Chris Holmes MBE is one of Britain’s most successful Paralympic swimmers with 9 gold, 5 silver and 1 bronze medal. A lifelong campaigner for equality and inclusion, Chris was inducted into the IPC Hall of Fame in 2012, and was appointed to the House of Lords in 2013 as Lord Holmes of Richmond.

Early life

Chris Holmes was born on the 15th of October 1971 in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire. When he was 14, Chris went blind almost overnight because of a rare genetic disorder, called Familial Executive Vitreoretinopathy, which meant his retinas did not develop properly as he grew.

Interviewer Paul Dickinson asked - Tell us how you first got started in sport?

I got started in sport, like so many people, through the family. I was lucky enough to have parents who were really interested in sport. My mum taught me to swim when I was two, I joined the local swimming club when I was five, and it developed from there.

His family moved to Kidderminster, Worcestershire, when he was three. He attended the Harry Cheshire Comprehensive School, Kidderminster which he represented in a number of sports, he also had a goal to go to Cambridge University. 

After he lost his sight, his local swimming club were challenged about allowing a blind swimmer to participate in a mainstream club by the authorities who saw ‘him’ as a fire risk. The club was able to demonstrate that the small changes they made benefitted everyone and created an inclusive environment.

Life as a Paralympic athlete

Giving a talk to students from Stourport High School and Sixth Form Centre in 2011, Chris recalled:

When I was 14, I went to bed one night and when I woke up most of my sight had gone. It wasn’t something that was planned or I was prepared for but I could still see three tiny little embers of dreams and they were to finish my A levels, to go to Cambridge University and try and see if I could represent Great Britain at sport. These three little embers brought me through and three months later I was back in the water.

(Paul Dickinson interview) When were you first made aware of Paralympic sport, Paralympic swimming in particular?

I came across that slightly later, when I was fifteen. I became aware of the opportunities, which was because when I grew up, I could see fully till I was fourteen and then I lost my sight overnight, and I had always had a big involvement in sport and then a little bit after that, I discovered that Paralympic sport existed, got involved with the team and was lucky enough, fifteen months after that, to qualify for the junior European championships.

(Paul Dickinson interview) Chris recalls the Seoul 1988 Paralympic Summer Games:

we had a Foreign Office briefing before we went there saying “You know you’ve got to be careful here, there’s no real sense of the disabled person in society in Korea so keep it quite low key when you’re out there.” When we were there, we were treated so, so well. The society was open to us, it was engaging, it was connective and you look at Korean society now and you see inclusion for disabled people in education, in employment, across society. All of which was started from the fact of them hosting the 1988 Paralympic Games – that is a phenomenal legacy.

After Seoul he began training with the Olympic swimmers at the City of Birmingham Swimming Club, where he swam some 80,000 metres (about 50 miles) a week.

With straight A’s at A Level, he achieved his goal of studying Social and Political Sciences at King's College, Cambridge. While he was there he won six gold medals at the Barcelona 1992 Summer Paralympic Games and went on to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in 1998.

Retirement as a Paralympic athlete

Following his retirement from competitive swimming, Chris was a freelance journalist before completing a Post Graduate Diploma in Law (PGDL) in 2001 and the Legal Practice Course in 2002 which saw him move into commercial law, specialising in employment and pensions.

In 2005 Chris joined the Board of UK Sport helping develop the strategy for Britain’s success at the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Summer Paralympics and he was an Ambassador for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic bid.

In August 2009 he was appointed Director of Paralympic Integration for the London 2012 Games. His political skills, strategic knowledge and determination played a significant part in London 2012 being the first Games where all sponsors signed to both the Olympics and Paralympics. All events were a sell out and reached hundreds of millions worldwide through television coverage. His drive for inclusion throughout the process can be seen in this example:

When we put the fleet contract out to tender, one element, one question – don’t just tell us how you will make the fleet accessible for disabled passengers, tell us how you can make it accessible and inclusive for our disabled Games Makers and enable them to be drivers. Simple, straightforward, but never been done before.

The International Paralympic Committee President, called them “the greatest Paralympic Games ever”.

In August 2013 Chris had been told to expect a call from the Government which he assumed would be related to the London 2012 legacy, but:

When the phone rang at 7:52pm, and it was the (then) prime minister, David Cameron, surprised would be an understatement. I had worked with him and the cabinet during the 2012 Games but wasn’t expecting him to call. He asked If I would join his team in the House of Lords. I was blown away – but had no difficulty in answering immediately.

