Gwen Buck BEM was a successful British Paralympic athlete whose interest in sport began as part of her rehabilitation journey at the National Spinal Injuries Centre. She won gold, silver and bronze medals in table tennis, lawn bowls as well as swimming and competed in a number of athletics events across four Paralympic Games.

Early life

Gwen was born in Richmond, Surrey, in 1929 and grew up to be a bright and active girl. Aged 14 with an ambition to dance, she was involved in a life-changing traffic accident. Going over a level crossing on her bicycle in 1943 she was hit by a lorry and the accident left her with a broken back and a severed spine.

She remained in St. Peters Hospital in Chertsey for several years wrapped in a full body cast until she was transferred to the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1946. There she met Dr Ludwig Guttmann who helped her become independent as a wheelchair user and introduced wheelchair sport into her life. She soon developed a passion for competitive sport, in particular table tennis and not long after that she began competing in the Stoke Mandeville Games.

Having become an independent wheelchair user, Gwen moved to Worcester to attend college and train as a drawing office tracer. After completing her training, she returned to Richmond where she found employment with the Ministry of Works. There she met future husband and fellow wheelchair user John whom she married in 1951. 

Life as a Paralympic athlete

Gwen fell in love with competitive wheelchair sport during her time at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. She had competed at the Stoke Mandeville Games and by the early 1960s she was representing Great Britain at the Commonwealth Games as well as the Paralympic Games.

At the 1964 Games in Tokyo, Gwen competed alongside Susan Cunliffe-Lister, Countess of Swindon, in the Women’s Doubles B Table Tennis event in which they won the gold medal. Four years later, at the Paralympic Games in Tel Aviv, 1968, she branched out into a variety of other sports including lawn bowls, swimming and the athletics disciplines discus, javelin and shot put. She won gold in the women’s pairs and singles lawn bowls as well as the 25m backstroke swim. She also received the silver medal for the Women’s Doubles Table Tennis B event.

She was awarded her final Paralympic gold medal in Heidelberg in 1972 where she won the women’s pairs lawn bowls. There she also received a bronze medal in the Women’s Singles Table Tennis. During her final Paralympic event in Toronto, 1976, she received a silver medal for the Team’s Table Tennis as well as two bronze medals for lawn bowls. After this final event, Gwen retired from her successful career in competitive sport.

Gwen and John Buck at their works office being congratulated on their sporting achievements, 1962.

Retirement as a Paralympic athlete

During her sporting career, Gwen was always keen to encourage young people to participate in wheelchair sport. She also contributed to the design of the Stoke Mandeville Stadium.

Her work within sports as well as her sporting successes were recognised widely and subsequently, Gwen was awarded the British Empire medal in the early 1970s. She was also named Sportswoman of the Year by the Sports Writers Guild.

Gwen and her husband John retired to Stoke Mandeville. John died in 1981 and Gwen died on 13 February 2005 aged 75.

Read more about Gwen and John Buck and their collection here.