Tara won medals at the 1984 New York, 1988 Seoul and 1992 Barcelona Paralympic Games and competed in numerous UK, European and world swimming events.

Team GB at the New York Games 1984

Tara Flood (second right) at the New York Games 1984.

Image courtesy of Tara Flood.

Tara recalls competing in the 1984 New York and 1988 Seoul Games

Extract from the interview where Tara remembers her time competing in New York in 1984 and Seoul in 1988

“So I left school in 1983 and because I ‘d been competing at Nationals it doesn’t feel quite so weird that I jumped straight from school into an international competition because I was swimming all the time – even at school I was swimming at every opportunity I could; always at weekends and certainly one or twice a week. And then when I returned home I connected into the British Les Autres Sports Association and then I can’t remember what month the 1984 games were [I think it was July] Yes, I remember it being very hot in New York anyway. As I said before, there was all that controversy about Los Angeles refusing to host the Paralympics and then that strange split between Stoke Mandeville for wheelchair-using athletes and everybody else it seems, from memory.

So you can imagine, what was I, just seventeen, thrown into international competition but, more importantly, meeting disabled people from everywhere in the world. Not as huge as the Paralympics are now, but at the time it felt massive, absolutely massive.

Because it feels like such a long time ago I don’t remember a huge amount about the competition – probably tells you more about me – I do remember more about the social life than anything! I think probably because still in 1984 swimming even at international level, didn’t feel the same level of professionalism maybe elitism as it was only four years later in Seoul and then much more so in Barcelona. In many ways we swam in New York and competed in New York (and I think I got a bronze medal) but it felt for me as a very, very young 17 year-old much more than that.

You competed at New York in 1984; and then did you go to Seoul?

I did as Les Autres again; the competition hadn’t combined even at that point.

On a personal level that’s going almost to the other side of the world and just experiencing something...It was very different from New York in terms of size, in terms of spectacle, it felt like where things were really starting to take shape in terms of it being a global elite sporting event – not in terms of looking back from Barcelona but in terms of comparing it with New York.

I remember one of the real differences between New York and Seoul were the fact that the Korean government, local authorities or whatever they’re called in South Korea, just packed the stadiums to the rafters: weirdly lots of churches, lots of school kids though which we all loved; and it was all very uniform and I don’t know if it was groups within schools or schools themselves (we were never able to make connections with the crowds in terms of meeting or talking) but they were all assigned a particular country to support. But you know in New York the stadiums (well, stadiums, the arenas) were full of people who had travelled with the team, family, friends and maybe a few curious locals – what’s that expression, one man and his dog. It felt like that for New York; I don’t remember feeling bad about that or upset about that because I was so blown away by the opportunity to compete on an international stage (you become slightly less enamoured of that four years on after you’ve done other European events). Even now when I get together with other retired Paralympians we always laugh about that [at Seoul], because you couldn’t move for spectators and they were there and – well who knows, they seemed to be enjoying it - but what we really loved was the fact that there was noise and cheering and that felt new and good. But it was still the case that it had very little public profile.

I also remember a funny thing about Seoul at the time I was vegetarian and I just remember the really terrible food there – very meaty – and the only thing someone suggested I could eat was boiled rice and Kimchi, basically aged, spiced cabbage. It’s cabbage that is sort of spiced and then put into the ground for months. My palate at the time found it absolutely disgusting. So in the end I was living on a diet, probably for not far off a fortnight, when I ate what I could get for breakfast and then for the rest of the time boiled rice and Thousand Island dressing – which is not really conducive as a sports diet. I look back on it and laugh, but at the time I remember just being so horrified that no other arrangement could be made – but I’m sure I probably had more to eat than I remember.

Tara describes what it was like to compete in the 1992 Barcelona Games

Tara reflects on a changing attitude to Paralympic sport at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

 “In the lead up to Barcelona the BPA were very keen to do some heavy promotion of some athletes and I was one of those athletes. I don’t know if you know but in the lead-up to Barcelona there was a Challenge Anneka programme – the challenge was to create an “infomercial” (film we’d call it now, I think!) about the Paralympics – well about the British Paralympic team – so we were in that , a group of swimmers, track athletes and some other sports.

I’ve got a copy of it buried somewhere; it’s about three minutes and it’s all very heart-wrenching; the sound over it is from the Messiah or something. It’s all very kind-of inspiring and you know, (for me it was probably more about ego; I was really chuffed to see my face in it, it was all quite exciting).

I suppose what that told me at the time was that there was a shift in terms not only of the British Paralympic Association getting itself sorted in terms of the media machine but that actually there was the beginning of some media interest in the Paralympics.

