Tanni the Great ; Retirement of a Sporting Icon ++ She Has Been in a Wheelchair since the Age of Eight, but That Did Not Prevent Tanni Grey-Thompson from Becoming One of Britain's Finest Ever Athletes. as She Prepares for Her Last Race, Mike Rowbottom Salutes a Sportswoman Who Changed Perceptions

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Tanni Grey-Thompson does not think of herself as great, even though it seems pretty obvious to everyone else. After all, this is a woman who has won 16 Paralympic medals, 11 of them gold, in an international career that - she announced yesterday - will come to an end after she races at the Paralympic World Cup in Manchester on 13 May.

And the way in which she speaks of what will be her last hurrah offers the clue as to why this 37-year-old mother from Redcar has so often found herself on the podium since taking her first Paralympic medal in 1988. "Obviously, my last race will be emotional, but for me it's business as usual," she said yesterday amid a whirlwind of publicity. "I will probably be sick, but I will prepare in the same way, go through my same routine - and, hopefully, win."

Winning has always been the main thing for Grey-Thompson, as it is for all world-class athletes. It just happens to have been in the Paralympic domain because she was forced into a wheelchair by the age of eight because of spina bifida.

"I would have been competitive whatever I did," she said. "I want to win. That was always just there, even before I had my first race." As she approaches her last race, she is already looking beyond to a career that is likely to include some media work and some business opportunities but will also, certainly, involve sport, where she has already shown herself as a highly capable administrator for the likes of UK Athletics and UK Sport. Certainly, that was the hope of one of the more illustrious figures to pay tribute to her yesterday, the five-times Olympic rowing champion Steve Redgrave. "There are not many people in the world who have got more Olympic gold medals than I have," he said. "But Tanni has got a lot more. She's an outstanding athlete and a good friend and I hope she's going to remain in sport in future."

What Redgrave has been to Olympic sport, Grey-Thompson, with her direct intelligence as much as her incredible range and record of success, has been to the Paralympic movement. "She is probably the person who has put the highest profile on Paralympics we've ever had," said Richard Callicott, a board member for the British Paralympic Association. "Her record across the sprints and right up to the marathon is unique. She's become an iconic figure who has raised the bar for Paralympic sport - a model athlete for others to aspire to."

When you ask Grey-Thompson if she goes around thinking of herself as a role model, however, there is a startled pause followed by a snort of amusement. "No," she says. "I go around thinking 'God, I'm late.' It's very flattering when people say things like that. But no."

She does think of herself as honest, and direct. "The thing I hate most of all is people pussyfooting around me," she said. "I'd rather people come out and say what they mean straight away. I am honest with people, and I expect honesty back."

She was certainly honest in her 2001 autobiography, Seize The Day, when as early as page two she reveals matter-of-factly that her mother admits she would have had an abortion if she'd known her daughter was going to be disabled. "That was before she knew me," Grey-Thompson wrote. "I wasn't Tanni then ... my mum's view is a personal one and doesn't worry me." She was frank about both the vulnerability of a condition which put her in a wheelchair by eight and also about the way that it has been of benefit to her in the broadest terms. Both elements were involved in the incident which caused the BBC switchboard to be flooded with calls in 2000, when she couldn't gain access to the stage to receive her award for coming third in the Sports Personality of the Year. It was an occurrence she viewed with a mixture of amusement and pragmatism. "People expected me to be furious, but I'm not. Instead I was hugely encouraged that such a mundane thing could spark an outcry. …