This is a transcript of Series 1, Episode 1 of our 'Reflecting on Achievements' series. You can listen to an audio version by clicking the link below or subscribe on iTunes/Google Play. In this episode Tanni Grey Thompson talks about the drive to win gold, overcoming obstacles and the importance of family in achieving her dreams.
Shona: My guest today, I’m delighted to say, is Baroness Grey-Thompson, effectively nicknamed Tanni by your sister. Tanni, you were born in Cardiff, attended St Cyres Comprehensive, and then headed off to Loughborough University before leaving with a BA degree in politics and social administration.
Born with spina bifida, and a wheelchair user, age 13 you discovered your love of wheelchair racing and excelled to become one of the UK’s most successful athletes, having won 16 Paralympic Games medals, including 11 gold. Breaking 30 world records and winning the London marathon 6 times.
Following your retirement from wheelchair racing in 2007, you have undertaken a number of television presenting roles. Furthermore, you’re now a patron of numerous charities including Sports Leader UK, Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme and Wembley Stadium Legacy Trust. Parliamentary career highlights include being marked as a life peer and being conferred as Baroness Grey-Thompson of Eaglescliffe in the County of Durham in March 2010. Also being introduced in to the House of Lords that same month and currently sitting as a crossbencher. You released an autobiography called “Seize the Day” back in 2001.
This podcast is about reflecting on peoples achievements and reflecting on success. What’s your definition of success, would you class yourself as successful?
Tanni: My definition of successful I think is quite personal because I think success can mean lots of different things to different people. As an athlete who competes on the track it’s about winning medals because that’s what matters to the team. Gold medals dictate everything, silvers and bronzes are lovely but a silver only counts when there’s a tie for gold and a bronze only counts when there’s a tie for gold and silver. That sort of reality and harshness of elite sports. For me, it was about breaking world records which I wanted to do and did in my career; but then life outside, success as a mum and a wife – still trying to find that one – and success in politics, you know you have some good days and bad days and there’s one thing about politics, you’ll have another go to try and change legislation. There’s lots of different ways to achieve your end goal. I always think of success as something that’s very personal to me not just something that’s easy to find. My success is not the same as somebody else’s.
Shona: I agree. Depends where we want to be and how we want to get there. When you started racing, was your absolute goal at that point to be world class, did you go in with that attitude? Or how did that shape itself?
Tanni: I played a lot of sports until I started to do wheelchair racing. I wanted to be good and as good as I could be. At 13 I wasn’t very aware of the Paralympic pathway. I knew there were lots of international races and road races, you know, I wanted to travel and compete in races around the world Boston Marathon, LA. That was always quite exciting for me. It was only as I grew up in the sport that I realised what the Paralympics was. It didn’t start off with wanting to be the best in the world, that just sort of came over time when I started to improve and I got coached and I started seeing how much I was improving and where I was going, so it’s interesting how it came over a period of about 5-6 years that I wanted to be the best in the word, and then it was a few years later that I got to that.
Shona: It sounds like you have to be highly competitive and have quite a lot of self-confidence. Would you describe that as your character? Or how would you describe yourself?
Tanni: Highly competitive in some bits of my life, not in others. I think what you have to have is a reasonable amount of resilience and then I think self-confidence can come out of that, because sometimes you don’t feel very confident, but appear very confident so that’s not always a given. Just because you can appear it, it doesn’t mean you have it. I think what you have to do is have the ability to make yourself train hard because in sport, and in working life, you have to do a lot of things which are really dull and boring. Training in the winter, outside when it’s -3, doing the slog, it’s very repetitive training 12-15 times a week, 50 weeks of the year. That’s what I was good at doing, making myself train hard. There were young athletes equally talented, if not more talented than me but didn’t have the ability to make themselves train. That comes from opportunity, I had opportunity to train as well. It’s doing the stuff that’s dull and boring and hard that gives you blisters, that makes you tired, that makes you hurt, that’s what made me successful.
Shona: How much has your upbringing helped shaped that?
