Anne Dickins: Rio Paralympics canoeing champion hopes to have inspired others

Dickins (centre) with fellow para-canoeists after the KL3 200m single final at the Rio Paralympics
Dickins (centre) with fellow para-canoeists after the KL3 200m single final at the Rio Paralympics

As Anne Dickins steps away from the world of elite sport after announcing her retirement, aged 50, she is already thinking of those who might follow in her wake.

The mother of two had to cope with big changes in her life after a back injury ended her participation in endurance mountain bike racing.

And, after an incredible few years that have seen her go from never having been in a canoe to winning a gold medal at the Rio Paralympics, she is ready to embrace new challenges and pass on what she has learnt to others.

"The last four years in elite sport couldn't have gone any better and it would be difficult to top the experience," says Dickins.

"It's been an amazing adventure but there are still so many other adventures in the world that I want to have."

From a 'dark place' to podium place

It's that positive attitude that was severely tested when Dickins, a physiotherapist by trade, ruptured a disc in her back following a freak combination of circumstances and found herself struggling to cope with the consequences.

She started to volunteer as a physio at cycling meetings and, as a result, was taken on as a Games Maker at London 2012.

"The whole Games in London were incredible and the dedication and commitment of the cyclists at the velodrome where I was working was palpable," she reflects.

"It made me want to try a new sport just to see if I could do it."

A chance conversation over a coffee with a fellow volunteer pointed her in the direction of Paracanoe - as a sport she could do despite her weak leg - and, within weeks, she had gone from a complete novice to being enrolled on the British Canoeing programme with her mind set on Rio.

"I was particularly inspired by Helen Glover's story," adds Dickins.

"She won gold in the rowing after only four years in the sport and seeing her achievement made me think that Rio might be a pathway open to me.

"Everything about becoming an elite athlete was hard, but I looked at it all as a challenge and probably the hardest thing was juggling being a working mum and training at the same time."

But Dickins is also quick to acknowledge the help of others in her journey through the sport.

"I have learnt the power of being in a strong team - you don't have to do it on your own," she says.

Dickins with her coach John Griffiths after winning gold in Rio
Dickins with her coach John Griffiths after winning gold in Rio

And, on 16 September 2016, Dickins put all that work and assistance together to clinch the gold medal by 0.03 seconds at Lagoa in Rio.

"Finding out that I had won my race was definitely the highlight in Rio, as initially I wasn't sure who had won," adds Dickins.

"I can remember standing on the podium and listening to the national anthem as the flag was raised, with everyone cheering, it was surreal."

Passing it on

Since that incredible day, Dickins has been busy sharing her experiences with others.

She has given some 64 talks in the last 12 months to volunteer groups, schools and clubs and even individuals at BBC Sport Personality of the Year.

"One of my passions has been to give back, so I have done as many volunteer appearances as I could," says the Rio champion.

"I have met a huge variety of people and shared my experiences and I hope in some small way I have inspired the next generation."

It's something that hasn't gone unrecognised within the sport.

"Anne's own story of how she got involved in the sport is unique and it is fantastic to see her commitment to sharing her experiences with so many others," said British Canoeing performance director John Anderson.

A 'new approach'

Anne Dickins celebrates after realising she had won gold at the Rio Paralympics
Anne Dickins celebrates after realising she had won gold at the Rio Paralympics

So, having walked away from canoeing while she is at the top of her game, how does Dickins look back at that part of her life?

"Taking up a new sport and winning gold in Rio has completely changed my life," she admits.

"I have learnt so much about myself and feel a lot wiser because of it.

"I have learnt to accept that life isn't always fair but that's OK. That injury or disability doesn't have to define who you are or what you can do.

"I've learnt if what you are doing isn't working to try to think differently and find a new approach to make it happen."