifida but
they didn't wrap me in cotton wool or ever let anybody treat me
differently. They always said they probably weren't very good at
having children, because my older sister was born with a heart
condition and dislocated hips; but they were both very positive
people who just got on with things - you know, 'Come on, stop
moaning! If you want to do it, do it!'
I think that made a massive difference to my life - at the time,
disabled people were pretty much locked away. A doctor told my mum
that if I'd been born even a few years earlier I probably would
have been taken away and not fed. And Mum and Dad were always
really open about that - they didn't shy away from talking about
these things with me so it wouldn't upset me if anyone else did.
You know, as a disabled person you do experience a lot of
discrimination and people do say some horrible things, but it
never bothered me because I'd already worked out all that stuff
with my parents.
You say in the book that you dislike the term 'disabled
person' and you prefer to be known as a person with a
Oh, did I? I think that's all changed. Now, basically,
it's 'disabled person'.
Growing up, I was tagged as 'the disabled child' and I suppose I
spent a long time trying to argue that being disabled is just one
small part of me. I think it's easy to define me by my impairment,
because that's the first thing you see. For most of my career as an
athlete I had really short hair, so it would be, like, 'that
disabled boy'. You think: You're not even looking at my face,
you're just looking at my wheelchair. So, some of it was about
saying to the public: Just look beyond the most obvious thing that
But I suppose I've become more hardline in my disability-rights
campaigning, certainly in the last year, and actually I am 'a
disabled person', because I'm han-dicapped by society. The fact
that there are lots of places I can't go to because I'm disabled
means that I will only ever become 'a person with a disability'
when I can do exactly the same thing as a non-disabled person can
do - and we're not even close to that yet.
I think I've become much more aware of language. When you're
competing as an athlete you have so little time for anything else:
you just have to keep your head down - you can't afford to settle
for second-best. But I kind of knew that if I was successful, I
would have a platform to talk about other stuff: how disabled
people are treated, or how women in sport are treated.
For me, that was really important. Sport was a massively
important part of my life but there was always a list of other
stuff I wanted to do, and now it just feels like it was a stepping
stone to what I'm doing now. I was meant to do something else. I
don't know what it is yet, but sport was only part of what I was
meant to do.
Recently you had to crawl off a train because there was
no member of staff to help you get off. It strikes me that if Sir
Steve Redgrave had been humiliated in that way, there would have
been a national outcry. How far do you think our attitude to
disabled people has moved?
It's miles better than it ever was, absolutely miles
better. But I think the reaction to that story, especially online,
was a litmus test of where we are as disabled people - you know,
people were writing: 'People like you should be on cattle trucks at
the back of trains so you don't contaminate normal people.'
Are you serious?
I've had that pretty much said to my face before. But it
only makes me more determined to keep going, to keep trying to
Do you feel that there is an essential you that lies
behind all the different labels?
Yeah. I think the core of me is that I try to be a
certain way. I set myself quite hard goals for how I want to
behave and I try to live my life like that. It doesn't matter
whether I can walk or not, or all those other things - they're just
Was your upbringing religious?
Mum and Dad both had very strong faith, though they never
talked to me much about it. Mum always said that you're never given
things that are too great for you to deal with, and she believed, I
think, that having me was part of what she was meant to do.
But in your book you say that you're not religious
No… I don't know whether it's because we moved around so
much. I was christened in the Welsh-speaking church, but Dad didn't
speak Welsh so we were brought up English-speaking Methodist, and
then I went off to Lourdes when I was 11, so I went to Catholic
church for a bit; and then we had a vicar who would get everyone to
stand up and hold hands and he would point at people and say,
'Would you like to pray?' and that wasn't us at all! We moved
around loads. My parents ended up low Church of England, but I've
never quite found the right place to go. I don't know whether I'm
actively looking for it, or hope it will appear to me one
I have a faith, but I find it really hard to articulate,
incredibly hard. For me, it's not about going to church, it's about
how you live your life - about community and charity and just
helping other people. The way Mum and Dad brought us up is still a
massive part of my life.
And you have a sense that things are 'meant' to
Yeah, I do. Everything happens for a reason. (We've got
loads of sayings in our family!) I don't know what my destiny is
but I remember someone telling my dad when I was 21 that I'd end up
in the House of Lords - and 20 years later that's where I am. So, I
don't know, I kind of think there is a plan. Not for everyone - oh,
it's really difficult to articulate some of this - but for a lot of
people I think there is. I think you make choices that deviate from
it but, yeah, I think there is something there.