Tanni: My upbringing was huge because my parents were very keen on physical activity, they were very encouraging, and they were there as a parachute, I was brought up to try stuff and if it didn’t work you keep trying. So I got confidence from them I think. They were keen for me and my sister to try loads and loads of different things. My parents weren’t pushy in terms of sporting success, but they just wanted me to have fun actually. That was really important to me, I think it was that encouragement to keep trying different things that had an impact on me. I started mainstream school when I was 4 because I could walk when I was very young and then when I turned 11, they fought to get me into a really good mainstream school. At the time, disabled children were sent off to special education where there was no education and my parents didn’t tolerate that so I think having good education meant I went to university and I went to Loughborough. I had mixed experiences at Loughborough but Loughborough helped make me the athlete that I became. Although there were lots and lots of challenges when I was there in terms of access and training. Loughborough gave me a lot of the resilience that I needed later on in my career because you’re fighting some of the system. My parents, I have so much to be thankful for, because they were educated and you had to fight the system and they were well prepared to do it for me.
Shona: Would you say that’s your driving force, would it continue to be your driving force? Where do you get that resilience from?
Tanni: I think it’s a family thing, it’s an interesting thing between nature and nurture. So if I look at my sister, my mum and my grandmother, some of that spirit was there. But then also it’s about having the chance to do things and learn to pick yourself up when it doesn’t work. My parents didn’t judge me on where I was or what I was doing they were just supportive of me. Sometimes my dad would nag me about school work and training and stuff like that but generally they were very supportive and encouraging with what me and my sister wanted to do.
Shona: We learn from the failures as well as the successes so when it comes to knock backs, then or now, how do you deal with that? How do you carry on?
Tanni: In the whole of my career from the beginning to the end, I lost more races than I won because that’s sport. So I think that from being quite young, I had a training diary, would look at what I was doing and how I could improve and I would talk to other people, to other athletes, to other coaches and find different ways of training and competing, watch races, look at race results. So it’s not even just doing the training and showing up at races, it’s everything else that you do. Are you eating enough? Are you sleeping enough? Have you got the best chair you can have? What I was good at doing was putting all the bits of the jigsaw together as well and that’s important. It’s easy within a system that celebrates gold medals to look at a race and see if there’s one that you want and say “that was great”. What my parents encouraged me to do was to look at that race and assess if it was good or bad, or whether I could’ve done things better or if it was a lucky win or an unlucky win because people make decisions in races, the tactical races, and they can sometimes be of huge benefit. I’ve won races where maybe I’ve not been the best in the field, and I’ve lost races where I might have been the best in the field. So that evaluation is very important, win or lose, you spend time evaluating to move on and look at what you could do different next time.
Shona: Is that something you take into your career now? That kind of analysis of looking back and taking elements forward?
Tanni: I think that’s a really important evaluation. How much time you spend evaluating depends what you’re looking at. Your evaluation and personal evaluation is really important sometimes I have more time and less time to do it. I have also got a great family around now that have become my critical friends who I will have a really open discussion with if they think I can do something better so I think that’s really helpful. You know in sports, there’s so much you can’t control because if someone comes through and they’re better than you, they’ll get selected over you. Your head coach thinks that if you’re not going to deliver, you don’t go. So all you can do is do what affects you such as training hard, planning hard, prep and the rest of it. I think from a really young athlete you know that some of the decisions whether you make the team or not are out of your hands. Sport is harsh and if they don’t think you’ll deliver then that’s it. It’s not about who you’re mates with or any of that, you’ve got to deliver the times and the medals you say you’re going to deliver.
Shona: Their reflections are interesting though because I think work environment, apart from maybe healthcare where the ability to reflect is instilled from day one and I guess, as you say, in sports careers are similar in order to look back and take elements forward. But not so much usually in other work environments so it’s interesting to hear that you do that and you have the relationships around you which make that feasible whereas a lot of people aren’t used to that sort of reflection so they could find it quite off-putting but it is really healthy.
Tanni: As an athlete, you’re used to very direct feedback. You go into a lab a couple of times, you have sports sites, they take your oxygen output, they take your bloods, urine samples and so when you’re on a camp, you have to provide a urine sample every morning to see how hydrated you are. You’ll get someone testing urine in front of you and that can be quite a personal thing to do. So I think as an athlete, you’re used to feedback. When you’ve got a list of 25 things you need to do that day and 10 are overdue, personal reflection time is not always easy to fit in. I have days where I’m better at it than others, but you kind of need some of that time to really stop and think about where you’re going. The worst thing ever is if you keep ploughing on regardless and you end up in a different direction to what you or your boss thinks you need to be.
Shona: Coming away from your sports career, did you have a plan after sports of where you wanted to go and what you wanted to become at that point?
