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An interview with Anne Dickins

An interview with Anne Dickins

25 May 2017

Anne Dickins MBE, a guest speaker at Inspiring Leadership, talks with Education Development Trust.

Anne Usher (née Dickins) is an inspiration – and so it is fitting that she is poised to speak at this year's Inspiring Leadership conference in Birmingham next month. A three times European champion, two times world champion paracanoeist and a Rio 2016 gold-medal-winning Paralympian, she also juggles being a mum and has her own business as a physiotherapist.

Her Rio feat is even more remarkable when you consider that, now 50, the first time she ever sat in a boat was in 2012. This took place a year after an injury stopped her competing as an able-bodied ultra-endurance mountain biker, which in turn she only took up aged 36 to get fit as a young mum.

Education Development Trust was delighted to ask her about her story.

Tell us about when you first got into mountain biking?

I first started mountain biking when I was 36. I bought myself a bike and taught myself how to ride off-road because I wanted to explore the woods near to my home. A friend who I met through my mountain biking invited me to a 24-hour bike race as a spectator and I was instantly captivated and wanted to see if I could do a 24-hour mountain bike race. I had only ridden my bike for a couple of hours at most so this was a big goal. But I trained and trained and after 2 years I completed my first 24-hour race. I became reasonably successful – not because I was particularly fast, but because I just kept going!

Your mountain biking competitions were cut short by an injury. What happened and what motivated you to get back into sport, following this?

After qualifying for the world championships in 2010 where I came fourth, I was motivated to see if I could (with a bit more training) get onto the podium. Unfortunately, I never got to compete again because in 2011 I injured my back while putting on a shoe causing permanent nerve damage in my leg. I was in a very dark place after this because for me, my life had changed and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get my old life back. I felt like a professional failure too, because as a physio I couldn't make myself better. I thought I could never do sport again. In order to still be involved with sport (and to hopefully make myself feel better) I started volunteering as a physio in sport. This was brilliant because I realised I could still get a buzz from sport without participating myself and it pulled me into a much better place mentally.

What drew you to paracanoeing and how did you make the transition into a new sport?

I was volunteering at the Olympics in London 2012 when I struck up a random conversation with a fellow volunteer. He turned out to be a GB paracanoe coach. When he found out about my weak leg he suggested that I should try paracanoeing. The first time I sat in a boat was in 2012 and although I was a complete beginner, it felt amazing. I suddenly regained the sense of freedom I had loved and then lost while riding my bike. In a boat, I wasn't restricted by my weak leg any more. The transition to paracanoe was challenging because the goal I set myself was to paddle for Great Britain at the Rio Paralympics in the 200m flat water sprint. I was used to being a leg-dominant endurance athlete and suddenly I was having to use my weedy cyclist arms and torso in a power sport.

What was it like training for the Paralympics? How do you manage to combine training with family life and running a business?

Training for the Paralympics took a lot of focus and hard work. It took over every aspect of my life, from how much I slept, to what I ate when I was socialising with friends (although the latter wasn’t very often). Trying to fit everything into an already full schedule was a big challenge and I had to be quite ruthless with how I spent my time. I outsourced all the jobs I didn't need to do personally like cleaning, cooking and ironing. This freed up some time so I could spend time with my children while still being able to train.

Was there anyone or anything that most inspired you in your drive for Paralympic gold?

I was inspired by Helen Glover who went from being a non-rower to become a gold medalist at London 2012. I saw that it was possible to do this. This message was very powerful for me because If you see someone else achieving something it becomes much easier to imagine yourself doing the same.

Have you had moments of doubt and how did you overcome them?

I had many doubts! My training over the last four years hasn't been straightforward at all and my 'improvement curve' has been anything but linear. There were a few times when it seemed too hard and I thought about giving up. However, I kept reminding myself of my goal and why I was doing this. I wanted to have a good ending to my story, which would inspire others in dark places to believe that change is always possible and unlikely dreams can come true.

If you could go back in time and give yourself three pieces of advice after your injury what would that have been?

  • I would have reminded myself to be patient and stay optimistic as a positive mindset is the one which is open and receptive to new opportunities.
  • I would have told myself that if you spend a long time trying to do something and it's not working, change! Step back, think about it differently and try again.
  • I would have reminded myself on a daily basis to concentrate on what I could do rather than focus on what I couldn't do.


Anne Dickins features as a guest on Sir Michael Barber’s keynote panel at Inspiring Leadership together with other special guests including former English football manager Roy Hodgson, performance director at the Lawn Tennis Association Simon Timson and Carolyn Roberts, headteacher at the Thomas Tallis School and ASCL Honorary Secretary and chair of the Ethical Leadership Commission.

To secure one of the final delegate places and for more information on all of the speakers and the conference programme, visit the conference website: (opens in a new window)


Anne Dickins MBE