DCSIMG

Crossing the finish line

STARING at the track along which she was about to race, Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson tried to psych herself up for the event ahead. It was the 800-metre final at the 2005 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and the adrenaline was surging through her body. But, as the athletes lined up and a hush fell over the stadium, something about it didn't feel right. For the first time in her life, Britain's Paralympic heroine realised that she didn't really want to be there.

"I was thinking, 'This is nice,' but that edge of excitement and hunger just wasn't there," recalls Grey-Thompson, who was born with spina bifida and has used a wheelchair to get around in since the age of seven. "I had the same feeling at the World Championships in September that year: I just wasn't up for it. Everyone told me that when it was time to stop, I'd know. So when I came back home again and was out training with my husband [Ian Thompson, who is also her coach], I just said, 'That's it, I'm done.'"

And so, on 28 February, came the official announcement of Tanni Grey-Thompson's retirement. Those who knew her had assumed that success at the 2008 Beijing Olympics would be the next important step for the 37-year-old athlete, so the news that Britain was to lose one of its most popular and accomplished sportswomen was met with both shock and sadness. But her mind was made up.

A month later, and with the dust now settling, there remains the question of what she might do next. Having spent the past 20 years of her life training twice a day, six days a week, 350 days a year, will she be able to cope with the change to her routine? Will the woman who has been almost evangelical in her quest to get disabled athletes the respect and recognition they deserve be able to leave it all behind?

The answer is an emphatic, unhesitant "yes". "I know my last race will be hard and I have booked myself in for some sessions with my sports psychologist," she says of her final fixture in May, at the Paralympic World Cup in Manchester. "I mean, at the moment I'm like 'seven weeks to go - yay!' but I know, come the day, it will be very emotional.

"It'll be a bit like stepping into the abyss, but I'm not worried about how I'll feel afterwards. You have a finite career as an athlete - you can't train at this level for ever because it hurts your body too much, and you get too old for it - you get to the point where you just can't do it any more. I've always been quite realistic about the end-point and the fact that I am retiring not only at a stage where I have achieved my goals, but when I am ready to stop, and not injured, so it will make the transition easier.

"There are only so many times you can compete in front of a crowd of 110,000 people and not feel the pressure and strain. My emotions are frazzled now, and I really don't think I'll miss it or what it does to my body and mind."

From such an accomplished athlete this positive mental attitude is only to be expected but, on meeting her, it becomes clear this is not just tough talk and sportsmanlike bravado. Tanned from her recent stint of warm-weather training in Florida, and with glossy bobbed hair, Grey-Thompson looks remarkably relaxed and happy. Dressed in a colourful striped polo-neck and skinny jeans tucked into knee-high boots, she looks more than prepared to embrace a future in which tracksuits do not feature.

After all, it's not as if she's about to sit at home in Redcar, on the North Yorkshire coast, and spend the rest of her days polishing her medals (she has 16 Paralympic medals alone, 11 of which are gold). In fact, in between training young disabled athletes, sitting on the 2012 Athletes' Advisory Group (which played a crucial part in helping London 2012 win the right to host the Games and which continues to advise the London Organising Committee), as well as her regular motivational speaking appearances and the occasional TV presenting stint, her commitments are already so numerous that there will be scant time to sit and reflect upon the glory days.

It would be foolish to expect anything less than a diverse schedule ahead for this woman, who - since the age of 15, when she began wheelchair racing and had to share a wheelchair, train on a grass track and change her clothes in a multi-storey car park - has succeeded in proving that disabled athletics is no poor relation to "real athletics". The same determined and driven woman who, when she was told to "have fun" as she went off for her second gruelling training session of the day, or was asked whether she actually trained at all, rather than provoke sympathy or moan about being taken seriously, bit her tongue and simply trained longer and harder.

"It was never my mission to change attitudes but, as I progressed and got more involved in the sport, I became determined never to be treated like some poor little cripple who 'had a go'," she says. "Although having a good rant about it would have made me feel a lot better at times, I didn't want to come across as a bitter and twisted wheelchair user, because that wouldn't have helped anyone. I thought that being forceful but dignified in my opinions was how I would get people to take notice and listen - because [success is] not just about how you perform on the track, it's about how you present yourself off it as well."

She was right. Winning her first Paralympic medal (the 400m bronze) at Seoul in 1988, Tanni went on to compete in another four Olympic Games, breaking more than 30 world records and proving herself as both a talented track athlete (excelling at the 100, 200, 400 and 800 metres) and long-distance racer (she won the London Marathon wheelchair race six times between 1997 and 2002).

In this sense, her success is unparalleled, and it is combined with a forthright approach and a friendliness which have won her the affection and attention (from both politicians and the press) that she needed both for her career and for her crusade. She quickly became the face associated with a new era in disabled athletics: her own achievements helped her transcend the divide between able-bodied and disabled athletics and, at the same, time bring her sport into the limelight, making it more mainstream than marginal.

Although a lot has changed for the better during her amazing career, there's still much work to be done, and in this respect Grey-Thompson will never properly retire. She is only too aware that if disabled athletics is to maintain the level of popularity it has attained in recent years, more must be done to recruit athletes like herself. And, if disabled people are to achieve equality both on and off the track, more is needed to raise awareness, particularly among children.

For this reason she has become involved in various specialised projects, about which she speaks with great passion. One is a new a charity called the Grace foundation, which raises money for developmental sport, of which she is a trustee.

