PTB Meets: Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson

I’m always excited to speak to people of interest. Not necessarily celebrities, but anyone with a story to tell irrespective of background or occupation. It was however a real privilege to be able to speak with Paralympic legend Tanni Grey-Thompson. Winner of eleven Olympic Gold Medals, Tanni finally retired in 2007 and in 2010 was inducted into the House of Lords. Recently I met up with Tanni to discuss juggling Olympic success and family life, as well as taking a brief look at some of the confidence issues facing the young women of today.

Hi Tanni, you obviously come from a sporting profession that required a serious amount of commitment and dedication, was it ever difficult to get the right balance between training and your personal life? It can be very difficult – when you are in full training you don’t have a lot of social time or really want to go out that much.  Training for us was 6 days a week, 50 weeks a year, so even things like Christmas and birthdays was a struggle. If you spend a lot of time abroad then it’s hard for the partner at home. It can be hard to meet different people too, I was lucky to meet Ian.

A lot of people dread the thought of working with their partner, but you were coached by yours. Did achieving such great success together ultimately make you stronger as a couple? We were very clear when we were working together as athlete/coach how we spoke to each other – it was a bit odd for other people around, but I couldn’t have husband/wife conversations with him in a coaching environment.  As he was technically my boss (he was Squad Director for a couple of years) it would have been inappropriate for that to cross the line for the other athletes on the squad as much as for us.  I think we did quite a good job of it in the end.

A lot of young people struggle with confidence issues and either convince themselves they won’t meet someone or end up stuck in abusive relationships with completely the wrong person. What advice would you give to teenagers for example, who are finding their feet in life? There is a lot of pressure on young people i.e that you can only be happy if you are in a relationship – abusive relationships don’t just suddenly start, they can build up over time and people can wake up one day and realise that’s what they are in.  I would say to someone who feels they are in that situation (or when they realise that they are) that they need to find help to get out.  Often there is a lot of psychological abuse that goes on like telling a person that they are worthless and no one else will ever love them. It takes a lot of strength to stand up to that.

There has been endless publicity about the negative impact of certain magazines being the cause of confidence issues in young women and yet not much seems to have changed, is there anything more we can do to tackle issues like these? Some of the magazines put huge pressure (especially on girls) to be a certain size (size zero is so impossibly small – the size of a 12 year old girl pre-puberty) or how their hair and make up should be.  I think what has been good is that a lot of more famous people have spoken out about photoshopping – everyone wants to be shown to their best side, but how they make some women look is completely ridiculous.  I think we have to look at developing girls confidence more so that when they look at those pictures, they realise that happiness is not about what bag you are carrying.

How did having a child affect the dynamic of your relationship? I had never really had a lot to do with children before we had our daughter.  It was a bit of a challenge as it was all so new and also I was competing so I had to get back into training – we were lucky in that we were able to take her to competitions and events.  I think suddenly it changes from just being about the two of you for so long to then having this extra person, which is a huge responsibility. We never did that ‘date night’ thing – partly because we didn’t really ‘date’ before the birth of my daughter or go out all that much. The hardest part was not realising just how tired I was going to be – all the time.

Was it important for you to achieve certain professional goals before you considered starting a family? Yes, as a female athlete it is challenging because you have to plan some time off – not always easy in a Paralympic cycle – we went for having a baby in 2002. I recovered from Sydney, had a bit of a think about whether we wanted a family and then started trying.  We also had a cut off date that if I didn’t fall pregnant for her to be born in early 2002 we were going to wait until after Athens. You have to plan competitions etc differently and then at major games you have to think about what would happen to your child i.e. they can’t be in the village – you just have to be incredibly well organised.

Was it difficult to return to competitive sport after the birth of your daughter or did it give you extra motivation? Different motivation – you can’t waste time, and it makes you stop being quite so selfish. There were people who thought I wouldn’t be able to do it, but I had lots of help and support throughout.

It may be a scary thought at this early stage but what advice will you give your daughter when she finally starts dating? My Mum always told me to have enough money for a cab home and if I didn’t like them, just leave! I think I would say the same to her, but also always have your phone charged so you can get a cab home! It’s hard to give advice. I guess the best advice I could give would be to find someone that you can have a laugh with. There’s always going to be tough times, but Ian is also my best friend which makes all the difference.

What’s the most romantic thing Ian has ever done for you? Ian bought me a carbon fibre front wheel – not sure that other people would see the romance in that but for me it was perfect.

Do you think our perception of love changes as we get older? Wow – not sure how to answer that one. I think if you are with someone for a long time then the relationship changes.  I compromise more on certain things and less on others. I think it’s more that your priorities change as you get older.


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