Women of spirit
Meet Woman of Spirit – Alice Tai MBE
03 March 2022
From enduring 14 major surgeries as a child to becoming a Paralympic, World, European, and Commonwealth swimming champion by the age of 22. Our Woman of Spirit knows a thing or two about exceeding expectations. This month, we’re joined by Alice Tai MBE, who talks to us about determination and the importance of sport in the disabled community.
Throughout 2021, we’re celebrating women who are working to make a real difference in the world: the leaders, the freethinkers and the voices for change that inspire us every day at Radley London. Not only does Alice balance being a neuroscience student and musician, but also continues to demonstrate how her disability doesn’t hold her back - showing how strength and ambition has made her a world class athlete.
Tell us about your swimming career so far.
“I was selected for my first international competition when I was 13. Since then, I’ve collected a total of 22 major international medals - including golds from the Paralympics, World Championships, European Championships and Commonwealth Games. I hold multiple World, European and British records.”
We were sorry to hear that you had to withdraw from this year’s games. What did it mean to you to be part of Paralympics GB in Rio in 2016?
“One of the best parts of representing Paralympics GB is the impact I’ve been able to have on others. I love seeing how many people feel inspired after watching us compete and it’s incredible to have a direct influence on promoting different sports and their Paralympic adaptions; knowing that I’ve inspired someone to get into the pool and follow their dreams is such a humbling feeling for me.”
How has your disability impacted your life?
“I was born with severe bilateral talipes (club feet), enduring 14 major operations throughout my childhood due to continuous relapses. A lot of my years in primary school were spent in and out of hospital and the only sport that I could do without having to walk was swimming. I was raised as though I had no impairment, which helped me build resilience in difficult situations until I’d eventually find my own way of doing things.
“Despite my disability impacting my mobility (I use crutches), it has also opened up so many doors in my life. The people I’ve met teach me things every day. I’ve been able to travel through sport and I’m so stubborn that I’ll always find a solution. I don’t think I’d be the same person I am today if it weren’t for my disability.”
“Knowing that I’ve inspired someone to get into the pool and follow their dreams is such a humbling feeling.”
Why is access to sport so important for the disabled community?
“Access to sport is especially important in the disabled community. As well as providing a way to exercise and promoting a healthy lifestyle, the social benefits are also huge. Instead of feeling alone and like no one truly understands what having a disability feels like, a disabled community coming together through sport brings a sense of family and belonging.”
What are you are most proud of?
“Sport is hard. There have been moments where I’ve left poolside and never wanted to return. I’ve cried myself to sleep out of pure exhaustion, knowing that my alarm will go off at 4am for another day. I’m 22 now and reflecting on some of the situations I’ve been in up to this point, I think I’m just proud that I’ve continued to pursue the things I enjoy. It’s not been easy, but I’ve found a good life/swimming/uni balance and I’m optimistic about the future.”
What did it mean to you to be awarded an MBE in 2016?
“I still look back on this in absolute awe, it really seems like it was a whole separate lifetime. Swimming has been a part of my life since I was young, so although I’m now a professional, I still view it as a hobby to an extent. It was surreal to receive an MBE.”
You were also The Sunday Times’ Disability Sportswoman of the Year 2019 – where were you when you found out and how did it feel?
“I only found out on the night of the ceremony! It was a lovely evening and the other nominees were all ex-swimmers who had transferred into other sports, so it became a bit of a reunion. British female success across para-sports is so incredible and I’m proud to just be considered a part of this, so to have been awarded The Sunday Times’ Disability Sportswoman of the Year 2019 will always be something I look back on with pride.”
Why did you choose to study neuroscience and how would you like to use your degree in the future?
“As much as I love sport, I know it’s unrealistic to think that I’ll be doing it all my life. I was actually at uni studying music before deciding to transfer to neuroscience. When I was younger, I was interested in becoming a neurosurgeon, so I think my interest in neuroscience was always there. The question of what I’ll do with my degree is a difficult one for me. Despite my continued interest in neurosurgery, I struggle to envision myself in a surgical role. I do find the body fascinating, so I might continue my studies and just see where it takes me.”
“I don’t think being a Woman of Spirit is a measure of success or achievement, but the way which we can use our experiences to positively impact whoever we can.”
Before withdrawing from the games, were you facing any new challenges with training? And how did you overcome them?
“Lockdown was a massive challenge as a swimmer, but I was lucky enough to have access to the sea where I swam with my brother and another Paralympic swimmer. I started using the rowing machine and doing evening circuits with my family, which were always tough.
“I know a lot of athletes were really thrown off with the postponement of the games, but I was almost quite happy to have more time to focus on my studies. I like to take the ‘eggs and baskets’ metaphor and say that I have too many baskets and not enough eggs. Swimming is just one ‘basket’ for me, so when it’s removed, I have other things I can do to keep myself busy.”
We can’t imagine you have much spare time, but how do you like to spend the time you do have?
“I play a few instruments but mainly I play guitar and I’m in a band called ‘Blush!’. We’ve got some original stuff coming out soon and I’m really proud of what we’ve done. Along with uni work and lectures, I enjoy reading textbooks. It sounds boring but I’m a massive nerd at heart and I love learning.”
“I was raised as though I had no impairment, which helped me build resilience in difficult situations until I’d eventually find my own way of doing things.”
How do you stay so motivated?
“I have good days and bad days just like everyone else. I’ve found that the key for me is understanding when I need to take some time for myself and slow down a bit. Trying to juggle so much at once can get too overwhelming and I think that applies to life in general, no matter the circumstances. If swimming has taught me anything about goal setting it’s that the smaller steps to achieve the final goal hold the most value. They allow for progress to be tracked and are also good pick me ups along the way when the goal seems unrealistic. It’s nice to be able to look back and see everything you have already achieved instead of getting overwhelmed by the feeling that something is too out of reach.”
How would you define a Woman of Spirit?
“For me, passion and spirit are closely linked. Every woman is different with varying experiences, skills and interests. When she is able to express her passions openly then I feel like this is the spirit. I don’t think being a Woman of Spirit is a measure of success or achievement, but the way which we can use our experiences to positively impact whoever we can.”
Which Women of Spirit have inspired you most in your life?
“It’s a bit of a cheesy answer but I feel like nearly every woman I’ve met has inspired me or at least had a significant influence on my life. From my family to teachers and friends to fans, they all bring a different aspect into my life. My best friends and band members, Mia and Yasmin, inspire me to continue playing and writing music, whilst young fans who I meet at competitions inspire me to continue training.”
“I don’t think I’d be the same person I am today if it weren’t for my disability.”
Thank you, Alice for sharing your experiences. We’re so glad you had the time to talk to us in between swimming, commentating, playing guitar and university! We're certainly feeling inspired.
Catch up on some of our past Women of Spirit, including disability advocates and fashion bloggers Hermon and Heroda Berhane. And co-founder of UK Black Pride Lady Phyll who joined us to celebrate Pride Month. Or visit The Blog to keep up to date with everything at Radley London HQ.