An “Accidental Athlete”

Susannah Rodgers is a Paralympic Gold medallist and one of our guests for Sprint for Equality, Sunday the 14th of March.  

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Here you get to know a little bit about Rodgers and her thoughts on inclusion.

— I am Susie Rodgers, a former Paralympic swimmer. I competed at two Paralympic Games; London 2012 (where I won three bronze medals in freestyle disciplines) and Rio 2016 (where I won gold in the 50m Butterfly and two bronze medals).

— I competed internationally at World and European levels, winning thirty international medals in total including seventeen gold. I am the current European record holder in a number of the events still. I retired from professional sports in 2017 and quickly built up a career working in sport and then as a disability inclusion adviser to global organisations in the public and private sectors.

— I currently work for the UK Government as an adviser to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on disability inclusion in economic development programmes. Externally I run my own consultancy, advisory and public speaking services.

— I am also an Ocean Ambassador for the UK’s Marine Conservation Society and do lots in my spare time to support ocean conservation efforts.

An “Accidental Athlete”

— I didn’t always know what I wanted to do in life and still find that things tend to happen through a series of right place, right time, combined with a huge amount of discipline, drive and hard work. I wasn’t the child who said I want to compete at a Paralympic Games and win medals, it just came by chance through pursuing my hobby at university and then later when I was working, committing to my goals. I was lucky I had coaches who found me and developed my talent.

— I always call myself an “accidental athlete” because really, there were ideas but there were never fixed plans in my mind. So, I could not have known how my life would go – I mean can anyone really know that?! The major pivots have often been the people I have met who have given good advice or guided me, combined with the support of family and friends who are there to celebrate the great wins, but also don’t judge me if I don’t manage to get to the top or to achieve what I set out to achieve.

According to Rodgers, what are the most important components in creating more equality and inclusion for people with disabilities?

— Attitudinal changes and perception change I would say. I think an understanding that everyone brings something interesting to the table, giving every human being a chance to fulfil their potential and to live the life of their choosing. I don’t think it is any different to any other minority group in all honesty. Every human being has human rights, so we should do everything we can to include everyone in society, whatever their background, race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and so on.

Connecting With Personal Experiences

— I tend to use my own experiences to illustrate what I am talking about, when I deliver training or when I try to bring home a message to a group of people who may not be familiar with the topic or understand the complexity. People connect with personal experience and vulnerability far more than with someone lecturing at them, so I tend to take that route and approach. Some may disagree, but those are my opinions!

What does equality mean to Susannah Rodgers?

— Equality means everyone in society having the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. What you do with those opportunities and rights is down to individual choice, but equality should mean starting from the same point. Of course, this is not easy to achieve by any means. I can’t say if or when that will happen, but everyone can take individual steps to create change by, for example, listening to someone else’s perspective, their point of view, even if you don’t agree, understanding where someone may come from in terms of their position. If you don’t know, don’t make assumptions, just ask.

— I think learning and education are key to equality as well—the ability to question an opinion, to think for yourself, to decide for yourself, to look at different options but to also know that you do not know everything, nor does anyone else. In other words, try not to put people on pedestals but equally, try to understand them and learn from them.

If Rodgers could be a part of making a change—what kind of change would she want to see in the world?

— I would like to move away from the culture of celebrity and that dangerous hunt for recognition through social media and other means. I think there is good in social media but equally a lot of bad too. I have been guilty of wasting time scrolling myself and comparing myself to others. Some people can cope with that but for others, it isn’t healthy. Very often the most incredible and interesting people I have met have not had a social media presence but who quietly carry out their work, at influential levels, but without asking for awards or public validation. So, I would encourage others to think about how much time they spend scrolling and whether they could do something else instead. However, if your business is run through social media, I guess you have no choice!

— On equality, I hope that I can contribute to influencing global change in thinking around inclusive development and to influence the internal cultures of organisations I work with around inclusion. I hope to support the voices of people with disabilities, women and other minority groups, adding my voice to the collective effort to move us towards a more accepting and tolerant global society.

— Finally, I want to make a difference in ocean conservation. In another life, I would have pursued a career in marine biology or zoology and focused on working globally on ocean conservation efforts. Instead, I have been lucky enough to work as an Ocean Ambassador raising awareness for the Marine Conservation Society in the UK, as I mentioned before. Before lockdown in 2020, I took a painting course and during lockdown I devoted my spare time to painting marine life with acrylic and canvas. I worked with MCS to turn them into prints and they now raise money for the charity.

— I enjoy being an artist, as it unlocks that creative side to me. I have painted five or so paintings now and one original was recently auctioned off to raise even more funds. So, I hope to continue creating pieces of art. I don’t do it for anything other than a passion and hobby, but if anyone appreciates it enough to buy it, I take that as a wonderful compliment, utterly priceless. Hopefully I can keep raising awareness of protecting our beautiful underwater world for the rest of my life.

Susie’s Three Favourites:

  • Book: One of my favourite books is Catch 22, also a book from school I read for my German class, «Jugend Ohne Gott» by Ödön von Horváth. It was a syllabus book at school, I found it so interesting but then my German teacher brought everything to life in our classes, she was a brilliant teacher! I like quite a lot of non-fiction too.
  • Podcast: I love anything political or on society; topical issues. I also like Louis Theroux’s Grounded podcast. I would love to go on that, but I realise you need to be quite a character to go on there—maybe I am not controversial enough!
  • Leader: I try not to put people on pedestals if I am honest, but I do admire leaders who have integrity, who don’t necessarily shout the loudest, who are genuinely humble. Humility is underrated. There are plenty of examples of those out there, but you have to look closely and move past the noise!