Tanni: I had a plan for retirement from when I was 19/20 and then it changed through each cycle, but certainly when I graduated I was thinking “what next?” Because I went to my first games when I was 19, and I graduated in ’91 and I went onto my second games in Barcelona in ’92 and you don’t know what that’s going to bring. I had a plan for every cycle so also in between competing I did a couple of other things. I sat on a couple of boards, did a bit of temping work, and learnt some new skills so I always had other things. So if at any point I wasn’t selected for the GB team anymore, there was quite a lot of road racing I wanted to do so there was always a couple of other things that were there and I knew in 2004 that I was stopping, so the 2 years between 2004 and 2006 was when I invested a lot of time. When I retired, I knew what I didn’t want to do and that’s really helpful because when you retire from sport you can get offered lots of different opportunities and actually having the confidence to say “no I don’t want to do that but thank you very much”, I think it’s really important to not get led down a path that’s not where you want to end up. You know, some athletes don’t want to plan that and I always enjoyed and relished the thinking about what I’m going to do next because as it turned out I woke up one morning and thought “I’m done with this” and having something that steps into that gap is really important. I think because you know sports isn’t going to last forever, I think it can be hard to think about what’s next and when you’re working and doing long hours I think it’s quite difficult but I think that the reality of sports is that nobody owes you anything, you’re only as good as your next race or what they think the next race is going to be. So I think for me, that was always massively important and I figured out what I wanted to do so that when I stopped doing it or if I was dropped, there wouldn’t be this gaping hole in my life. It’s hard for athletes because a lot of structure came from my parents. When I came to the House of Lords, my dad’s response was “well that’s lovely, but I’m expecting nothing less of you.” I think it’s always useful to think about what’s next because sport doesn’t owe you anything.
Shona: So did you have a benchmark you were striving to? Were you striving to the House of Lords?
Tanni: No, I did politics at university, and I thought at some point I might end up in politics. It was something I thought about from time to time. And then apparently my dad said to me when I was 21 that the Lord Lieutenant of Cardiff said to him that I was going to end up here. And you know I had these conversations with my dad that I can’t remember, and then I remember him saying “do you remember what I said to you when you were 21?” My mum never got to see me here, she would’ve loved it but I’m glad my dad got to see me come here.
Shona: So your parents are obviously very influential, who has helped you get where you are today?
Tanni: My sister was a massive influence on me, I was always trying to play catch up with her. My husband Ian has been amazing, he’s my coach, my training partner. He encourages me every day to be better and to compete well, and to train as hard as I could. He was always very good and challenging. “if you’re going to do this, do it properly”, he changed his career when I came into politics and so he’s been hugely supportive of me and sometimes with how I’ve competed, one of my biggest critics as well but that’s a position based on trust, which is really important. Now he trains in an industrial chemist, he’s coached forever. My daughter’s 17 now as well, I spend a lot of time away from home, I live in the Northeast and I work in London, I spend a lot of time explaining why I am away from her. Sometimes she’s more interested than others. But I think it’s important my family understands my motivation and why I do what I do.
Shona: A lot of people have dreams and ambitions and strive for success but they don’t get there, what do you think makes you different?
Tanni: I think if I had a choice, I’d have done basketball for GB not wheelchair racing. I think it’s just interesting where life takes you. Some of it is making the most of the opportunities in front of you and there’s definitely opportunities I missed. You try to make the most of what you’re offered. I think what made me good as an athlete was I trained really hard and didn’t make excuses. In the whole of my career, I only missed a handful of training sessions and I think it was being able to go out every single day and do the tough stuff, I think that helps people. And there was a little bit of luck on the way.
Shona: Do you think in any way, luck has a part to play? Or does it really come down to your own capabilities, belief and seeing opportunities?
Tanni: I think you can interchange luck and opportunity. There’s definitely things I have done where you think “wow that was really good or a lucky decision”. Some of the boards I have sat on, I sat on my first board when I was in my mid 20’s and I wasn’t sure I was ready for it. I think the more you build on your success, and you do it in the right way, you’re ethical about it, you respect the athletes around you, you meet people, you network, I think if you make connections with people and you treat people with respect, I think that can help as well. As a reasonably young athlete, I remember one of my sponsors were debating whether they were going to carry on sponsoring any of the athletes and they decided not to, I ended up, completely by fluke, going to one of the sponsorship managers in children’s school and spent a lot longer there than I was meant to. I was nice to the kids, and on the back of that, they decided to sponsor some of the athletes. If you say yes to stuff, it’s doing what you’re meant to do. It’s a really difficult one so it’s hard to look back on it but I think if you’re driven, and you work hard, there are benefits to it but not everyone wants to spend 15 times training a week 50 weeks of the year and some people can be really successful and do less than that and some can’t when they do that much as well.