Yes some, small and heavily, heavily “triumph-over-tragedy” stories, impairment-specific ... not really about the sport at all but about the individuals and what we had somehow “triumphed” over to get into the pool or get onto the track. In the lead up, much closer to the games there were a series of films made, I think it was five or six of us - I was one of the athletes, Tanni Grey-Thompson (Tanni Grey as she was at the time)and a couple [of others] - we were followed in the lead up in terms of our preparation for the games. I think the idea was a very embryonic version of what they have now in terms of the Paralympic ambassadors – a small group of Paralympic athletes who are seen as the faces of Paralympic sport.

In terms of the games there was a fundamental shift, not just in terms of audiences; we’d been to Barcelona the year before for a European swimming event, so we’d swum in the pool prior to the games – and there’s something nice about that; it doesn’t feel quite so mind-blowing.

What I think we all noticed and certainly what I remember when I think back is the shift in the professionalism of the whole structure, so not just in us as athletes, but in the way the games actually functioned, the coaching, the classifiers, just the way that the whole games had been organised, loads and loads of people knowing what they were doing, clearly well-trained, everything ran very, very well (not always perfect), a very high profile, in terms of Spain, opening ceremony and closing ceremony, in a packed arena. And it really felt for the first time there was starting to be an equity with the Olympic Games approach to organising, and we all noticed that.

It was tricky for me because, going into [19]92, I knew that the way I was feeling as a person and how I was beginning to see the world, I could feel that shifting. And I began in the lead-up to the games, probably in the 12 months, 6 months before, began to feel that I was wanting to challenge the way the BPA and the UK disability sports structure was functioning. It was always, but I became much more conscious of it, about disabled people competing in sport and this huge swathe of non-disabled “experts”, “professionals”, I think I described them in some terms as “do-gooders”, but lots of people who wanted control of us and who wanted the glory it felt, in many ways off the back of our achievements. That probably sounds bitter, I don’t mean it to sound bitter, but it’s really how things for me started to feel. I didn’t feel, I couldn’t see, disabled people who had been competing and [were] maybe now retired, coming through the ranks in terms of leadership roles; and I couldn’t understand why that was because there were so many people who could have taken on those many, many roles and yet we weren’t represented at anything other than athlete level. And I think that’s something that I found increasingly difficult to swallow, and I had a couple of articles published very close to the games where I said this. You know how it is when your realisation or your thinking about the world starts to shift, there is a disconnect between the new way you think about things and what comes out of your mouth? So I was kind of verbalising all this stuff without doing a huge amount of thinking about the impact of what I was saying, but I realised very quickly what the impact was when I was starting to get some very….. It was becoming quite difficult in terms of how the staffing structure around the swimming, I could sense a shift in their attitude and behaviour towards me; I could sense that they were beginning to see me as “difficult” and challenging and not easy to control, I suppose – and on one level I really enjoyed that, but on another it did start to for me confuse my concentration in terms of getting the job done, i.e. getting my training in and really thinking and envisioning what I wanted to achieve. I mean, I knew what I wanted to achieve, I wanted to achieve gold medal in 50 metre breast stroke – that was it, anything else would be a bonus – and I did achieve that but that was with quite a lot of hard work in terms of me and my emotions and parking the beginnings of the disaffection for the time that it took to get to the end of the pool, I guess.

But what we all loved was the recognition; having loads of people in Seoul was great, but what it felt like in Barcelona was the recognition of the sporting achievement – and that was different. That was different and that was fantastic. I remember at the time being interviewed after winning the gold, oh, you know, “What do you think people are going to say back in the UK?” And this sounds a bit bitter but it was how I felt at the time and in many ways similar now, is that I remember saying “But no one knows that we are here”! I knew that my family and friends and work-colleagues would love it and would be really chuffed in terms of the achievement. But in terms of society, the general public in the UK, I knew that the vast majority had no idea it was going on or what it had taken to get there or that this was about sport rather than triumph-over-tragedy. I do think it’s different now, but I guess this is about evolution. I imagine that people who competed in 1960 in Rome saw what happened in Barcelona and thought, “Wow! How different it is in 92 compared to how it was.” And that’s just how it goes; I mean that’s the evolution in terms of how disabled people are perceived and how we perceive ourselves and how the identity and confidence of the disability community has shifted to a better pace. You somehow have to know that that’s how it was then and at the time it was great and I couldn’t have personally done any better. But twenty years on which is where we are now in 2012 again things have shifted hugely.”

Download a pdf of Tara's full interview here

Read Tara's interview about sports classification here