PUBLISHED: 12:17 23 April 2008 | UPDATED: 15:07 20 February 2013
Dame Tanni Grey Thompson has had a glittering career as a record-breaking Paralympic athlete. Now, she is keen to inspire others, reports Pat Parker
DAME Tanni Grey Thompson DBE is pretty busy on the day I speak to her. It has just been announced that she will head the UK Athletics review into anti-doping rules.
The move follows the furore over Dwain Chambers' inclusion in the British team for the World Indoor Championships, despite his two-year drugs ban. Dame Tanni is having to cope with a great deal of media attention, but she still finds time to talk to me, and give me her initial thoughts on the situation.
'My personal view is that there should be a lifetime ban for anyone found guilty of doping offences,' she says. 'But I will approach it with an open mind. This review is all about providing clarity. Athletes need to know at the start of their career what the repercussions of drug-taking will be. It is going to be an interesting six months.'
Dame Tanni is one of our best-known and best-loved athletes. She retired last May after a career in which she competed in no less than five Paralympic Games, winning a record-breaking 16 medals, 11 of which were gold. She has also won six London Marathons.
It is an outstanding record which has seen her showered with sporting and academic awards, culminating in her being made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2005. 'It's brilliant being a Dame,' she enthuses. 'I just never expected it. My family were so proud.'
Yet there are no airs and graces about Dame Tanni. She is down-to-earth, forthright, and sharply witty. What she can't bear is to be told how brave and wonderful she is because she has been in a wheelchair since the age of seven. What she is keen to do is inspire others to aim high and achieve their goals.
This month she is the keynote speaker at the 2008 Colchester Lecture and her speech will be all about achievement. 'It will be about making the most of the opportunities you have; about being the best you can,' she says. 'It's about doing whatever you can to fulfil your dreams. The subject of my disability won't really come into it.' Success, she believes, comes from hard work and determination.
Dame Tanni has had a fiercely competitive streak from earliest childhood. 'It's been there for as far back as I can remember,' she says. 'I always liked having my own way. I've always been quite determined and stroppy. My parents brought me up to believe in myself. I owe them so much.'
She was born Carys Davina Grey in Cardiff in 1969. When her two-year-old sister, Sian, saw her for the first time she called her 'tiny', changing it to 'tanni' as it was easier to say. The name stuck.
Tanni was born with spina bifida. 'I could walk until I was five, but then my spine collapsed. The paralysis kicked in over the space of a year. It was really hard, because there was stuff I wanted to do, like play with my friends.'
At the age of seven, she underwent her first major operation. At 13, a metal rod had to be inserted in her spine, to prevent curvature and possible further paralysis. She had to stay in a plaster cast jacket for six months.
The young Tanni loved primary school, and made lots of friends. She was unable to accompany them to her local comprehensive, however, because of access problems. The authorities insisted on her attending a special school, but her parents fiercely resisted. 'If I'd been sent to a special school, I'd have been lucky to have got a few GCSEs. I would never have achieved the 11 O Levels and four A Levels I did get. There wouldn't have been the same expectations.'
In the end, she attended another mainstream comprehensive further from home. Dame Tanni was both sporty and academic, and tried a range of sports at school before opting for athletics. She read politics at Loughborough University, and took part in her first Paralympics in Seoul in 1988, winning a bronze.
But it was at the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics that she really shone, winning gold medals in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m. Her achievements helped raise not only her own profile, but that of the Paralympic movement as a whole.
She went on to win a gold and three silvers in the Atlanta games, before really taking the Paralympics by storm in Sydney in 2000, winning gold in each of her four events.
She returned to Britain in a blaze of publicity, which culminated in being awarded the OBE, and coming third in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. There was a public outcry after the BBC failed to provide a ramp so that she could collect her award on stage. Typically, Tanni wasn't offended, but she feels the fact that people still talk about the oversight shows how far disability awareness has come.
In her autobiography, Seize the Day, Dame Tanni scotches any ideas that wheelchair racing is some kind of pale imitation of real athletics. It is, she writes, 'dangerous, fierce, bitter and frightening'. Speeds can reach 50mph, and training, especially on roads, can be hazardous and gruelling. She used to train six days a week, 50 weeks a year. 'It's something you commit to. You train on birthdays, at Christmas - I even had to train around my mother's funeral.'
When she married fellow Paralympian Ian Thompson in 1999, the pair even fitted in a spot of training on the morning of their wedding day.
She triumphed in the London Marathon just three months after giving birth to their daughter, Carys, in 2002. But after becoming a mother, her priorities gradually changed, and she realised athletics was no longer the most important thing in her life.
'I retired when Carys was five, because as she was getting older, it was becoming harder and harder to leave her during competitions,' she says. 'When she was four, I was away at the Commonwealth Games for six weeks, and that was very difficult. Having Carys didn't change me as an athlete, but it did change me as a person.'
Her final Paralympics, in Athens, was marred by disappointment in the 800m. 'I lost very badly, because I blocked myself behind the slowest person in the race, and there was no way out. I was devastated.'
But she came back to win the 100m - and it is that she considers her greatest sporting achievement. 'It was very difficult to psyche myself up. I had to go through a whole process of self-reflection.' She ended up winning two golds, finishing her final Paralympics on a high note.
She retired in 2007, but she is coaching a young British athlete who is aiming for this summer's Paralympics, and she will also commentate on the games for the BBC. She's a familiar face on TV and hopes to do more media work in the future.
Dame Tanni has been outspoken in her views about sports organisation in Britain, and believes there is an urgent need to improve administration, coaching structure and sports facilities. Although proud of Britain's record in disability sport, she believes there is a long way to go in improving access and integration. 'We haven't got grass roots development right yet. We need to look at coaching and the education system, and to provide sports clubs with the guidance that will help them include young disabled children.'
She would like to see an hour of PE daily in schools, despite its unpopularity among some youngsters - especially teenage girls. 'You have to make it fun and exciting. If schools offered aerobics and boxercise, you'd get far more enthusiasm. It's about finding the sports people like. And I wouldn't make girls run around in shorts - so many drop out of sport at 16. It's all about making sport fun, and making sure girls realise the importance of physical exercise.'
Dame Tanni has high hopes that London will provide the best Paralympic Games ever, and brushes aside worries about the escalating cost of the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.
'Doing something properly costs money, and the Olympics are going to provide sporting facilities which are desperately needed in London. I think the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics will inspire a whole new generation of competitors in Britain. It could change young people's lives. The impact is going to be huge.'
For more on the Colchester Lecture click here