You have a strong sense of Welsh identity…
Completely, yeah. To the point where I made sure that my
daughter was born in Wales. I'm very proud that I was born in
Can you sum up for an Englishman what Welshness means to
That's even harder than trying to explain my faith!
Actually, it's probably very similar to faith, really.
You have said you were frequently sick before big races,
often at the side of the track; but you also talk of almost a
serenity before some races. What was going on there?
When I was sick before races, I think it was mostly fear
of not being good enough - for myself - fear of not doing the best
I can. That's what used to make me ill. But yeah, there were a few
races where I almost remember every single push. One was the
400m in Gothenburg [in 2000], where I broke the world record. I
remember really clearly coming round the final bend - I can almost
play it back in my head like a video. I remember what it felt like,
how my breathing was and my heart rate. I can almost feel the sun
on my face.
The races I remember - and I've had that feeling probably three
times in my career - are the ones where it's a perfect day, you're
in the best shape you can be and everything just clicks.
Obviously, if I'd lost the race it wouldn't have been quite the
Actually, all of them [involved] breaking world records, two of
them at 400m and one at 100m.
Eric Liddell, who won the men's 400m at the Olympics in
1924, famously said that God made him fast and when he ran, he felt
God's pleasure. Do a lot of athletes feel that kind of sense of
fulfilment on the track?
In certain races at certain times it feels like you're on
a different plane. Occasionally, it feels like it's not quite you
there. Which is weird. I can't explain it.
With athletics, sometimes it feels as though you are in
the absolute flow of it physically and sometimes it feels as if
you're working hard against the limitations of your body. What was
it like for you?
You know, even though I talk a lot about being disabled I
don't particularly feel like a disabled person, so for me it was
always just about trying to push my own physical boundaries, just
being as strong and as fast as I possibly could be. That was it. It
was just about being good.
Athletes are a strange breed, aren't they? What is it that
sets them apart? Are they trying to prove something?
What were you trying to prove?
I used to be asked: Are you trying to prove something
because you're in a chair? No, actually, because I'm the same
personality as before I became paralysed [by the age of seven]. But
it was about proving to myself that I could be good: that I could
focus on a goal, train really hard and achieve it. And it was a
little bit about proving it to my family. The rest don't matter,
but my family is the most important thing to me.
In my whole career, I never felt I'd done enough. I was happy,
but - you'd win races and break records and you'd be like 'OK,
that's lovely' and then I'd be: 'Right, how do I get quicker? I
need to be better.' And in sport that's dead easy, because you can
target the medals; but now it's harder, because what do I want to
do? I know the issues I want to tackle, but I can't say: Right, I
want to enter 40 amendments next year…
Are you still just as driven?
I'm much more relaxed now I've stopped competing. I think
one of the things that led me to retire [in 2007] is, I wasn't
becoming a very nice person. Certainly in the last 18 months, I'd
had enough of training, I'd had enough of travelling with the
team and I could see that I was becoming a bit bitter. You know, in
your twenties it's brilliant fun travelling with a team and living
out of a suitcase in some really dodgy accommodation. When you get
to 35 and you're married and you've got a kid, it's no fun any
more. I was struggling in training, I was getting injured a bit
more and it was like: D'you know what? I'm done. I'm going to go
and do something else.
Looking back now, do you still think you didn't achieve
enough as an athlete?
No, it was OK what I did. But I'm a better person now I'm
not in athletics.
I mean, the things I did in my career, like arranging my wedding
day to fit in with my competition schedule! And the birth of my
daughter - I knew I wanted to do the Commonwealth Games in 2002, so
I counted back six months, which is what I thought I'd need to get
back into really good shape, and then another 40 weeks, and I said
to my husband: 'Right, that's the date we need to be pregnant by.'
At the time, it just felt completely and utterly normal. I missed
Christmases and birthdays. My sister based her wedding around my
season so that I could be there. You're quite selfish as an
athlete, and my family allowed me to be.
In your book, you said one thing that really shocked me:
'Wheelchair racing can be dangerous, fierce, bitter and
frightening.' Sport is often put on a pedestal, much like the arts,
as something ennobling or uplifting, but is it all, when it comes
down to it, just a bit of a selfish scrap?
It can be. I think there's people who behave incredibly
ethically in sport and there are people who don't - but that's true
in everything. And some people choose to break the rules a little
bit and some choose to break the rules a lot. In Britain, we're
quite good at staying within the rules, I'd say. Mostly.
But watching people achieve the best they can and win within
the rules is amazing - and I think it teaches you a lot about life,
actually. I don't think you have to be a nasty person to win. You
have to be tough and focused - I think 'focused' is probably a
better word than 'selfish' - but you can still do it and be a nice
Would you change anything, looking back?
