It’s hard to know where to start when attempting to define the multi-medal winning Paralympian, House of Lords cross-bench peer, motivational speaker and broadcaster whose full title is Baroness Grey-Thompson, of Eaglescliffe in the County of Durham. But to family, friends and all who’ve followed her incredible journey she is best known as simply Tanni Grey-Thompson.
Born with spina bifida, she became a wheelchair racer extraordinaire, a rare talent combined with a stubborn will power helping her to overcome all obstacles to become one of Britain’s most successful Paralympians of all-time, winning no fewer than 16 golds during an outstanding sporting career.
Having retired from competitive sport, the Welsh wonder-turned-Teessider has switched, seemingly effortlessly, to the world of politics, gaining a reputation for speaking bluntly about the subjects she holds dear.
Asked to describe herself, she answers with a disarming honesty: “Stubborn and wilful. I have an opinion on everything though I don’t think most of that opinion should be public. I think it’s important to care but I’m really conscious that the public doesn’t need to hear my every waking thought. I’m also determined and I think I’m fair.”
In her role as a Parliamentarian, she has campaigned widely on such weighty issues as welfare reform, assisted suicide, accessibility and equality.
Articulate, headstrong and driven by a strong sense of justice, Tanni clearly believes passionately in standing up for the oppressed minorities. She is a particularly powerful and valid voice for those with disabilities.
As we chat in a café close to the Tees Barrage, she explains: “My dad always told me how privileged I was, not from financial sense but in the way that my parents fought for me and didn’t allow anyone to treat my less favourably because I was in a wheelchair. He also drilled into me that you’ve got to put something back. He was hugely proud of my sports career but eventually said ‘Now it’s time to get serious and do a proper job.’ I’m conscious that, through being in sport and politics, people do listen when I say stuff, so I think it’s important that I do.
“People should not be treated differently because they’re in a wheelchair or because they’re an amputee. From a personal point of view, I’m treated in three different ways – either as an ex-athlete, which is generally very nice. I’m treated in a different way as a Parliamentarian – people either love me or hate me – and if I’m just treated as a disabled person that’s the worst treatment I get.”
She then tells the story of the most judderingly shocking example of such treatment.
“When I was about eight months pregnant, some random woman in the street stopped me and asked ‘Are you pregnant?’ When I told her I was, she said ‘People like you shouldn’t have children.’”
Sadly, this wasn’t a one-off incident, as Tanni reveals: “We get some people finger pointing, while referring to ‘People like you.’ So my response is usually ‘People like me? Oh, you mean Welsh people?’ I try to use a sense of humour because I’ve got a short fuse. I try very, very hard not to shout at people because that doesn’t change anything apart from making you feel better for about 20 seconds. The most important thing is to change their attitude, not to tell them what you think of them.
“I might have a rant later but I can deal with it, however annoyed I am, because sport made me quite thick skinned. But I’m conscious there are disabled people who find it harder to deal with. If I write to someone on House of Lords headed paper they generally have to respond, so generally when travelling by train I get treated all right – but I know lots of disabled people who don’t. So if people write to me about bad experiences they’ve had I try to help where I can.
“The reality is that life’s harder if you’re disabled. London 2012 absolutely changed attitudes towards Paralympians but it didn’t change attitudes towards disabled people, nor did it have responsibility to do that.”
As a former athlete, she’s also a natural campaigner when it comes to encouraging more people to lead a physically active life for the good of their health. “This is the first generation of kids that will die before their parents because of physical inactivity,” she sighs.
“Inactivity costs the UK £80 billion a year and there are 37,000 premature deaths a year as a result of obesity. The NHS isn’t sustainable in its current format so we have to get costs down – and encouraging people to be more active is part of making that happen. That message has to start at the youngest age while children are still in school.”
Although born and raised in Cardiff, Tanni is now very much an adopted Teessider, having followed husband Ian here in 1999, as he worked as a research chemist at the Wilton chemical complex. Having initially lived in Redcar, they moved to Eaglescliffe nearly 10 years ago to make it a little easier for her to catch regular trains to London where she carries out her Parliamentarian duties.
“Ian proudly tells people that we moved home for the sake of my career, but they assume it was more than 18 miles!” she smiles. “We moved from Redcar to Eaglescliffe but that’s pretty much as far as I would go. London is an amazing city but Teesside is where we want to be as a family. What I used to get a lot was ‘Oh, what do you want to live up north for?’ But it’s a beautiful part of the country. It’s 20 minutes to the beach and half an hour to the moors. I can’t imagine being anywhere else right now.”
The demands of her role in the Lords mean Tanni spend four days a week in the capital, usually catching the train to Kings Cross on a Monday morning after seeing her teenage daughter Carys – a talented kayaker – off to school, and returning by early evenings on a Thursday.
“I work really long hours in London, which is fine because I’m a bit of a workaholic and I love what I do,” she says. “I have very little social life when I’m there because if I’ve got time for that then I think I should be at home with my family.
“Sometimes from the outside the House of Lords doesn’t look very dynamic – and a lot of time it’s not – but there can be moments where it’s incredibly exciting, for instance when there’s a vote happening or legislation changing. Our job is just to say to the government of the day ‘Are you really sure that’s what you want to do or do you want to have another think about it?’ It’s a check and balance.
“The decisions we take affect tens of thousands of people’s lives, for good or bad. I’ve had people write to me to say what we’ve done is amazing and others tell you that you’re the biggest idiot ever.”
Whatever your opinion on her, it’s impossible to argue that Tanni continues to enjoy an extraordinary life, though she shrugs off such remarks in typically unassuming fashion.
“It’s been pretty cool, yeah,” she agrees with a smile.
“Life’s what you make of it. I’ve been privileged in terms of my education, sport and my massively supportive parents. I don’t think it’s true to say anyone can do it but you can let life happen to you or you can try and influence it.”
Tanni Grey-Thompson Q&A
Favourite Tees restaurant?
The Waiting Room in Eaglescliffe. We’re not vegetarians but sometimes we just go there to have something with custard!
What’s your favourite tipple?
I drink buckets of coffee, I don’t drink alcohol really because I get drunk very, very easily and become extremely rude.
If a visitor had only one day on Teesside, where would you recommend they visit?
I’d probably take them in a boat along the river, from Yarm to Eaglescliffe and then Stockton and Middlesbrough.
What’s been your career highlight?
In sport, winning 100m – my weakest event – in the Athens Paralympics, having completely screwed up in the 800m, my best event, three days before.
Have you ever been mistaken for someone else famous?
No but I’ve had friends mistaken for me – just because we’re in wheelchairs doesn’t mean we’re the same!
If you hadn’t been a Paralympian, what would you have done?
A lawyer. That’s what I always wanted to do but sport got in the way.
What scares you?
Spiders. Mice used to but in Westminster you get used to them as you always see them scurrying around.
1980s stuff like Duran Duran, Soft Cell, Alison Moyet and Eurythmics. It all went downhill about 1989.
Big Bang Theory – it’s smart, clever and funny.