Tanni Grey-Thompson: Casualty to glory

Other countries do it, why not Britain? Our greatest Paralympian tells Alan Hubbard that her sport needs to target hospitals
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Members of a Parliamentary select committee almost spluttered into their glasses of mineral water when they heard Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson declare recently that Britain's success in the 2012 Paralympic Games might depend on how many road accidents there are between now and then. "Yes, I know I shocked them, and a lot of other people, but the fact is we don't know some of those who will be competing in 2012 because they haven't broken their backs yet," said the woman who has done more than anyone to put the word "ability" into disability sport.

"I really didn't think I was saying anything that controversial. There are two streams to developing Paralympic sport. One is looking at young people with congenital disability, but it is also, and let's not shy away from this, about going into hospitals and finding people who have had accidents and maybe lost a leg or an arm or had a spinal injury, and ideally done sport before. Other countries do it.

"If you look at the United States they have a very strong association called Paralysed Veterans of America. OK, so they have more wars than we do, but if you've come from the Army and you are used to military discipline, you are bypassing a bit of that sports development.

"I am not suggesting we should go ambulance-chasing, but rather to wait for the ambulance to stop. We shouldn't be afraid of targeting these people. You do it in sport anyway. If someone is 6ft 7in you say, 'Ooh, there's a basketball player'. So we shouldn't shy away from offering similar opportunities to someone who has disability."

As the world of sport has come to know well, Tanni has never been one to shy away from anything. Britain's most decorated and successful wheelchair athlete is simply not the retiring sort - which is why, at 36 and the mother of a three-and-a-half-year-old, she will not be following her fellow dame Kelly Holmes and quitting while she is ahead.

"I think for Kelly it is just the right time. But while I'm still pushing fast, I'll carry on. A lot of people have been saying to me I should have retired after Athens and gone out on a high, but to be honest I still like doing this, and you are a long time retired. You have to go on to a point when you just can't do it any more, otherwise you would regret not being there. At the moment everything is going really well for me. I am looking forward to the Commonwealth Games, the next Paralympic World Cup and, who knows, maybe Beijing, though I am not sure yet about the Olympics. I usually take everything on a four- year cycle, but with Carys [her daughter] it is now harder to do that. I look at one year at a time."

Tanni is particularly happy to be associated with the Visa Paralympic World Cup, which will be held for the second time in Manchester next May. "The first one earlier this year was a great success, and may even have helped London to get the Olympics. It is important for Britain that we have a really well- organised, top-quality event here, because you tend to have to travel abroad for such things, and personally it's great for me to compete before a home crowd. There have been other events in the UK which haven't been as well-run."

She does admit, however, that the 2012 Paralympics will be pushing it a bit, even for her. "No, I'll be well sidelined by then. In terms of facilities and organisation I think 2012 will just be incredible. It's the kind of stuff we are good at, part of our Britishness.

"But there are aspects which worry me deeply. We're not in crisis, but we simply do not have enough young people coming through. You can write all the strategic plans and world-class performance documents you like, but unless you've got enough people to train, you are wasting your time.

"If we want to have a team to be competing well we have to start right now. There's a lot more that everybody could be doing. We need good coaches working with youngsters, nagging them, training hard. Unfor-tunately, sports development is not really seen as a glamorous job. Of course money helps, it makes a lot of difference, but in the end what makes the real difference is how hard you train. I meet a few young people who say, 'I am not going to do it unless I have this or have that or unless I've got this fantastic gym and warm-weather training'.

"This is where I start sounding old and grumpy. When I started we had a grass track, and in the winter we changed in a multistorey car park. Obviously I would have preferred having a Mondo track and a gym five minutes from where I live, but it just wasn't like that. So some of me says, stop moaning about what we haven't got and train harder."

In the past Tanni has been severely critical of the way sport has been administered in this country. Has she mellowed? "I doubt it. I get frustrated with 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. I am not sure we have people at the top who really understand sport.

"They certainly don't understand athletes. I admit it; we are a twitchy, testy, egotistical lot. Probably half of us are completely mad. You need people who will work with us and not be confrontational. There are plenty of ways of doing things that don't lead to confrontation. If you spend time getting to know me you'll get a better reaction, and that goes for most of us.

"It's not even the old blazer syndrome. It's like Newton's third law, for any action there's a reaction. If you send me a stroppy email because you're having a bad day, then the response you'll get back will be even stroppier. I got a letter last year asking me what events I was funded for and I thought, 'Don't you keep that on your data base?'

"It's not the major things they get wrong, it's the little stuff like not keeping a record of our uniform sizes. It really isn't difficult to get right. Having said that, the BPA themselves [the British Paralympic Association] are very good, they have been very supportive. The chief executive, Phil Lane, understands me as an athlete, he knows where I am coming from. After I lost in the 800 metres in Athens, he came up and gave me a hug, he was there when it mattered, and it wasn't a case of, 'Oh bloody hell, she hasn't won the gold medal'.

"No one goes to an event to compete badly. Some people will never win. I know of one young athlete who was told, coming back from Atlanta, 'You're pretty crap really, you might as well stop'. It's how you get the best out of people, it's about communication. If there's one thing we should change about British sport, it is about getting communication right.

"If I had a magic wand, I would have an hour of PE in schools every day for kids. There is some real basic stuff still to do."

The ever-combative Tanni continues to fight for the disabled to be treated with proper respect. Most of the old patronising attitudes may have been eliminated but, she says, we could still do more. Then there's the curiosity factor. "When I was seven months gone someone stopped me in the street and said: "How did you get pregnant?" "Actually," I replied, "I has sex with my husband. How do you think I got pregnant?"

These days, Tanni fits in family life in Redcar, Yorkshire - her PhD husband Ian's career as a competitive cyclist was ended by a collision with a bus at the age of 20 - with her training commitments and public speaking. Currently she is learning Welsh, the language of her ancestry, for a BBC Wales programme called The Big Welsh Challenge. The outcome, she predicts, will be "hysterical".

Should she so desire, Tanni could - and should - become a big wheel in sports administration, and there are those in charge now who might already be twitching nervously at the prospect. She isn't thinking that far ahead yet. "When I do retire I'd like to do so thinking I've helped change people's attitudes towards disability sport. Even when I was a student at Loughborough University and working my socks off for my degree in politics and towards becoming an athlete, people would smile down at me and say, 'Do you train? Have a lovely time dear'.

"Lovely? It wasn't lovely. It was blood, sweat and tears. But I'm happy that things will never go back to the way they were, because the Paralympics are far bigger than just one person."

Life & Times: The champion and trailblazer

NAME: Tanni Grey-Thompson.

BORN: 26 July 1969, Cardiff.

PERSONAL: Wheelchair-bound since seven because of spina bifida. Now lives in Redcar, Yorks, with husband Dr Ian Thompson and daughter Carys, three.

CAREER: Made debut for Wales in junior national championships at 15. Now Britain's greatest-ever Paralympian, with 11 gold medals, three silvers, a bronze and world records over distances from 100m to 800m. Competed in five Paralympics. Has won six London Marathon titles.

ALSO: Welsh Sports Personality of the Year 2004. Honours degree in politics. Already an MBE and OBE, she became a Dame in the last New Year Honours List.