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IWD Collection: Tanni Grey-Thompson by Mia Rees

Mia Rees
Mia Rees

Tanni Grey-Thompson is a formidable Paralympian, athlete and politician. Over her career she won a total of 16 Paralympic medals, including 11 golds, held over 30 world records and won the London Marathon six times. She has gone on to be a trailblazer and campaigner for sport and accessibility. 

Born with spina bifida in July 1969 in Cardiff, Tanni was introduced into the House of Lords (swearing the oath of allegiance in both English and Welsh) in March 2010 but that is not where her political career started.

As a young girl she was thrown out of a cinema in Cardiff because she was a “fire risk”. After the incident her Mum, with wicked dark humour, told her that if anyone said she was a fire risk again then to reply “Well, I have never spontaneously combusted before”. Tanni’s parents encouraged her feistiness and humour because they knew it would help her as she grew up to navigate a world not designed for people like her.

At the age of 11 Tanni attended Birchgrove Primary School in Cardiff and a when she turned 11 she thought she was going to go to Llanishen Secondary like her sister but the headteacher said no – they didn’t accept disabled children. In a long fight with the local authority Tanni’s Dad used Baroness Mary Warnock’s 1978 report on education for children with special needs to fight to get her into a mainstream secondary school.

Tanni always loved sport and at one point wanted to play rugby for Wales. At the age of 11 she started wheelchair racing and soon realised that was ‘her sport’. Her focus on training gradually increased over time and after school she went to Loughborough University to study Politics.

Tanni studied politics at an amazing time – she remembers studying Germany at the time the Berlin Wall came down and was looking at South African politics as Mandela walked free. However, a political career didn’t appeal to Tanni whilst she was at university, in fact, she told her Head of Politics that she wasn’t interested in going into politics because it was “full of losers”.

In her first year at university, she completed in Soul 1988 Olympics winning a bronze medal in the 400m. Four years later at the Barcelona Paralympics, Tanni won four gold medals in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800 metres and a silver in the 4x100m relay. It was also at Barcelona that Tanni became the first woman to break the 60 second barrier for 400m.

As her sporting career processed Tanni got more involved in athlete’s rights and the politics of sport.

After Athens in her early 20s – where Tanni took her medals tally to 11 Golds - she carried on training but was starting to think about what she would want to do next. Tanni was being more vocal, rising injustice, working with change makers, and using her extensive board roles (including TFL where she campaigned for changes to allow disabled commuters to access the network) to highlight what wasn’t working. Soon it was suggested to her that she should enter parliament.

At her interview to join the House of Lords she was asked “What was the most interesting debate you have listened to in the House of Lords?” – she had no idea what to say. To some Tanni wasn’t a ‘natural fit’ for the House of Lords and not long after she joined she overheard herself being referred to her as the “young girl in a wheelchair”.

In Tanni’s own words she finds the House of Lords a challenge. She said:

“I love it. It is amazing and frustrating, and its tiring and I sometimes feel like I am smashing my head into a brick wall and then you have a moment when you change something and you go, oh! Right ok. And that gives you the energy to keep going”

We all know that it is not all about what a politician does or says in the chamber. Tanni soon learnt that if you invite a chief executive of a train company to parliament for tea, they rarely say no. She credits reasonable, sensible, grown-up discussions for being what really gets the wheels moving on change. And she continues to fight for disability rights both in the chamber and behind the scenes.

She is an inspiring woman who still has so much more to give and continues to change sport, equalities, and how we do politics.

For a bird's eye view.
Am olwg oddi uchod.

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