‘Without archery, I lost my only tar­gets in life’

Danielle Brown ex­plains to Jim White how it was that an eight-year-old ge­nius helped change her out­look af­ter en­forced re­tire­ment

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Women's Sport Monthly -

Back in 2013, for Danielle Brown, ev­ery­thing was fly­ing ar­row straight.

Af­ter gain­ing her sec­ond Par­a­lympic ti­tle on home soil in 2012, the cham­pion archer was train­ing full-time, sup­ported by Lottery fund­ing, look­ing to win her third con­sec­u­tive gold in Rio. World No 1 Par­a­lympian, in the top 10 of able-bod­ied archers, noth­ing could stand in her way.

Or so she thought. But then, in Novem­ber 2013, her sport­ing uni­verse fell apart.

World Archery deemed that her con­di­tion – Chronic Pain Syn­drome, which, be­cause of con­tin­u­ous aching in her feet, makes walk­ing dif­fi­cult and re­quires her to sit down when ad­dress­ing the tar­get – did not have a di­rect im­pact on her per­for­mance. She had been de­clas­si­fied.

“It was a dev­as­tat­ing mo­ment,” she re­calls. “It shook my com­plete iden­tity. I was an ath­lete and sud­denly here I was no longer an ath­lete. More than that, I was a per­son with a dis­abil­ity who was no longer dis­abled enough.”

Worse news was to fol­low for Brown. Al­though she had won many ti­tles in non-Par­a­lympic archery (in­clud­ing the Bri­tish cham­pi­onship weeks be­fore her de­clas­si­fi­ca­tion), the size of bow she had mas­tered was not one recog­nised in Olympic dis­ci­pline.

It meant that, un­able to par­tic­i­pate at the high­est level of the able-bod­ied sport, she could not ap­ply for fund­ing to re­main in full-time train­ing.

“I did ap­peal World Archery’s de­ci­sion,” she re­calls. “Sadly, I just made things worse. It was ruled that my con­di­tion was not clas­si­fi­able. Which meant I had messed it up for ev­ery­one else fol­low­ing me who had a sim­i­lar di­ag­no­sis.”

One thing about the new clas­si­fi­ca­tion: de­spite be­ing told that she was no longer deemed suf­fi­ciently dis­abled to make the Par­a­lympic cut, she was still obliged to live with the con­di­tion.

“I ac­cept pain is a tough thing to mea­sure,” she says. “But this causes more than just pain. There’s a lot of mus­cle wastage and not much range of move­ment. I may have been told I was un­clas­si­fi­able, but it didn’t make the thing go away.”

And Brown faced an­other is­sue. At 25, af­ter her en­tire adult life had been spent en­gaged in pro­fes­sional sport, she sud­denly, without warn­ing, had to find some­thing to do with her­self.

Not least, she had to find a way to make a liv­ing.

“It is so hard to con­front the chal­lenge,” she re­calls. “I was so fo­cused on sport, I’d not had a sin­gle thought about what I wanted to do when I fin­ished. Ev­ery plan I had was about go­ing to Rio and win­ning.”

How­ever, she would like to make it clear she was not en­tirely cast adrift by the sport­ing es­tab­lish­ment.

“I was given four months’ money to tide me over, which was an ab­so­lute god­send.

“Also the Bri­tish team’s sport psy­chol­o­gist asked if I would like to talk things through. I couldn’t face it, so I turned him down. I re­ally wish I’d spo­ken to him.”

One thing she did know: de­spite gain­ing a law de­gree from the Uni­ver­sity of Le­ices­ter, she did not want to prac­tise law. She had once done some work ex­pe­ri­ence with her then spon­sors Na­tional

Ex­press dur­ing which she con­cluded she would rather not be in an of­fice. Other than that she was clue­less what to do.

“I knocked up a CV and sent it out,” she says. “Trou­ble was I didn’t know what I wanted, I didn’t have any ex­pe­ri­ence, I felt I had noth­ing to of­fer. I didn’t know who I was away from bows and ar­rows.

“If I’d had a prob­lem be­fore the only way I knew how to make things bet­ter was to train harder. Now I didn’t have a goal any more. I was re­ally drift­ing.” But then, as she drifted, she ac­cepted an in­vi­ta­tion from a nearby school to present the end-of-term prizes. And when she fin­ished she re­alised not only did the au­di­ence en­joy her speech, she did too. “As a teenager my self-be­lief had been re­ally frac­tured,” she ex­plains. “I spent so much time fear­ing peo­ple might not look be­yond the crutches to see me as a per­son. Sport re­ally re­paired that. I was in charge.

“And I re­alised, speak­ing to those schoolkids, that the lessons I learned from my sport­ing life – about re­silience, dis­ci­pline, goal-set­ting – were re­ally trans­lat­able. I sud­denly re­alised my life story was mar­ketable.” So per­son­able was she in her de­liv­ery, that soon her di­ary was filled with ap­point­ments to speak to schools and col­leges, clubs and cor­po­ra­tions. Her new ca­reer quickly took off: just be­fore lock­down she spoke at Google’s Lon­don head­quar­ters, ad­dress­ing the com­pany’s top ex­ec­u­tives. “I have an hour-long speech which changes ac­cord­ing to the au­di­ence,” she says. “Ba­si­cally I’m us­ing my own his­tory to in­spire peo­ple to make a dif­fer­ence in their own lives. Sport is a great ve­hi­cle to de­liver those mes­sages be­cause the re­wards are so trans­par­ent and ac­ces­si­ble. Your story can re­ally liven up the the­ory.”

Her story has also led her into new av­enues. Last year she spoke to Mensa, the high IQ so­ci­ety. Af­ter her talk she was ap­proached by a young lad called Nathan Kai. “He asked me if I would like to co-write a book for kids about be­ing the best you can be. I thought, yes, that sounds good.”

They agreed to split the writ­ing and, con­fi­dent in her abil­ity with words, Brown cheer­fully sent him her first three chap­ters. “They came back full of marks, with lots of cross­ings out and notes say­ing: no kid would un­der­stand that,” she re­calls. “Ac­tu­ally they were all valid points. His edit­ing was fe­ro­cious but hav­ing his per­spec­tive made the book Be Your Best Self: Life Skills for Un­stop­pable Kids

much more re­lat­able to chil­dren and it’s been a great suc­cess.”

And how old was Nathan?

“He told me when I met him that his am­bi­tion was to have a book pub­lished be­fore his eighth birth­day,” she laughs.

“It kind of put my achieve­ments into some sort of per­spec­tive.”

‘I felt I had noth­ing to of­fer. I didn’t know who I was away from bows and ar­rows. Now I didn’t have a goal any more’

New chap­ter: Par­a­lympic archer Danielle Brown strug­gled without sport, un­til she found her own story could help in­spire oth­ers, which led to a book for chil­dren

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