Three months later Chris entered the House of Lords as Lord Holmes of Richmond in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames.

As a Peer, Chris continues to campaign for improved accessibility for the disabled and has been a member of several House of Lords Select Committees including Digital Skills and Social Mobility as well as co-chair of several All-Party Parliamentary Groups including Assistive Technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

From 2013 to 2017 he was non-Executive Director at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, where he headed the Disability Committee which was responsible for diversity and inclusion programmes covering areas from sport to broadcasting and establishing accessibility and inclusion principles. 

Between 2017 and 2021 he was Chair of a London 2012 legacy organisation, the Global Disability Innovation Hub, a disability innovation research centre bringing together disabled people, technology, academics, innovators, corporate organisations and the local community.

I am absolutely delighted to Chair the GDI Hub and to be a part of a project with such potential to transform lives. I have personally benefited from assistive technology and believe truly inclusive design not only removes barriers to disabled people but also, essentially, benefits everyone by leading to ground breaking technological solutions or applications and truly excellent design.

After joining the Board of Channel 4 in December 2016 as a Non-Executive Director in 2018 he became Deputy Chairman.

Chris is also a patron of Help for Heroes, the Youth Sport Trust and the British Paralympic Association.

Achievements and awards

Paralympic Games

Chris represented Great Britain at four consecutive Paralympic Summer Games, winning a bronze and two silver at Seoul 1988, six gold and a silver at Barcelona 1992, three gold and a silver at Atlanta 1996 and a silver at Sydney 2000.

Other sporting events

Away from the Paralympics, Chris won World and European titles and across his competitive career broke 35 world records.

Other awards and recognition

At the age of twenty, in 1992, Chris was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the New Year's Honours list, for services to swimming for the disabled.  

In 1996 he won the Sports Aid Foundation (SAF), now known as SportsAid, Paul Zetter Award.

On the 4th of July 2012 Bath University awarded him an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

In 2012 Chris was also awarded The Paralympic Order for his role as Director of Paralympic Integration of the London 2012 Organising Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. This, the highest tribute to a person connected to the Paralympic Movement recognises someone who has exemplified the Paralympic ideals through their actions, made remarkable strides in Paralympic Sport or rendered outstanding services the Paralympic cause. 

In 2017 Chris was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Wolverhampton.

An interview with Chris Holmes

Interview by Paul Dickinson

Chris Holmes swam at four Paralympics, starting at Seoul in 1988 through to Sydney in 2000. In 1992 at Barcelona he pulled off the extraordinary feat of winning six golds; he describes that achievement:

Two points I absolutely remember, touching those Omega time pads, and knowing that I’d won, was such a brilliant feeling

And your first Paralympic Games was 1988, seems a long time ago now. What are your memories of that first Paralympic experience?

My first Paralympic experience in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988 was just sensational. I went there, I was 16 years old. I got my first suit, I thought that was pretty cool. We were all in the GB gear, and going to somewhere so different to Great Britain, it was phenomenal. To be in that village with so many other different nations. To dine with the world in that dining hall in the centre of the village, it was absolutely phenomenal. The facilities were awesome, they put on such a great games. I was lucky enough to come away with two silvers and a bronze medal. At that stage, I didn’t think any Paralympic Games could top what was put on in Seoul.

But your first gold medal was still, if you like, something that you could look forward to in the future, and it took four years to reach that stage. How did your life change once you got that first gold medal?

When I won my first gold medal, it was an absolutely extraordinary experience. I’d trained hard for Barcelona. I’d been training with the Olympic swimmers at the City of Birmingham, under coach Barry Prime. We’d done brilliant training, we were in great shape. I felt confident but you never know what’s going to happen in the race. First race, 200m individual medley. It’s a hard race. Four lengths of the Olympic pool, one of each of the strokes, it’s a sprint and it hurts. Two points I absolutely remember: touching those Omega time pads and knowing that I’d won was just such a brilliant feeling. But even more significantly, about half an hour later, standing on that rostrum, having the gold medal put around your neck, knowing that the Union Jack is flying, and having 10,000 people stand to sing the Great British national anthem – just such an honour to have had that experience.

Download a pdf of Chris's full interview here