Tanni Grey-Thompson lends a hand at her daughter's canoe club.

Tanni Grey-Thompson gets involved

She’s won 16 Paralympic medals and the London Marathon six times, been appointed Dame of the British Empire, and served in Parliament. Oh, and she also moonlights as a canoe club volunteer.

At Join In, we admire people who don’t just stand on the sidelines and talk a good game. We appreciate those who roll their sleeves up and make a difference. Paralympic hero Tanni-Grey Thompson has been doing just this by lending a hand at Lower Wharfe Canoe Club. We caught up with Tanni and fellow volunteer Chris Kevane to get an insight into some of their inspirational work.

The Lower Wharfe Canoe Club is a family orientated club, with a base at Tadcaster Community Swimming Pool and Bishopthorpe on the River Ouse. The club has members of all ages and abilities and teaches canoeing and kayaking all the way up to international level, with its most successful paddlers going on to compete for Team GB.

But what was it that inspired Tanni to consider volunteering in this particular sport? “It’s really hard for participants to take part without people who are willing to join in,” she said. “Someone came and said that the race couldn’t start unless someone volunteered.”

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It’s not glamorous, but Tanni gets stuck into the important work in the control room.

Tanni was born with spina bifida and is a wheelchair user, but she has never been hesitant to immerse herself in areas unknown. When asked how much she knew about the sport before she started volunteering, she was refreshingly honest in her answer.

“Nothing at all – but people are really happy to help teach you and are there if you want to ask questions. I quite liked that I didn’t know anything about the sport and then you feel a sense of achievement when you learn more. With athletics, I have been around for so long; therefore I tend to know the rules without realising what I know.”

Making a splash

Tanni may not be as accomplished in canoeing as she is in athletics, but this has not stopped her from trying her hand at a variety of roles.

“One of the ways I volunteer at races is by working in the control room. You have to collect data from each of the judges on the course and either fill out cards or type it up into a computer. This is so the paddlers can get the results quickly.

It’s really important that lots of people volunteer as it takes quite a few people to run an event. I really enjoy it as I know that we all need to help out.

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I have also sat on the jury of appeal (if a paddler wants to protest the result) and worked in the café. I work away during the week so I’m not often around at the club. I’ve also supervised a couple of coaching sessions, but my daughter would prefer that I didn’t try to coach her.”

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Despite this, Tanni has still had a vital role to play in her daughter Carys’ burgeoning canoeing career. She was quick to emphasise how important it is to have parents and members of the local community volunteering to help at clubs such as the Lower Wharfe.

“It’s really important because the races couldn’t take place without people, but the club needs people too. When paddlers are young, they need quite a lot of help to get in and out of the canoes or carry them… it teaches young people to be independent. From the age of 11 my daughter had to learn to tie her boat on the car as I can’t do it.”

Tanni applies the same mentality to her volunteer work on race days, in which she takes up her position in the control room.

“I tend to volunteer at most races – there are a few where it is not that accessible, but one race I was at this year built me a ramp so that I could get into the control room (sometimes it is a tent!).”

The unsung heroes

Tanni is just one of the many volunteers who are the driving force behind the success of the Lower Wharfe Club. “The coaches are the real unsung heroes,” she said, “along with the parents who come along every time and stand next to (usually very) cold rivers in all weathers.”

One of the volunteers who Tanni has worked closely with is Chris Kevane: “I do a fair bit of work with quite a few of the kids… It’s a very family-orientated club and one of the few clubs in the region that allow kids to join at a young age, which can be highly beneficial.

The club tends to be split into various different disciplines. For some people it may just be about getting into the boats on a sunny day and going for a paddle and a picnic. There is also an active polo section and a slalom section, the latter of which I’m involved in.”

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For Chris, the most important thing about his volunteer work is that canoeing has always been his passion and he remains as keen as ever to pass on his love and knowledge of the sport. “Canoeing has been one of my passions since I was young myself. If a coach is passionate about his work then it rubs off on the kids that they’re working with.”

Although he is involved with various youth groups around the local area, Chris feels there is more progress to be made in regard to linking with the local community.

“It’s definitely something we would like to see a bit more of,” he said. “Surprisingly, not many of our members are actually from the local community. But it’s definitely something we are looking into improving and we’ve recently held events at Tadcaster pool that are aimed at integrating the local community.”

With the relative lack of competitive canoe clubs in the UK, it is clubs like the Lower Wharfe that allow people of all ages to try their hand in the sport while maintaining a community feel. “Half of the competitive paddlers in the country are snapped up by Canoe England↑ through talent identification and are not actually affiliated to any one particular club.” he said.

“This creates a disconnect between the parents and volunteers who run the clubs, and the paddlers, and this in turn means that the clubs suffer. Therefore I think it’s vital to have local clubs to get people competing in the sport when it is not so widely taught at youth level.

I think having Tanni on board will be a big positive in the future. Obviously her daughter Carys competes at a high level and has big ambitions for the future” Chris said. “But I think as such an inspirational figure, just having Tanni around the club and there for all the youngsters to talk to is brilliant.”

Chris’ volunteer work is one of the things he really values in his life. “I’ve got an immense amount of satisfaction out of it. It’s something I’ve liked doing since I was young and I take a lot of gratification in coaching others in the sport I love. The club has a real close-knit family feel to it and hopefully with Tanni’s involvement we can look to expand it.”

– Would you like to lend a hand at a local canoe club? Find one near you.

– Which type of volunteering role suits your personality? Take our quiz to find out. 

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