Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson: Champion of the track, of women and the disabled

When Britain's greatest Paralympic athlete enters the House of Lords, she knows she will face some of her biggest challenges yet. Alan Hubbard speaks to Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson
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Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson was on a train to London from her home in a small village near Darlington when we spoke to arrange this interview. She usually is these days. "Have wheelchair, will travel" has always been her maxim.

She was on her way to three functions in London in one day, chairing a commission on the future of women's sport, attending a Sports Honours Committee meeting of which she is a member – "We want to ensure the right people get rewarded" – and then a St David's Day bash at the Welsh Office. She is Welsh-born herself, of course, and rather proud of it. She also sits on the board of Transport for London, keeping a keen eye on facilities for the disabled wanting to travel and attend the 2012 Olympics.

Now London is about to see even more of her. The First Lady of Paralympic sports is now the second lady of sport to sit in the House of Lords, following UK Sport's chair Sue (now Baroness) Campbell.

She should be wrapping the ermine cloak around her at the end of this month as a People's Peer, surprisingly having elected to sit as a cross-bencher, despite being an ardent Labour supporter all her life. "It wasn't an easy decision," she admits. "My political views are left of centre but I think there are a lot of advantages of being a cross-bencher because you can vote with your heart, and in any case, I believe sport should be non-political. My passions are sport, women in sport and disabled people, and they kind of end up not being political, so I can put a bit of a different spin on it. I am not going to go in there and start speaking on things I have no previous experience of, but I am an ex-athlete, I am a mum and I have a disability so all that combines to give a different perspective.

"Health is one debate that immediately jumps out. And not just regarding the many problems regarding disability [she has been in a wheelchair since she was seven, having been born with spina bifida]. Change also needs to be instigated in issues ranging from assisted suicide to care in the home and the legacy of London 2012.

"It was a deep desire to help make positive changes that first drove me into politics as a student [she has a degree in political sciences from Loughborough University] and this still burns as bright as ever. I've had many challenges in life and sport but going into the House of Lords is probably the greatest ever.

"It was one of those things that I'd always hoped I would have the opportunity to do but I never thought it would happen. When you're offered the chance you can't say: 'Oh, that's nice but can I do it in five years please?' I am very excited about it and slightly nervous."

"I expect there will be a few butterflies before my maiden speech. I do a lot of corporate speaking but I imagine this will be very different. But as I know from my days as a competitor, nerves are not necessarily a bad thing."

Born 40 years ago in Cardiff, Dame Tanni – who won an unparalleled 11 Paralympic golds, set 30 world records and won six London Marathons – joins Baroness Campbell, who like her is known to have Labour leanings, as a cross-bencher. "I know Sue quite well and I'm hoping I can learn a lot from her. I found it hard anyway when I was asked to define my political views because I am a bit right of centre on some things and a long way left on others."

So will she be endorsing Labour in the forthcoming election? "To be honest, as a cross-bencher I don't know what I am allowed to do politically. I need to investigate. I am still on a learning curve. I start to giggle when I hear someone call me Baroness Grey-Thompson."

Since retiring from competitive sport three years ago, she says she is busier than ever. "I am fortunate that I have found so many things to do in life to replace athletics. Nothing can ever be the same after you have competed at such a high level but all this gives me a great buzz – something that is meaningful and, I hope, productive. Life's chaotic these days, but then it always was."

She says it is fortunate that her husband Ian is able to work from home and is in a position to look after their eight-year-old daughter Carys. A doctor of chemistry, he now works in sports science and coaching. "He knew that I was going to have to spend a lot of time in London so it is good that this has worked out really well. He loves coaching and I like what I do. It was a really good point for both of us to think about what we wanted to do with our futures."

Ever combative, she has been highly critical of the way sport is administered. Has she mellowed? "I doubt it. I still get frustrated at the hierarchical order of British sport, the school of 'We'll do it this way because we've always done it this way'. They could do so much more, not with money but with attitude. Sport needs people at the top who really understand what it is about.

"There are lots of exciting things happening with the sporting issues I am involved in at the moment, especially the women's commission. Obviously there's a long way to go before there is total equality in sport, but I think it is a fight we are winning, absolutely. There is some great stuff going on.

"Amy Williams has struck a great blow for women's sport, hasn't she? I watched her compete and saw her interview afterwards. She was so lovely, so refreshing. It was amazing to see the excitement on her face. She is a ready-made role model. She is so courageous in what seems a slightly bonkers event – and I mean that in a nice way. It's so dangerous, I can't even imagine what it must be like going down at that speed. I cried a bit, I have to say, when she was presented with the medal. I always get really emotional at these times."

So high profile has Paralympic sport become that it embraces not only some of the good, but also the bad of its able-bodied counterpart. Like doping. A director of UK Athletics, last year Dame Tanni chaired a review into drug- taking. "I am an eternal optimist but there will always be people who cheat, from politics to sport. Of course it is nowhere near the same problem in Paralympic sport and, hand on heart, I can't say I thought any of my fellow competitors were at it. But some have been caught, so it does happen.

"We have to ask ourselves what we want our sport to be. We want it to be exciting and interesting but we also want it to be clean. I am not saying this is a fight we can totally win because there will always be those who do every single thing they can to take that extra step. I think there was a view for a while that disabled athletes didn't cheat, but regrettably some do."

Dame Tanni, more than anyone, has raised the status of disability sport to the level where there is genuine public enthusiasm and support. "The London Games will be fantastic for both Olympians and Paralympians. I sit on a couple of 2012 committees and I think we have got the balance exactly right between the two Games. I thought I would be asking questions all the time about the Paralympics but I've never had to do that, not once, everything seems to be answered, which is great. You don't want to have people sitting there thinking, 'Oh God, it's her again'."

It is one that she hopes will not be echoed when, as Baroness Grey-Thompson, she wheels her way into the House of Lords. But you can be sure she will have a lot of illuminating things to say for herself – and for sport.

Life and times

Name Dame Tanni Carys Davina Grey-Thompson.

Born 26 July 1969, Cardiff.

Early doors First tried wheelchair racing at St Cyres Comprehensive School, Penarth, aged 13. At 15, she won 100m at Junior National Wheelchair Games.

Sporting feats 11 Paralympic gold medals (including four golds at both Barcelona Games in 1992 and Sydney Games in 2000); four silvers; one bronze (her first medal at Seoul Games in 1988). Six London Marathon wins.

Other honours Awarded MBE in 1993; won Helen Rollason Award for outstanding achievement in the face of adversity at BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2000; awarded OBE in 2000; received damehood in 2005; appointed as a cross-bench peer in the House of Lords by the Lords Appointment Commission on 5 February.

Lives in Eaglescliffe in the North-east with husband Ian and eight-year-old daughter Carys.

Chris Thorne