Still Winning: After 11 Gold Medals, Paralympian Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson Is Changing the Way Athletes Compete
Hughes, Ivy, Success
At age 7, Baroness Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson was required to use a wheelchair. At 15, she determined to win the London Marathon, and she did--six times. At 19, she found herself on the starting line of the Paralympic Gaines in Seoul, South Korea.
Grey-Thompson had won a total of nine gold medals at the Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney Paralympic Games, but when she placed seventh in the 800-meter at the Athens games in 2004, her supporters and the British press were vociferous in their disappointment.
"I remember coming off the track and just thinking it was horrific," she says. "A lot of friends and family came out to watch, and my race was on live British TV. My team manager was really upset and didn't know what to say to me. My husband was there, and he didn't know what to say to me. He was very rude about my race, but actually he was right.
"For very few people there actually is an easy way, but the reality of life is that you have to slog your guts out and even then you may never get there."
Grey-Thompson is widely recognized as the United Kingdom's most successful Paralympian. She was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that prevents the sides of the spine from joining, which can cause partial or complete paralysis. While she was using a wheelchair, she was also an active child who loved sports and was completely naive to the idea that a wheelchair could prevent her from international athletic competition.
"My parents brought me and my sister up to believe that we could do whatever we wanted through hard work and determination," she says. "You might not get there the way you wanted. You might have to change your plan and you might have to do things differently, but they believed that if we worked hard, we could do an awful lot."
When Grey-Thompson was 15, she watched Paralympic Welsh athlete Chris Hallam win the 1985 London Marathon. After Hallam crossed the line, she turned to her mother and said, "I'm going to do the London Marathon one day."
Five years later, Grey-Thompson raced her first London Marathon. In 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2001 and 2002, she won first place. She went on to compete in the Paralympic Games and now holds British records in every distance from 100 meters to 10,000 meters; she broke her own 400-meter world record in 2004. She was designated "Dame" Grey-Thompson in 2005 for her services to sport, and she is a member of the Laureus World Sports Academy.
Sports fans are extremely critical, but high-level athletes succeed because they have an ability to persevere when under tremendous physical and psychological pressure. After the 800-meter disappointment in Athens, Grey-Thompson had very little time that day to mentally prepare for her next race at the games.
"I've had a lot of other moments like that in my career, but this one was so public," she says. "I remember leaving the track and there being loads of British supporters there, and pretty much everyone that walked past me said, 'That was crap."'
On the warm-up track for the next 100-meter race, she got sick 12 times. Ten minutes before the start, she was shaking so badly she couldn't, move.
"There was actually a friend of mine on the team that said, 'One bad race does not make you a bad athlete. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get over it,'" Grey-Thompson recalls. "So it's being able--whether you win or lose--to step back from that and try to be objective, and that's not always easy."
Grey-Thompson was sick, terrified and disappointed, but by the time she approached the 100-meter starting line, she had shelved the 800-meter loss, the self-doubt and the psychological immobility. She went on to win gold in both the 100-meter and 400-meter race.
She credits her parents and coaches for helping her achieve monumental successes, but the nature of competition, which primarily focuses on winning and losing, provided a life perspective that helped Grey-Thompson when she retired from international competition in 2007, taking 11 gold Paralympic medals with her. …