Still Winning

UPDATED: June 8, 2011
PUBLISHED: June 8, 2011

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 Games 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.

“Sport is really important to me, but that experience taught me that it’s not life or death,” she says. “I had time to plan my retirement, and I think that’s where I was really lucky as an athlete. There’s nothing worse than coming to the end of your sporting career and not having that in your life anymore and thinking, Great. What do I do?”

Several years before her planned retirement, Grey-Thompson started giving motivational speeches. She also traversed the media circuit, which is typical for retired athletes. However, she knew she wanted to use her experiences in competition to help other athletes obtain their goals.

As she was establishing herself as an international sports star in the 1980s, controversy regarding the use of illegal substances to enhance Olympic performance garnered attention from around the world. At the time, Canadian track and field athlete Ben Johnson was stripped of a gold medal after testing positive for steroids, bringing an escalating problem in high-level competition to the international stage.

So when Grey-Thompson eased into retirement, she planted herself in the middle of an issue she had been unable to address on a large platform as an athlete.

“It’s kind of weird because I got a politics degree at university but always said I wouldn’t get involved in politics,” she says. “But through my life of competing there were things I wasn’t happy with as an athlete or an administrator. I was a young athlete and kind of passionate and you speak out and you rant and that makes you feel good for about two minutes and then you figure out that doesn’t really help.”

In 2008, UK Athletics, the governing body for athletics in the United Kingdom, put her in charge of reviewing its anti-doping measures. The following year, the organization released Grey-Thompson’s review of the region’s anti-doping policies. She made several recommendations, largely focused on providing additional funding for anti-doping enforcement, streamlining anti-doping procedures, improving record keeping and employing clear rehabilitation programs. Underlying each recommendation was a commitment to education, both for the athletes and coaches.

“For me it wasn’t ever about we’ll start with a ban and a dramatic story about an athlete who’s maybe done something and had medals taken away,” Grey-Thompson says. “For me it was going back to the beginning, talking about why athletes cheat, why they choose to break the rules, why they choose to go against the ethics of the sport and looking at how we can support them in a different way.”

The resulting anti-doping education program teaches athletes the importance of not only resisting performance-enhancing drugs, but reducing suspicion of potential drug use by logging their whereabouts and showing up for drug testing.

“We’re doing these things to make athletes understand they have control of their careers,” Grey-Thompson says. “We’re saying that if the athlete misses three tests or has a ban because they’re not organized to fill in their whereabouts, that’s a really important decision that they’re making for their career.”

Since the educational program was implemented, the missed test ratio has dropped among elite athletes. “We’re trying to teach athletes that they have a lot of different responsibilities,” she says.

In 2010, Grey-Thompson was appointed to the House of Lords, where she serves as a Crossbench—a nonpolitical peer—which is a lifetime appointment that allows her to influence anti-doping policy and legislation impacting national sports programs. She took the title Baroness Grey-Thompson of Eaglescliffe in the county of Durham.

Even though she never saw herself in politics, she says the parallels between sports and politics are abundant. During her first few weeks in the House of Lords, she didn’t say a word. “You need to understand the rules of engagement, you need to understand who the different people are and you need to be respectful of your peers,” she says. “It’s like that in sport. You need to understand who the selection panel is, how they select and when they select. I have a peer in sport who didn’t make the Paralympics team because they just didn’t understand the rules.”

Grey-Thompson worked hard for her achievements, but part of her success derives from understanding. Not only does she understand and accept her strengths and weaknesses, but she also understands that success requires flexibility and that life is much more than a series of benchmarks.

“You can change your life. You don’t wait for someone else to do it for you.”