"We're starting with wheelchair racing because that's what I know," she says. "It's real grassroots stuff: going round - first in the Doncaster area - helping young disabled people get into sport by going into schools and sports clubs. What we want to do is build up a participation base. You can sit and write talent-identification programmes until you are blue in the face, but what's the point in knowing what key skills top athletes need if you don't have any talent coming through?"

The second project, designing clothes for a small company called Racketys, is a real departure from what Grey-Thompson knows, but it's a challenge that she is relishing. Promoting a range of clothing designed for children with special needs, it is, says Grey-Thompson, "all about putting poppers and buttons in different places - coats that do up at the back, for children who need strapping into a wheelchair, for example.

"Everything that's on the market at the moment is very practical, but we wanted to make it fun, too - tops with matching blankets (for children who have poor circulation and need an extra layer of warmth) that are pink and sparkly which the girls will love. They're really nice!"

There's also talk of an adult range, which would sell specially cut jeans that do not sit too low at the back - an essential detail for people who are in a wheelchair for most of the day. "Just because you are disabled, or have a disabled child, it doesn't mean you have no fashion sense and it doesn't mean that you are prepared to look dowdy, which is why this project is so important for me," she says. There's also a range of slogan T-shirts, which has given the cheeky side of her - the part that wanted to stick her tongue out at people who stared at her in the supermarket as a child, and who would want to talk back to those who asked "do you train?" - the chance to speak out.

"The T-shirt slogans say things like, 'If you stare long enough I'll do a trick,'" she explains, laughing. "It's really great, because if you have a child with a particularly severe impairment people do stare. I know it's mainly out of curiosity, but it's still not nice for the child in question - so this is one up for them!"

Another big reason behind the decision to retire is her five-year-old daughter, Carys (who, for the record thinks "Athletics is booooooring" because Mummy just goes round in circles), on whom she clearly dotes. Determined "not to be an absent mother", Grey-Thompson is looking forward to being at home more and enjoying simple family pleasures, such as trips to the seaside, where she can indulge her love of fish and chips.

"I never thought it would, but it does change your life when you have a child, and if I wasn't prepared to change for her then I shouldn't have had her," she says in her matter-of-fact manner. "But I wouldn't be a happy or a good mummy if I only stayed at home, so I will carry on trying to get involved in projects which seek to increase awareness and acceptance of disabled people - just like I tried to do with athletics."

ON THE FAST TRACK

RANDY SNOW

The first Paralympian to be inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame in 2004, Snow - who was paralysed in a farming accident as a teenager and has used a wheelchair ever since - won Paralympic medals for racing, tennis and basketball, before retiring in 2000. The induction was seen both as a personal accolade and as a validation of wheelchair athletics.

ANNEMIE SCHNEIDER

An above-the-knee amputee, this German Alpine skier had a highly successful career which saw her win gold medals for Giant Slalom and Slalom at Geilo in 1980. Now retired, she teaches skiing to child amputees, and recently became the first woman to be inducted into the Paralympic Hall of Fame.

LOUISE SAUVAGE

Born with a severe spinal disability called myelodysplasia, Sauvage is one of Australia's most successful Paralympians. She first competed at the age of 18, in the Barcelona Paralympic Games, where she won three golds and one silver medal. She has gone on to win a total of nine Paralympic gold medals so far, dominating the world of 800 metres, 1,500m and 5,000m wheelchair racing for more than a decade.

CHRIS HALLAM

Named as an inspiration to Tanni Grey-Thompson when she was growing up, fellow Welsh athlete Hallam won medals for swimming and wheelchair racing at three successive Paralympic Games - Seoul, Barcelona and Atlanta - and also won the London Marathon twice before he finally retired. He is one of Britain's most successful disabled athletes.

JOUKO GRIP

Another inductee in the Paralympic Hall of Fame, Grip - whose left hand was affected by polio - is a seven-time Nordic skiing Paralympian, who won 14 medals in a career spanning more than two decades. He got three golds for Finland at the Innsbruck Winter Olympics in 1984 (middle-distance, long-distance and relay), making his name synonymous with the sport.

SIMON JACKSON, MBE

Unbeaten in more than 150 senior fights, Simon Jackson - who is partially sighted - is the only Briton to have won Paralympic gold in judo. He has dominated the judo scene, both at home in Great Britain and abroad, for the past 15 years.

MAGGI MCELENY

One of Scotland's most successful swimming stars, McEleny was flag-bearer for the opening ceremony of the Sydney Paralympics in 2000. A paraplegic who has triumphed over her own ill-health, she won more medals than any other British swimmer at Atlanta in 1996.

ONES TO WATCH:

SHELLY WOODS

The fact that she beat Grey-Thompson's record in the Great North Run half-marathon last year (with a time of 50:07) made everyone take notice of this 20-year-old elite wheelchair athlete.

She also took second place in the 2005 London Marathon and is expected to bring back medals for Great Britain from Beijing in 2008.

OSCAR PISTORIUS

Dubbed "the fastest man on no legs", Pistorius, left, is the current South African world-record holder for the 400m. The 20-year-old, who runs on carbon-fibre "blades", won gold at Athens in the 200m, bronze for the 100m, and is now fighting to represent his country both at the Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing next year.

JESSICA LONG

Born in Siberia and adopted from a Russian orphanage at 13 months, Long is now one of America's best Paralympic swimmers.

Last year, at the tender age of 14, she set five world records, winning nine gold medals at the 2006 International Paralympic Committee Swimming World Championships in South Africa, for races ranging from the freestyle relay (world record) to the 100m backstroke and 100m fly.

 
 
 

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