Legends of Welsh Sport – Tanni Grey-Thompson

Tanni Grey-Thompson remains Wales’s greatest ever Paralympic athlete, with 16 medals to her name. This documentary reveals the incredible grit of a world champion through a single race. But it’s not the race that won Tanni her first gold medal, and it’s not the race in which she broke her first world record. This is the story of the race she lost: a failure so dramatic, so public and so painful that it almost ended her career. Reflecting upon the most excruciating two minutes in her racing life, Tanni shares what she learned that day on the track – not from winning but from losing.
It’s 2004. The Athens Paralympics are about to kick off, and Tanni is at the top of her game: one of the most successful Welsh athletes of all time, but at 35, she knows that this will be her final Paralympics. She’s going to go out with a bang. She’s expected to medal at every event and bring back a handful of golds. Her first race is the 800 metres, her strongest event, and she is expected to win a gold. She performed well in the qualifying rounds, but this is where it really counts: the final. As she warms up, she’s feeling good. Her body is fit, her mind is focused. Tanni often gets a sixth sense before a race – she can see herself crossing the line in first position and taking home the gold. Today, as she wheels onto the track, her mind spools forward to the finish line, and she sees herself… failing. The starting gun fires, and the race is on. She starts off well, but doubt seeps in. Fear takes over. She can’t decide where to place herself – should she move to the front or stay in the pack and wait for a sprint finish? She falters, and in just a few seconds, the decision is taken from her. Suddenly Tanni knows she’s not going to make gold, silver or even bronze. She’s not going to place anywhere. She endures the worst performance of her career.
She seriously considers flying home. But this is her last Paralympics, her last chance, and Tanni Grey-Thompson is not a quitter. The next race is the 100 metres, her weakest event. Sick with nerves, she throws up 12 times. Her throat is raw as she enters the warm-up space and is approached by her rival, Francesca Porcellato. ‘Whatever happens out there, you’re still the best in the world,’ Francesca says. With these words ringing in her ears, Tanni rolls up to the start line, hands trembling, heart pounding. The starting gun fires. Francesca pulls out first. Tanni is behind but gathering pace, and now she draws level, gains momentum and wins the race. The comeback is successful. She didn’t just beat her rivals that day, she conquered her own fear.
For all her incredible successes, the race that has stayed with her most intensely over the years is the 800m. She has never been able to pinpoint what went wrong or why. It was defeat that showed her the depth of her own resilience and made her 100m win all the sweeter. Tanni reflects on what she learned from the lowest point in her career: that defeat can be a gift, kindness is a superpower, and we are all so much more than our mistakes.