Interview with Tanni Grey-Thompson

The multiple Paralympic gold medallist and now university chancellor reveals her excitement about graduation ceremonies and her sleeplessness over Daleks

November 19, 2015
Tanni Grey-Thompson, Northumbria University
Source: Simon Veit-Wilson

Tanni Grey-Thompson is considered one of the greatest UK athletes of all time. Competing in five Paralympic Games, Baroness Grey-Thompson won 16 medals, 11 of them gold. She has also won the London Marathon wheelchair race six times. Since retiring from athletics, she has played a prominent role in public life, was appointed a dame in recognition of her services to sport in 2005, and was elevated to the House of Lords in 2010 as a cross-bench peer. In June, she was announced as the new chancellor of Northumbria University.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Cardiff on 26 July 1969.

How has this shaped you?
Growing up in Cardiff with my family – dad Peter, mum Sulwen and sister Sian – [made me] very proud to be Welsh. It also [made me] a lover of rugby and sport in general. Being healthy and physically active was always important in my family. I gained access to education through my parents, who were insistent that I had a mainstream education. My dad used Baroness Warnock’s Green Paper [on special educational needs] to get me in to school – he always used to say that education was important as it gives you choices.

What are you most looking forward to in the role as chancellor of Northumbria?
Giving out degrees at graduation ceremonies! It is so important to celebrate the achievements of all the students. Education has helped to give me the life that I have now, and being part of that for other young people is an amazing honour.

In your experience, are universities doing a good job in supporting disabled athletes/sportspeople and facilitating potential international representation?
Paralympic classification is very tight now, and there are not as many disabled students who have Paralympic aspirations at university as I would like. There are lots of disabled people at university, and I hope to see that they have the opportunity to participate and compete. In the US, there are big institutions that have strong programmes for wheelchair sports. For example, the University of Illinois has a great set-up for wheelchair racing and has produced a lot of big-name athletes over the years.

After London 2012, is the sporting legacy still apparent at a grass-roots level? Is it a different picture for sportspeople with disabilities?
London 2012 was amazing, but it is very hard to expect four weeks of elite sport to change the world. No doubt it will have inspired many, but they will be sporty people; we need to find new ways to encourage participation for everyone and not just those who are naturally interested in sport.

Now that you are a university chancellor, will you be keeping a close eye on Northumbria’s sports teams to see if you can spot the next Olympian/Paralympian/sports star?
Definitely – that would be amazing! I would also like to see the university do well [in inter-university competition]. All the teams at the university have the potential to produce amazing athletes, and I am so excited to be part of that.

What role did higher education play in bringing you to this point in your career?
I studied politics at Loughborough University, and higher education had a huge part in getting me to the point in my career that I am at. Being at Loughborough taught me a lot about sport and people and how to train, but also how to rely on myself. I [learned] that I had to get up and do it because nobody else would do it for me.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
I have always been inspired by wheelchair racer Chris Hallam, watching him on the telly in the London Marathon when I was a teenager was the moment I realised that wheelchair racing was what I wanted to do. I turned to my mum and said: “I’m going to do the marathon.” She just nodded and said, “Of course, dear.”

If you were a prospective university student now facing £9,000 fees, would you go again or go straight into work?
It’s definitely a tough decision, which I am glad I do not have to make, but I would want anybody looking at university to think about all that you will learn while there beyond just your course subject.

What keeps you awake at night?
Daleks! And also dreams that I have gone into the House of Lords chamber to give a really complex speech and I haven’t prepared for it.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I really wanted to be a lawyer.

What do you do for fun?
I love to read, my house is packed with books. Also, as a mother – although many others wouldn’t agree that this is fun – I really enjoy being a taxi driver for my daughter Carys.

What’s your biggest regret?
That I never played basketball for GB – I started out playing basketball, however I couldn’t really throw or catch! 

Have you ever had a eureka moment?
Winning at the junior nationals in Stoke Mandeville at age 15.  That was the moment I realised that I could be a good athlete. I never really looked back from there.


Claire Craig, currently director of the Government Office for Science, has been appointed director of science policy at the Royal Society. Dr Craig has previously served in senior roles in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Office of Fair Trading and the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit. Julie Maxton, executive director of the Royal Society, said that Dr Craig’s expertise would help the organisation to confront big scientific issues. “If we want to be able to tackle such challenges as meeting the world’s health, food and energy needs and help drive economic growth, governments and other bodies need high-quality scientific advice,” she said. “The appointment of Claire Craig will help us to do that.”

The Open University in Scotland has announced Susan Stewart as its new director. Ms Stewart, who takes up the role next month, is currently the director of her own communications consultancy, which advises a number of high-profile organisations including the Scottish government and several voluntary organisations. She was the Scottish government’s first diplomat in the US, establishing a Scottish office in the British Embassy in Washington DC. She said that she saw the new role as vital because the OU placed “social justice at the heart of its mission, and its record in widening access to people from all parts of Scotland is second to none”.

Richard Beardsworth, professor of international politics at Aberystwyth University, has been appointed director of ethics at the institution. He joined Aberystwyth in 2013 from Florida International University, where he was professor of international theory. As director, he will oversee the work of developing, publicising and assuring the university’s strategic direction in ethics. The University of Huddersfield has promoted three academics to the position of professor. Philip Thomas, Pete Sanderson and Kevin Orr have been made professors of performance, education and social justice, and work and learning, respectively.

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