From her childhood in Bridgend South Wales to the chamber of the House of Lords via a host of legendary sporting arenas, Tanni Grey-Thompson has taken something from everything she’s done and, she tells Ian Macrae, her compulsion to go on, to achieve more, remains.
Many people make the mistake of thinking they know Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson of Eaglescliff DBE. They remember her racing career or watch her TV punditry and assume that’s all there is to her.
But you simplify or categorise Tanni at your peril.
“I’m a mum, I’m Welsh, I’m a woman, I’m disabled, I was an athlete. I’m a bit like a Venn diagram, not a box.”
She’s also a peer of the realm, has presented TV shows about disability and, as those who follow her prolific tweets know, is very fond of spaghetti hoops.
When it comes to titles, however, she does take quite a simple approach to what’s right and appropriate.
“When I’m here [In the House of Lords] and it’s official stuff then it’s one Baroness Grey-Thompson and after that you can call me Tanni.
“I think people get really confused because most of them don’t know the difference between Dame and Baroness. When I was a Dame nobody ever called me Dame, nobody. And now I’m a Baroness everybody does. So when I become a duchess maybe I might get called Baroness.“
But are there times when this woman who seems so comfortable in whatever skin she’s wearing or role she’s in, wonders what she’s doing here, in the mother of parliaments?
“Oh, all the time. I think one day I’m going to be found out and someone’s going to say, we got it wrong. But then a lot of people who’re here feel that.“
At the same time, it’s clear that the focus and clarity of purpose which once took her to 11 Paralympic gold medal podiums also serves her well in her current role which she very much sees as a job.
“It was made extremely clear it’s a working peerage. And I was put in here to do sport really. The Honours committee were looking at who was here and how important the Games were gong to be and legacy and all that stuff. I’d already done quite a lot of stuff, I’d sat on the National Disability Council, I’d been a member of Sport England, I’d done a big piece of work on anti-doping, so I’m not here because I was an athlete.”
But, as in sport, so in politics circumstances or fate intervene and things take an unexpected turn.
So it was earlier this year when the Government’s welfare reform bill was debated late into the night in the House of Lords. The opposition to the bill, and the amendment of it by disabled peers were due to be led by Baroness [Jane] Campbell.
“Jane wasn’t well. She rang me from hospital and said ‘they’re taking me into intensive care’, and I remember just saying to her, ‘that’s all right, I’ll do your amendments’, not having a clue what I was letting myself in for.
“I was meant to use that bill to follow through, to see how things worked, maybe do a few late nights when Jane couldn’t. And then I thought, actually I just can’t sit there and shut up.”
What puts the heart into her own continued campaigning for disabled people’s rights is the fact that she continues to experience the kinds of frustrations and discrimination many of the rest of us do on a daily basis. For instance, a few months ago, when she found herself arriving at midnight at King’s Cross station in London and the assistance she’d booked failed to turn up, how did she feel?
“Pissed off. It was just like, ‘oh here we go again’. But I’m lucky because I could crawl off and that made me think about people in electric wheelchairs who couldn’t get off.”
Again, like many other disabled people, Tanni resists the kinds of epithets often applied to her by non-disabled journalists. While she rejects adjectives such as ”brave” and “courageous”, she does admit to a dogged determination.
“My dad brought me up to be like that and mum as well. They didn’t let anyone discriminate against me. They kind of just took people on and that’s very much the way dad was: ‘You’re not very happy, don’t just sit there, do something about it’. My mum always used to say, ‘you were given a tongue in your head for a reason.’“
As well as her pride in being a disabled woman and having achieved as a British Paralympian, she also remains proud of her own national roots.
“I’m Welsh and British. I was living in England but I went back to Wales to have my daughter Carys so she was born in Wales. I’m really proud of being Welsh, but if I hadn’t lived in England when I did then I wouldn’t have been an athlete.
“One wish was that I could have won a medal for Wales, but both the Commonwealth Games I went to were at wrong points in my career. But that would have been nice.“
Much about her childhood is well known. The name coming from her older sister’s mis-pronunciation when describing her as “Tanni” meaning very small. Her becoming a wheelchair-user at the age of seven. Her parents’ fight to keep her in mainstream education. But from a very early age she was certain that what she wanted to be was a lawyer – “I suppose I just felt lawyers can change stuff”.
But what we call “The System” had other ideas. First there was the question of schooling.
“We had an appointment at the special school I would have gone to and mum and dad walked in and there were kids of 14, 15 being taught how to make a cup of tea. And it wasn’t because that was all they could do, that was all they were allowed to do.”
No access then by that root to the kind of academic curriculum needed by an aspiring lawyer. So instead her parents continued to send her to the local secondary school. When she was about to take her A levels, she experienced yet another of the rights of passage familiar to many disabled students. The careers advice interview.
“I remember taking my A levels and being sent to see a specialist careers advisor. He told me there was no point in doing A levels because I was never going to go to university. And even if I did I was never going to get a graduate job. But it was OK because he was going to talk to the school and get me pulled out of my A levels, and he was going to send me to secretarial college and I was going to learn to answer phones. And I just said, ‘Well don’t you just pick up the handset and say hello?’. Apparently that made me facetious and I remember going home and mum saying there’d been a call from the headmaster saying I’d been really rude to the careers advisor. And I explained to mum what had happened and she was having none of it.”
Sport had already kicked in when Tanni was 12 or 13. Having tried a number of sporting options, she eventually settled on wheelchair racing.
“I just loved the fact that it was me competing against everybody else.“
But success in international sport and what has happened since as a result of it has come at something of a price.
“My family has put up with a huge amount. When I was competing my husband was brilliant. And now Carys is tolerant. I’m away from home four days a week and I know that I’m missing things that she does, but I hope Carys gets why I do some of the stuff that I do. ‘It’s not very easy, [to Carys sitting alongside her] is it?’
“But then I’ve brought her in for debates on welfare reform. She sat there listening one day when we talked about free school meals so I think well, hopefully she learns from that.”
From her Paralympic career there is one race which stands out for Tanni.
“The 100m in Athens. I’d completely screwed up my 800 which was my strongest event and which I hadn’t been beaten in over about 12 years. Everyone said, she’s too old, she’s past it, she ought to stop. And 100 was my weakest event and I won it. And there’s this picture taken of me as I crossed the line where I just look demonic. So relieved that I hadn’t screwed up again. I’d swap everything for that one race.”
And now, as she finds herself fighting different battles, seeking different victories, the passion to push on remains almost an instinctive force. And what propels her is the experience she shares with all disabled people.
“In the 80s you look at how crap life was. No accessible toilets, no ramps, no lifts, I was turned away from cinemas. It’s really easy to forget how miserable it was. And now I meet some disabled people who say well it’s all right because we can now get into a cinema, and I just think, No! And I just keep thinking there’s more. We can always get more and I don’t want this to be it.“