David Roberts CBE is one of the greatest male Paralympians the UK has ever produced. An eleven-time Paralympic gold medallist, his gold medal tally equals that of Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson and Sarah Storey. He competed at the Sydney 2000, Athens 2004 and Beijing 2004 Paralympic Games.

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I don’t see myself as disabled. I just see myself as me. Cerebral palsy is a tag that comes along with me because that’s what I have. But I’m not a disabled person. I’m as able as any of you guys.

Early life

Born in the Rhondda Valleys, in Pontypridd, on the 25th of May 1980, David was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of eleven and was encouraged to participate in swimming activities as a form of physical therapy. He went to Llwyncrwn Primary School and moved on to Bryn Celynnog Comprehensive School. 

In an interview with Peoples Collection Wales, David touches on his discovery of Cerebral Palsy,

I was told I was clumsy. My parents were told that they were being over protective and I was clumsy. It was only when we saw a consultant from Great Ormond Street who actually said, “No, you’re not clumsy. This is what your disability is and this is how it’s going to affect you for the rest of your life”. Everything that he said on that day at eleven years old was completely spot on. At that point, my feet weren’t turning in, but he said. “As you get older, your feet are going to turn in, and eventually they’ll break themselves”, and they’ve done that twice, so he was right.

He also goes on to talk about how he became a swimmer,

I became a swimmer completely by accident. I was going to physiotherapy and kept getting told that I needed to do something, otherwise – because of my disability – I’d end up in a wheelchair. I used to think that climbing trees was good fun, but apparently it wasn’t. So, my physio told me to go to a disability swimming club in Cardiff. So I went along. I had one lesson and I was better than the person teaching me. So, I joined the club. I won every race I could, and I’ve just carried on swimming ever since. ….. I wasn’t treated any differently by my friends, though. I still climbed trees and played football, rugby, and did everything I normally did. It just meant I used to go and see physiotherapists a lot more frequently and I started swimming more.

David first represented Wales aged 13 with his first major competition for Great Britain being the 1999 European Disabled swimming Championships in Germany, where he won all four of his races.

Life as a Paralympic athlete

Swimming in the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) category S7 SB7 SM7, David’s Paralympic Games debut was at Sydney in 2000, where he won three gold, three silver and one bronze, selected for the Athens 2004 Paralympics he won a further four gold and one silver medals.

At the trials for the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, David broke the 100m freestyle world record. At the Games themselves, his achievements in the pool led to him being selected to carry the flag at the closing ceremony.

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In a November 2008 interview for the BBC, David, who was involved in Anti-Bullying Week, running a disabled swimming club and visiting schools to show his medals, said

I think being a Paralympian is a privilege, and with that comes the need to promote sport and fair play.

Given an opening of ‘I spend most of my time ...’ he replied

In the swimming pool in Swansea. I train nine times a week for four and a half hours a day. I get a bit wrinkly in the water, but with time the wrinkles disappear after a swim. One day, though, they will come and stay!

After the Beijing Games he had several injuries, including a fractured elbow and a severed nerve in his arm, before contracting pneumonia which affected his training in the lead up to the trials for the London 2012 Games.

In April 2012, having missed out on selection by a fraction of a second, David appealed the decision and won, saying, in June 2012    

It was my dream to compete in the Paralympics in Britain, in the home nation of my family and friends, but when I heard I didn't make the team my dream was totally shattered …. Now I feel vindicated in taking the appeal process this far – it's incredible to come away with a decision in my favour after such a difficult last few months. 

Despite winning his appeal, Team GB's selector, John Atkinson still chose not to select David.


Interviewed by the Peoples Collection Wales, David recalls

The most famous person that I’ve met, the person I was most excited about meeting, was Nelson Mandela, and I met him completely by accident. I was eating my dinner in the Olympic food hall in Sydney, minding my own business late at night, and somebody sat down opposite me and I thought, “Okay, that happens”. I didn’t look up, but I noticed that there were two security guards standing next to me and next to him and I thought, “Mmm, I think there’s someone famous in front of me”. I looked up and it was Nelson Mandela and he was eating dinner in the food hall, and we sat and spoke like I’m speaking to you guys. He interviewed me just like you are and it was really good.

