Grassroots to Glory - Kylie Grimes
"Rugby is in my blood”
Paralympians often talk about writing their name in the history books, but Kylie Grimes prefers pigment to parchment—and she’s saving space for Tokyo.
The 33-year-old’s left arm looks like a travel brochure. There’s Big Ben in black, detailed like a pencil drawing, with one clock hand pointing in the direction of an iconic London phone booth in monochrome. Christ the Redeemer gazes out from underneath Kylie’s elbow, surrounded by dreamy rays and clouds that cuff her forearm.
These are the Surrey native’s third Games. She played wheelchair rugby for Great Britain at London 2012 before switching to athletics and coming up just short of a podium place in Rio - hence the international ink - with fourth place in the F51 club throw.
She’s now back in the wheelchair rugby squad, and its only female member. This time, she’s also one of Channel 4’s faces of the Games. You might recognise Kylie as the woman who utters a bleeped-out expression after encountering an inaccessible takeaway on the network’s Paralympic preview adverts.
“I am indeed planning a Tokyo tattoo,” she affirms, grinning. “I’m not 100% sure yet what it will be. "
“At the minute I’ve got the buildings from London and Rio. I don’t think there’s space for a building from Tokyo, but maybe the bottom, I might put some Japanese blossoms on there, but there’s definitely going to be room for something. "
“The minute I get a medal it will absolutely be going on there.”
Kylie also has the ParalympicsGB lion needled on the inside of her arm, a permanent reminder of what she’s accomplished since an accident at the age of 18 left her 85% paralysed.
“A [Paralympic] medal would literally mean everything, absolutely everything,” said Kylie.
“My whole life, everything I’ve worked for, everything I’ve dreamed of from a very, very small child, all the way through."
“I said from a three, four, five-year-old, ‘I’m going to be at the Olympics one day. Some kids say they’re going to be nurses, doctors, fire crew, I was going to be in the Olympics, and I’m going to do it, that’s all I’ve ever said.”
Kylie played football and rugby, swam with Farnham Swimming Club, won double netball gold at county level, and tried her hand at ballet and gymnastics.
But it was show jumping where she found her true calling, first saddling up aged three. Kylie was working full-time for a stable before the day that changed everything.
“Sport has been my life,” said Kylie. "When I got to 12, 13, I had to decide what sport I really wanted to go for."
“Because you can try anything, and you can do everything, but if you want to actually do one at the highest level you kind of need to focus on one only. "
“So that’s when I started properly show jumping full time as a youth, and I could see myself riding horses all my life."
“I was doing that professionally until my accident and then I had to change direction. "
“Sport taught me as a child to keep focus, dedication, everything. If I want something, I have to go for it. But it might not always be a smooth path.”
Kylie sustained a C6 complete spinal cord injury after jumping into a pool, leaving her paralysed from the chest down with limited triceps and hand function.
She spent nearly six months in recovery, landing in intensive care for two weeks with pneumonia after her operation.
It wasn’t long before a new plan crystallised. Kylie, lying in her hospital bed, decided to become a Paralympian. She just needed a sport.
Kylie was still in rehabilitation when she was introduced to the game made famous in the Academy Award-nominated 2005 documentary Murderball, which chronicled the intense rivalry between the Athens-bound Canadian and American squads.
European champions Great Britain will head to Tokyo as the fourth ranked team in the world, sitting below table-toppers Australia, the United States, and hosts Japan, with Canada rounding out the top five.
Wheelchair rugby was love at first fight for the Farnham native, who fell for the frenetic, full-contact nature of the mixed-gender matches.
Kylie grew up watching stepdad Steve McGee play for Harlequins, and the clan still holds season tickets at the club that is “very close to our family’s heart.” Last year, she “jumped at the chance” to become an ambassador for the Harlequins Foundation.
“Loving arms” is a fitting phrase for the athlete. Though she was naturally right-handed before the accident, Kylie re-trained to throw with her left, now the stronger of the two.
It’s that limb that commemorates her passion for sport, while her right arm is a tribute to her childhood and close-knit family, including the inked, smiling faces of her grandparents on their wedding day. Kylie’s beloved ‘bampi’, her “number one supporter” during London and Rio, passed away in 2019.
A shift in personnel and players after London 2012 pointed to Kylie likely spending a lot of time on the bench, so she decided to make a change, leaping to athletics—another sport she excelled in as a youngster.
“I’m not someone who can sit still,” explained Kylie, who in 2006 cycled 450km from Vietnam to Cambodia to raise money for disability charity Regain.
“It’s not what you do as an athlete. It’s not what you train for. So, I decided to challenge myself and do something different. "
“I went across and did the talent transfer. I was there for four years and had an amazing time. I made two world championships, European championships.
“I was agonisingly fourth In Rio, but at the same time I’m so proud of myself. Getting there and coming fourth against girls that have been throwing for years was a pretty amazing feeling.”
But when the door to wheelchair rugby reopened 2018, there was no question where she wanted to be. A year later, Kylie and her squad were crowned European champions.
“Rugby is in my blood,” said Kylie, “it’s always been there. I love it."
“It’s my favourite Paralympic sport and always will be. "
“It’s gone from strength to strength, and I’ve slotted back in. I feel like I’m back at home where I belong.”
Kylie is one of a generation of athletes who have seen the fortunes of ParalympicsGB transform over the past two decades thanks to National Lottery funding, which allows her to train full time and benefit from world class facilities, technology, and coaching.
Most stories about Kylie at these Games will lead on the fact that she’s the only woman on Great Britain’s Paralympic squad. Frankly, for the girl who grew up playing on boys’ teams, it’s hardly headline-worthy.
“I forget,” she acknowledges. “I completely forget I’m the only woman on the team."
“I’m so used to just being a team member. The boys treat me no differently, which is exactly how it should be."
“I have my spot in the squad, and it is what it is.”
It’s the spot that means everything to her—the woman with rugby in her blood, sport needled into her skin, and a chance, like the celestial figure etched under her elbow, at redemption.
No one does more to support our Olympic and Paralympic athletes than National Lottery players, who raise around £36 million each week for good causes including grassroots and elite sport. Discover the positive impact playing the National Lottery has at www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk and get involved by using the hashtags: #TNLAthletes #MakeAmazingHappen