Anne-Dorte Andersen overcomes obstacles for others

By Brian Canever September 23, 2014

Anne-Dorte Andersen shares her name with a former countess in the Danish royal family, and in a way has become royalty herself among Denmark’s Paralympians.

Although she is long retired from professional swimming, Andersen’s achievements for her country from 1987 to 1996, when she competed in all of the sport’s major competitions, were nothing short of phenomenal. Two bronze medals at the 1998 Seoul Paralympics and a silver and two bronzes at Barcelona 1992 capped off her career.

“Being on the national team meant a lot to me,” says Andersen. “There were only three [women] on the team, which forced us to express ourselves, to get over our shyness and learn to advocate for what we needed.”

Andersen was born without hands or feet owing to a condition known as dysmelia, which also affected her mother. Although the disability did not prevent her from becoming a successful athlete for the Danish national team, it did invite undeserved prejudices from some of her club coaches.

“I had one club coach who wouldn’t even allow me onto his squad,” says Andersen. “Another felt I was too slow because of my disability and that I was in the way. He was my coach for five years and it was a daily battle to get the training I needed.”

Despite those initial barriers, Andersen won her coach over through her work ethic and subsequent successes.

“He was very proud when I won three gold medals at the European swimming championships in 1991,” she remembers.

Fighting to overcome preconceptions based on her disability is one of the major themes of Andersen’s story. It is also the principal reason she chose to leave Denmark, a progressive country with youth unemployment rates more than three percentage points below those of the United States and the United Kingdom, after finishing a degree in sport science in 1999.

“If I had stayed in Denmark, the best way I could have gotten a job was under the government’s disability job program, where you work part time and get full-time pay,” says Andersen. “Even though [the program] would be a lifesaver for me later, straight out of university it was not an option in my mind.”

Following a temporary job in Copenhagen, Andersen took a position as a development officer for Disability Sport Wales (DSW). Although the position would require leaving her home country, Anderson did not hesitate.

“I had a Welsh friend who told me that a whole new disability sports program was about to launch in Wales. Since my first Paralympics at the age of 15, I had been traveling all the time, so it wasn’t too hard to leave.”

Andersen remained in the UK for over a decade. Following her role at DSW, she worked as a development officer and later inclusion manager for Active Gloucestershire in England.

By 2011, however, she was ready to return home.

“I moved back to Denmark to be near my family and friends,” says Andersen. “I was lucky that a door opened up for me to take the role I have today.  This allowed me to use my experience from the UK in developing opportunities for disabled children.”

Focusing on giving back to those with the same struggles and prejudices she has overcome herself has always been important for Andersen. As a sports project coordinator with the Danish Sports Association for the Disabled (DHIF) she currently dedicates her time to finding talented, future Paralympians for the national team, while also heading a program aimed at strengthening participation in a wide range of sports for disabled youth from ages 8 to 18.

“Our focus is to make sure that when a young, disabled person wants to take part in sport that they know they will get the support to reach their goals,” says Andersen. “Whether it’s a recreational or performance sport, it can be hard to be the only disabled athlete in a club, so it’s important that we can support them.”

Since her return, Andersen has noticed an increasing dialogue on disability and sport in Denmark, a positive sign despite the decision by mainstream sports organizations to continue working apart from the DHIF.

With the country’s disabled at risk of poverty or social exclusion at a rate of 20.8 percent, compared to six percent for the non-disabled, Andersen has set her sights on creating a societal balance that will leave all Danes, regardless of physical ability, much happier.

“I don’t like inequality,” she says. “I was left alone to fight my inclusion issues when I was swimming. It made me a strong fighter. But, the world would be a better place if the children I work with would have to fight less for their rights and have more fun.”