Shona: Was there at any point any crossroads or a critical moment where things could’ve gone differently?
Tanni: I think my third games, which was Atlanta, I won a gold and three silvers and there were quite a few people in the team who thought I retire, and I wasn’t ready to. I remember talking to my coach and my training group and saying “look, if I don’t get selected beyond this that’s one thing but I’m not ready to stop” and that was quite interesting because there was a reasonable amount of pressure for me to do a big retirement announcement and it was like “it’s not right for me so I’m not doing it”
Shona: That’s interesting, that you yourself are not allowing others to feed doubt into your mind.
Tanni: It would’ve been a nice story for the people who wanted me to retire because there would’ve been moments. I remember someone saying “if you don’t retire at the end of the games and you retire in 6 months you won’t get the same publicity.” But talent isn’t about that so I moved and did some different work and built myself back up again so it wasn’t ready for me. I competed for a long time before I made the GB team and the GB team was really important to me but it wasn’t everything. There’s lots of races I could’ve done without the team such as road races, different track meets so what was important to me was competing in the sport I loved. GB was a big part of that but it wasn’t everything.
Shona: It sounds like you’re quite a planner, is that on a day to day basis? Are you quite formulaic on how you manage your time?
Tanni: Some things I’m very well planned and organised, so when we got married I had a schedule for every quarter of an hour of the day, but there’s other bits that I’m not. I’m not great at saying no to stuff, and if stuff comes on your plate that you’re not expecting or you’re not planned for and you have to juggle and drop things and you have to make things happen. I like to be organised and planned but it doesn’t often work like that so there’s a combination between being planned and flexible.
Shona: Are there any books or quotes or mantras you live by or that you reflect on?
Tanni: My grandfather had this saying which was “aim high even if you hit a cabbage” and we don’t really know where it comes from, but it’s about having a goal and a dream and not being afraid to try. I used to get really nervous before I competed and people would say “how come you’re nervous when you’re doing well?” But there’s still that “am I going to win, lose, race well” and it was much more important for me to race well than the medals, like if I could have picked one it would be a good race and not won which is probably quite strange, and felt I’d done the best I could than win a medal and be really disappointed with how I performed and did it because everyone else did badly than me doing well. So the answer and complexity of that is quite deep. If ever I’m asked, “what are your top ten races” and people expect it to all be ones where I’ve won a gold medal. I think for me, I always saw myself more than just an athlete, the difficulty is when you’re an athlete, that’s all people see of you. They see a bit of you on TV and make all sorts of assumptions whether you like it or not based on this tiny little bit of you competing. For me it was always important to be a Venn diagram, that although being an athlete was a massive part of my life, it didn’t define every single part of me as an individual.
Shona: Would you consider yourself a lifelong learner that actively learns new things?
Tanni: Absolutely and I really enjoy it and I read a lot. Because its education, dad always used to say “education gives you choices” and you can never stop learning, it’s about having the time to do that and balance what you learn. Being in parliament, we have the most amazing library and we have the ability to get our hands on all sorts of things so when you come here as a peer, they’re not expecting you to stand in the chamber and talk about what you did 20 years ago, they’re expecting you to stand in the chamber and talk about what you did yesterday in the thing that got you here. So we have no excuse to not continue to educate ourselves.
Shona: Is it always work related or do you learn because you’re curious as well?
Tanni: I’m just curious, I can go off down a rabbit hole really easily, but you try and just gather as much evidence and data, and make it count when you have to. So in sport, my career on the track in Paralympics for the medals I won was nineteen and a half minutes, I did loads of other races. That time you have in the chamber to change something and make a difference is quite limited, so you have to make it count.
Shona: What keeps you motivated? What keeps you grounded?