No. There are times when I look back to see how I can
learn, and there are certain races I lost that I think it would
have been nice to have won. But it's not as strong as 'If only…!' -
and actually everything I've won and everything I've lost makes me
who I am now, and makes me better for what I'm trying to do.
I'm also quite fatalistic - you can't change it, so… It's a bit
like being in a chair: I can't change it, so what's the point of
wasting any energy over it? You know, I've got a friend who's still
waiting for the day the cure's going to come, and he's wasting his
life waiting for it and it's like: D'you know what? It's not
happening. Or it might come, but probably not in our
After the Barcelona Games in 1992, when you began to
notice that you were becoming a 'celebrity', did you get a sense
that people expected something from you?
When you're an athlete and people have actually paid
money to come and watch you race, they either want you to win or
they want you to lose - and people come for both reasons and, you
know, that's fine. But dealing with other people's disappointment
is really hard. After the Athens 800m [in 2004], when I'd lost
badly, loads of British supporters walked past me as they were
leaving the stadium and every single one of them said: 'That was
rubbish!' Yeah, I know. I was there.
Are the general public really that unkind?
I remember the first time I was on Question
Time, when I was in my late twenties, a woman stopped me in
the street in Cardiff and said: 'Oh wow, you're Tanni! You were on
Question Time last night!' And I said, 'What did you
think?' - you know, it's a big deal being on Question
Time. And she said: 'We all hated your lipstick.' Great. I
thought I looked quite nice. I said, 'What about what I said?' And
she went: 'Oh, we didn't really listen.'
I get people who walk past me in the street now and will just
say, 'Hi, Tanni!' - they don't want to engage. You get people who
want to chat. And you do get people who just want to have a go.
Very, very occasionally they want to be really nasty, but mostly,
you know, it's a bit of bravado and they just want to be a bit
I suppose it was really good training for the Lords, because if
people don't think I do a good enough job they write and tell me.
On welfare reform, I've been criticised for some of the things I
chose not to take to a vote. You know, sometimes when we were
discussing welfare reform I had four seconds after the minister sat
down to decide whether I was going to divide the House or not - and
you're not trying to weigh up just that vote, you're trying to
weigh up everything on the list - what has priority, what you'd
rather get through - and you're making a series of complex
decisions in seconds. And that's quite hard - but, again, you see,
like racing. Racing's so good for stuff!
Still, I guess you are widely seen as a national treasure.
Does that carry its own burden of expectation?
Most people are really lovely - I would say I get stopped
in the street several times a week by people saying: 'Oh! It's
Tanni! Hello! How are you? You're lovely! Wow!' Or they'll get
their camera out and they'll make some poor child stand next to me
to have their picture taken with me. And sometimes I find that
really hard to deal with, because I don't see what they see. I'm
just Tanni. Somebody stops me in the street and it's like: 'Oh!
It's you.' Yeah, it is me. 'Oh, you're amazing!' And what do you
say to that? 'Yes, I am'? I mean, it's lovely [but]…
I certainly don't get my family treating me as if I'm special.
They're very objective about what I do, good or bad - to the point
of rudeness sometimes. My family are very grounding - that's the
best word for them. My husband was my coach for a big chunk of my
career and without him I couldn't have done it. He was a
Paralympic athlete as well and he always gets asked, 'How does it
feel having your wife winning loads of medals and you didn't win
any?' And he just says: 'She never beat me. I was better than
What's the best piece of advice anyone's ever given
My grandad had a saying, which I often quote: 'Aim high, even if
you hit a cabbage.' I wish I knew where it came from. It
means: Don't mess about, don't turn up for things half-prepared. If
you want to do it, do it, and if you don't want to do it, don't do
it - but don't turn up and moan about doing it. I mean, I saw
plenty of youngsters when I was racing who'd be at the start line:
'Do I have to?' If I'd ever said that to Mum and Dad, they would
have said: 'Right, you're not doing it.'
The other thing is: Don't be afraid to fail! Mum and Dad brought
us up to have confidence in trying things. However nervous I was on
the start line, you've got to try and win the race. It's a bit the
same in the Lords - I kind of threw myself in at the deep end and
there were times when, with some of the amendments I took forward,
it was like I was the only one who was prepared to do it. So, you
know what? You've just got to try. With everything I do, I try to
do the best I can.
Do you see a difference between losing and failing? Elite
athletics seems to be all about winning.
Yeah, there's loads of races I've lost but I've very
rarely failed. I think 'failure' is a horrible word, actually.
