‘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
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