Tanni: Motivated is that I still have a million things I still want to do, I never think I’ve done enough but I always need to do more, I need to be better. I’m quite self-critical, I want to change the world. I got nominated for something recently, icons of the 20th century and I remember getting a phone call and I rang my daughter and she said “what have you done for that?” I love my family to bits, they are just incredible cos I know they’re really proud of me and supportive and help me. I’ve got a group of people who I’d say are critical friends. They’ll watch the parliament channel and say things like “did you brush your hair or put some make up on” or “the last minute of your speech was quite dull”. That’s really useful because you go “okay, well that’s what I got to do next time so I mostly enjoy that kind of feedback”.
Shona: What advice would you give to your younger self or somebody else starting out on the same path today? That could be sport or politics.
Tanni: You’ve got to love it, for when times are hard. In sport when training’s difficult and it’s cold, wet and miserable and you got to do 30 miles and you’d rather stay at home and watch TV. You’ve got to love what you’re doing, you’ve also got to be clear on what you want your end goal to be. Nobody makes you be an athlete, if you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. But if you say you want to do it and you want to compete at the highest level then get on with it. I didn’t have to sacrifice anything, I made lots of choices. My family made huge choices for me but its “do it”. It’s okay to say “I gave it a go and this is not for me” because it’s not for everyone. I think my advice to my younger self would be to learn to keep my mouth shut. That’s changed over time, I think I learnt this at a relatively youngish age, but learn to pick your battles. One of the things people say to me is “you’re very direct aren’t you” and it always makes me laugh because it’s like “you have no idea how much I’ve toned down what I was going to say to you”. So it’s to learn the landscape, learn how it works, collaborate. Sports and politics is about a huge amount of collaboration and treating people with respect. I find it interesting here that there are few people in politics who think it’s a hierarchy, and there is, but also the building is a bit more like a jigsaw as we need everyone around us to do the stuff we do. So you know, the chefs, library staff and security so we all fit together. One other thing that makes working in this place amazing is that connection. I think some of that comes from sports as well, you’re all part of the team. One of my frustrations is, I remember being at events and being introduced as “this is one of our gold medallists” and it’s like “no I’m Tanni, hello” and that kind of grounding is massively important and useful to me as well so I think sport teaches you about all those collaborations and connections and the jigsaw that’s life.
Shona: Couple of fun questions just to round it off, do you have a favourite book?
Tanni: I have a lot of books, so one of the huge advantages of living in the northeast is and working in London having an office, is my husband has no clue how many books I have. I’m hoping I don’t die before him because that’s the point he’ll realise how many books I have. I love books, I never get rid of them.
Shona: So are you a physical copy rather than a Kindle kind of person?
Tanni: I’ve got a Kindle but I do prefer a physical book but I get very stressed at people bending the cover or folding pages over.
Shona: Do you have a favourite app or piece of technology?
Tanni: I use social media quite a lot, I tweet a lot. When I did the Welfare Reform Bill, I had a group of disability rights campaigners follow the whole debate and were tweeting me “ask the minister this” etc. So I do love it, I would struggle to be without my laptop or my phone.
Shona: Where is your favourite place?
Tanni: What I think of as “home” has changed a lot over the last few years, I’ve lived in lots of different places. I’d say it’s where my family are. So we’re based in the northeast, I can’t see that we’re going to move from there but I think ultimately it will be wherever my family are because I spend so much time away from my family that I just love being with them.
Shona: And finally, what would you say is your greatest achievement?
Tanni: I hope I haven’t had it yet. I don’t know, I don’t look back a lot, I only talk about my career in sport when people ask me about it, I don’t kind of wake up every day going “oh I was an athlete”. I get a lot of people in the street who stop me and go “oh you’re that athlete aren’t you” and I think “well I’ve been retired 12 years” but it’s easier to just say yes. So my greatest achievement in sport if I had to choose one, it would be winning 100 in Athens. As a mum, I have a beautifully well rounded daughter who doesn’t appear to have hit any mood swings yet and is kind and caring and bright and funny and slightly sarcastic. In politics, I’m not sure, just survive really, but hopefully I haven’t had my greatest achievement yet. One of the things I want to do in politics is in my life I take a lot of public transport such as trains, buses etc., so what I really want is all disabled people to have the same miserable experience on public transport as everyone else. We’re getting there but it’s all about the collaboration, getting people explaining to train operating companies, stations that they’re not doing as much as they think they could and I just want disabled people to be able to get on and off trains.
Shona: Thank you so much for talking to me, you’ve been really open and honest and we really appreciated just hearing the achievements and the stories you’ve got, it’s been a pleasure, thank you very much.