While many Paralympic gold medalists go on to become household names and be remembered for honouring their country as athletic superstars, some are quickly forgotten.
Tham Simpson is a name that likely would not resonate with anyone who did not watch the Games in 1984. It may not even ring a bell to those that did. But the wheelchair racing superstar won five gold medals in as many events in Stoke Mandeville in ’84 and remains an enigma in Canadian Paralympic history.
The 1984 Summer Paralympics were one of Canada’s most successful international sporting competitions, as the athletes totalled 238 medals, including 87 gold and 82 silver. The unique layout of the seventh Paralympics had the wheelchair sports hosted in Stoke Mandeville, United Kingdom, and all other events in Long Island, New York.
Team Canada’s impressive showing in Europe and North America earned them third place in the overall medal count, only behind the United States and Great Britain. Simpson was a major contributor to her country’s success.
According to a pair of articles published in the Montreal Gazette on August 9, 1984, Simpson was born in Vietnam and grew up in Point-Claire, Que. She was adopted by Sandra and Lloyd Simpson, and was one of 27 children in her family — 23 of whom were adopted from Third World or war-torn countries. Simpson was suffering from polio when she was brought to her new home in Canada at the age of four. She recovered from the disease and attended school at Sunny View Public School in Toronto, along with several siblings who were living with disabilities.
Simpson was voted as athlete of the year in school and was involved in weight-lifting, swimming, kayaking, and basketball. In April 1984, she was the only person in a wheelchair to participate in the 32 kilometre bike-a-thon in Toronto. At the age of 15, Simpson earned a spot on the Canadian Paralympic team as a wheelchair racer.
What she was able to accomplish at such a young age with minimal professional training was remarkable. Wearing the red and white, Simpson raced in five events and finished first in all of them. She won gold in the 100-metre, 200-metre, 400-metre, 800-metre, and Slalom races.
Simpson told Stephanie Whittaker of the Gazette about a humorous moment when she was called to receive one of her medals: “I was sitting in my wheelchair eating a popsicle and drinking a Coke, I’d put the can of Coke between my knees to hold it. And then my name was called. I was supposed to go up to the podium to collect one of my medals. The popsicle was melting as I wheeled all the way to the stage, and I shook hands with the official with a very sticky hand.”
She accomplished at 15-years-old what most athletes would dream of doing in a lifetime. She competed in the following Paralympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, but finished seventh in all three of her events. Her mother Sandra was honoured with an Order of Canada medal for the work she had done in finding homes for abandoned or orphaned children.
There is no record of the mysterious Tham Simpson since her athletic career ended in 1988, but her gold medal run at the 1984 Paralympic Games will remain in the record books forever.
Photo Credit: Canadian Paralympic Committee