Podium reporter Stuart Appleby interviews arguably Great Britain’s greatest Paralympian of all time Tanni Grey-Thompson. The 11-time gold medallist, who competed in five Paralympic Games, discusses the difficulties of combining sport and academic studies, her time at Loughborough University and why she was tempted to come out of retirement and compete at the London 2012 Games.
11-time Paralympic gold medallist values Further and Higher Education
Tanni Grey-Thompson is without doubt one of Britain’s greatest Paralympians of all time – having won 11 gold medals from five Paralympic Games. Here she tells Podium all about combining her sporting and educational successes…
Grey-Thompson studied at Loughborough University and in 1991, she won the World Wheelchair Games marathon whilst also graduating with an honours degree in Politics and Social Administration.
Grey-Thompson was born in Cardiff and as a young child wore callipers. She started to use a wheelchair from the age of seven. Having begun wheelchair racing at the age of 13 at St. Cyres Comprehensive School, she went onto win the 100 metres at the Junior National Wheelchair Games two years later.
At 18, Grey-Thompson competed in the British Wheelchair Racing Squad and was selected for her first World Wheelchair Games.
Whilst still continuing along the sporting route, Grey-Thompson admitted that her decision to move into Higher Education and study at Loughborough University was influenced by her parents.
“My parents were keen on education and I think that was instilled in me from an early age. My father always used to say to me that education gives you choices and that is really true. Further and higher education is very important because when you are progressing through the ranks as a young athlete, you cannot train for 15 hours a day, you need to do something else in your life too.
“As a young athlete, many think that their career will last into their 30s or so, but the reality is that it does not. Most athletes do not make it, get injured or are not selected – there are all these variables that you have no control over. From that point of view, education is very important, as it gives you something to fall back on. It helps to give you focus about balancing your life.”
In March 2010, Grey-Thompson was named a life peer on the recommendation of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. Baroness Grey-Thompson DBE of Eaglescliffe in the County of Durham now sits as a non-party political crossbencher.
The 42-year-old, who uses her experience and knowledge in debates in the House, revealed that having a degree made it easier for her to move into her current role in Westminster.
“I have always thought that it is important to keep developing skills and my politics degree paid off for me. It certainly contributed to where I am now.
“A tiny percentage of athletes will make enough money to never work again and the reality is that virtually every sports person I know has to get some type of job. It is important to have other interests and other things to talk about apart from training.”
Many Team GB athletes are currently combining their sporting and academic commitments in the build up to the London 2012 Games, and from her experience, Grey-Thompson admitted that it has never been easy to juggle the two.
“There were times when it was difficult doing my finals and training as hard as I had been before, it was a bit of a struggle. I enjoyed training as it was good to get away from studying sometimes.
“At Loughborough, I had around 18-20 hours of contact time a week throughout my degree and the rest was self motivated work. It definitely made it easier to combine the two and fit them into my schedule. Some people can combine both workloads well and take on a lot of studying, but others cannot. I think there is much more understanding now about the nature of part time studying, especially for athletes.”
Grey-Thompson admits that the sporting facilities at Loughborough University have moved on leaps and bounds since she studied there and she believes it will always be a great environment for young athletes to train in.
“The fantastic thing about Loughborough was that there were a lot of people playing sport at a high level and you always had good athletes to train alongside. At the time, though, there was still a lot of negativity surrounding Paralympic sport and some people did not take me seriously as an athlete.
“However, I think that helped me in the long run to deal with some of the other people I have met in my life. University was a great and challenging experience, and in the long run, a pretty good one for me.”
The Paralympic champion’s connection with both further and higher education sectors has continued since her retirement from sport, as she has been awarded with no fewer than 25 academic awards (primarily honorary degrees) from universities and colleges.
“It is great to receive the honorary doctorates as you get to share people’s ceremonies and be part of it. Every single person in the graduation room has been through a different journey to get there. Some have just sailed through and achieved great marks the whole way through, whilst others have struggled.
“It is lovely to see the pride on the families and friends faces and the pride beaming from the students. It is nice for anyone to receive recognition and to be told you have done something well.”
Ahead of the London 2012 Games, Grey-Thompson is delighted with ticket sales for Paralympic events and she even admits that at one point, she considered competing again.
“There is a teeny, teeny part of me that thinks maybe it would be nice to compete but that cannot happen as I am too old and too knackered now! I am just really looking forward to sitting in the stands and watching. The level of interest surrounding Paralympic sports has been huge already and I think it is going to be fantastic.”
Listen to the audio version of this interview below.