It's easy to walk away from things sometimes, actually. It's
easy to say, 'I'm not going to bother' and not put yourself in a
position where you challenge your-self. I remember the first
amendment I took through in the House of Lords, throwing up in the
toilet before I went into the Chamber, thinking: 'Oh my God!' Sport
is quite frivolous, really, but the House of Lords affects
people's lives big-time. It's a massive responsibility, and one
that I take really seriously - but, you know, you've got to give it
Are there parallels between what goes on in the Lords and
the world of sport? The pressure? The game-playing?
I think everything I learnt from being an athlete helps
me in the stuff I do now. In terms of dealing with pressure, in
sport you're doing it in front of 85,000 people, on the Legal Aid
Bill2 [I was speaking] in front of 60
law lords and lawyers. So, it's a different scale, but…
There's a lot of similarities. I think honesty is important in
both worlds. If you fib in the House of Lords, you will get caught
out. And loyalty is hugely important. I try to be loyal - I hope I
Does that loyalty extend to party politics? I know you're
a crossbencher but you had some kind of affiliation once with the
I appeared in an advert, yeah. I've never been a member
of a party - and the brilliant thing about being a crossbencher is,
I can change my mind. You can go into a debate thinking, 'Right, I
agree with this side' and you sit and listen to the debate and you
think: 'D'you know what? That makes far more sense…' And that's a
huge privilege, to be able to do that.
I would really struggle to join a political party, really
struggle. I don't know the party I could join, right now. It
depends what the issue is, quite where I sit. Sometimes I wish I
could say, 'I agree with that group all the time on everything,'
because that would be easier; but it doesn't work out like that. I
think the best thing in the Lords is, no one tells me how to vote -
and the hardest thing is, no one tells me how to vote. So, you have
Also, party politics is very adversarial, which doesn't suit me
as an individual. You know, to sit on opposite sides screaming at
each other I don't think is positive - if I heard my 10-year-old
daughter speak to somebody the way you hear people speak in the
Commons sometimes, she'd be grounded for months. And I don't think
it encourages young people to engage.
I go to a lot of schools with the Lords outreach programme and a
while ago a group of young people said to me: 'Why should we bother
voting?' You go: 'What we do in the Commons and the Lords affects
everything, from before you're born till after you're dead. That's
why you should vote.' But lots of young people are a bit switched
off by politics at the moment, which I think is a real shame. I
think they are switched off by lots of things at the moment, which
is not positive.
You seem to have gone through an amazing learning curve
since you entered the House of Lords in 2010…
I've learnt a lot about politics, manipulation, all
sorts of things - and welfare! You know, I wasn't an expert on
welfare reform, I was just very interested in the Bill3 because
of the impact it was going to have on disabled people. I sat
alongside another crossbencher who - welfare is her thing, this
was her dream Bill. Really, I was there to learn all about the
idiosyncrasies of voting and amendment and all that kind of stuff;
but she has a few problems - she can only talk for about a minute
and a half before she runs out of breath - so I read out her
speeches, mostly because I talk really quickly and I can get about
11 minutes in in the seven-minute time limit. And then it kind of
escalated. It went from me putting my name to someone's amendment
to 'Right, no one else is going to table this, so I need to table
it.' I remember sitting there thinking: 'I was just meant to be
learning, I wasn't meant to be trying to take anyone on!'
I rang my daughter in the dinner break and asked her, 'How was
school?' and she was like: 'Daddy made me watch the Parliament
Channel. You talk a lot.' I try to explain what I do - and she's
like: 'H'mm! But do you think they really listen to what you're
saying?' I hope so! But you know what…?
What do you think your greatest achievement has
Having a really good go at the legislation on legal aid -
that's probably the thing I'm most proud of. Could have done
better, because I didn't get a pile of stuff through the way I
would have wanted. But yeah, I think so.
People always expect you to say races or medals and I am really
proud of the stuff I did as an athlete, but even now that's only
one part of who I am. You know, as well as being an athlete I was a
sister and a wife and a mum and all those other things.
I suppose that because I'm quite a positive person I always hope
I haven't had my greatest achievement yet. I'm kind of looking to
do things better.
What would you like your greatest achievement to be?
That's so hard, because it's so hard to be tangible these
days. I suppose I'd like to be remembered as a good athlete and
somebody who kind of made a difference. But to what, I don't know -
there's just so many things that I still want to do. Oh, it's so
But I'm not a politician. I might end up as one, but I'll try
hard not to. I never want to be cynical. I love being in the Lords
- it's the most amazing place I've ever worked, and I love every
single day I go there. It's just a brilliant thing to be part
1 Seize the Day: My autobiography (Hodder
2 The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders
Bill, which became law in May 2012
3 The Welfare Reform Bill, which became law in March