Anne Dunham will turn 68 on 24 September, one week after competing in her fifth Paralympic dressage competition. Paralympics GB’s oldest competitor, she was the first British rider to win a team gold at four consecutive Paralympic Games – Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000, Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 – though she missed out on selection for London 2012. In all, she has seven Paralympic medals.
She grew up around horses and was running a yard of 80 horses at weekends at the age of 16. At 27, soon after her daughter Amber was born, she was mistakenly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and has used a wheelchair since the age of 30.
But it was only in 2011 that she was correctly diagnosed with dystonia, a neurological condition that causes uncontrollable, sometimes painful muscle spasms, and affects around 70,000 people in the UK. She also had a quintuple heart bypass operation in 2009.
How do you feel about being the oldest member of GB’s Paralympics team?
“I’m very proud of that. The horses allow me to retain my competitive energy. I’ve always felt empowered when riding, ever since I began at eight years old. They’ve always been a huge part of my life and are great enablers.”
How did you cope with missing out on 2012?
“It was gutting, but you can’t just stop. You have to find a way to move forward. By the time the rest of team were coming back from the 2012 Games, I was back in the swing of it. Far from taking it as my cue to retire, I didn’t want to finish like that and it made me keep going. Now I’ve had another fulfilling four years.”
What are your hopes for Rio?
“Our aim is to retain the team gold because we’ve never been beaten. We’re as well prepared as we can be and we’re all in good form, but I don’t want to jinx anything.
“My horse, LJT Lucas Normark, and I have been a team for five years. Actually we’re a team of three, because my daughter Amber is vital – she cleans him out and presents him.
“The stories about the Zika virus haven’t bothered me in the slightest. There’s far more chance of injury by just tripping over something.”
Why are you in a wheelchair?
“I’d never heard of dystonia, and now I hear about it all the time. In 1975 we didn’t have MRI scans so I was diagnosed by a process of elimination. My day-to-day life is just ordinary to me.
“What’s difficult is getting anywhere fast. You move at one speed, which is the speed of the wheelchair, and you organise your day accordingly. Disability takes time. Even opening a cupboard door takes three times as long, there’s so much moving back and forward.”
Watch Dunham on Monday (team dressage) from 2.00pm, and Thursday (individual) 6.00pm, C4