My most memorable Olympic experience was carrying the flag in the Closing Ceremony in Beijing. It’s the ultimate honour to be able to carry the flag of not just your team but your nation and it was spectacular. It was a good end to a good Games because obviously I’d equalled Tanni Grey, as well. It was the cherry on the top.

Retirement as a Paralympic athlete

One of the original members of the Dragons Disabled Swimming Club, established 1993, David is now an Assistant Coach for the club and visits schools to promote disabled sports.

As a public speaker, his stories of the struggles he has overcome throughout his career are noted as being truly inspiring and a great motivator to those listening.

He is closely involved with Anti-Bullying Week, admitting that he was bullied as a child because of the way his disability made him walk.

Achievements and awards

Paralympic Games

David was an instant hit when, at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games, his first, he won three gold, three silver and one bronze medals.

Competing at the Athens 2004 Games he added a further four gold medals in the 50m, 100m, 400m and the 4 x 100 metres relay, and silver in the 200-metre individual medley.

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At the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, he was a member of the Great Britain 34 point 100m freestyle relay team, with Graham Edmunds, Robert Welbourn and Matthew Walker which won gold, breaking the world record by seven seconds with a time of 3:51.43 and added three individual gold medals to his collection. Those four golds gave him a total of 11, equalling Tanni Grey-Thompson's number of Paralympic gold medals.

Other sporting events

At the 2001 European Disabled Swimming Championships in Stockholm, Sweden, David won five gold medals including all the S7 50 m, 100 m and 400 m freestyle events.

At the Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games, the first major competition where Elite Athletes with Disabilities (EAD) competed alongside non-disabled athletes, David was the only British disabled swimmer to win a medal, taking the bronze in the men’s multi disability 100m freestyle. 

At the 2002 IPC Swimming World Championships in Mar del Plata, Argentina, he won 3 gold and 1 silver. 

In 2006, the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Australia, saw him take bronze in the multi disability 100 m freestyle and the IPC Swimming World Championships in Durban, South Africa, another 4 gold, 1 silver and 1 bronze

During the first half of 2008, David set new world records for the S7 50 m, 100 m, 200 m and 400 m freestyle events in the space of six weeks. In April, at the British Swimming Championships in Sheffield, he set a world record time of 27.67 for the S7 50 m freestyle, beating his own world record for the S7 100 m freestyle with a time of 1:00.34 and beating New Zealander, Dean Booths’ S7 400m freestyle world record which had stood for eight years, with a time of 4:49.12. At the German Open Championships in May, David set a new world record time of 2:18.86 for the S7 200m. 

Representing Great Britain at the IPC World Swimming Championships in Eindhoven, Netherlands in August 2010, after a period of prolonged injury and illness, he retained his S7 100m freestyle crown and collected a silver and two bronze medals.

Competing for Wales at the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games, David was only able to finish 4th in the S7 100m freestyle but had been up against competitors in a class higher than his own.

Other awards and recognition

David was awarded a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2005 New Year Honours List in recognition of his achievements at the 2000 and 2004 Paralympic Games and successes for Great Britain.

On Friday, 24th of October 2008, David was a guest on the TV sports quiz, Question of Sport, with Matt Dawson as his team captain and cricketer Marcus Trescothick as the third team member.

He was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2009 New Year Honours, receiving his honour from Princess Anne in the ceremony at Buckingham Palace. In his interview with Peoples Collection Wales, David said:

I’ve met probably the most famous lady in the world, the Queen. I’ve been to her house a few times. I’ve been to her garden party. She was no different to my nan. She just lives in a bigger house.

At a ceremony in Cardiff on the 5th of June 2009, David was inducted into the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame and in 2014 he was inducted into the Swim Wales Hall of Fame.

In 2019 he was awarded a Bridgend College Honorary Fellowship, for his outstanding contribution to disabled sport.


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