16 October 2019

Danielle Brown - the Paralympic champion on pressure in sport and the devastation of being told she was not disabled enough to continue competing

Imagine being a Paralympic and Commonwealth champion. Imagine the high you would experience after achieving that success. Now imagine the opportunity to add to those medals being taken away from you because somebody decides your disability is essentially, not enough.

Danielle Brown knows that exact feeling and six years on from the ruling by World Archery - when the way disabilities were categorised, changed - it still plays on her mind. Her greatest source of pleasure, in a life crippled by complex regional pain syndrome in her feet, was cruelly snatched away.

"It was absolutely devastating," said Brown, talking to NewsChain. "I think the reason I got started in archery was because it was a way to deal with my disability. Growing up as a teenager, if I could get through school, I felt I was well enough to do archery at the end of the day.

"It was just so tough when it was taken away in terms of what it meant to me. When the ruling was I was not disabled enough, you start to question yourself and you think, 'am I faking it?'  Simple tasks that people do everyday without thinking about it, like carrying a box across a room, I would throw it all over the place or fall. You would think ‘why can’t they see this'?"

The way her career ended made her transition into 'normal' life much more difficult than expected. For a person whose sport came to be her calling, moving away from that limelight was very challenging.

Brown said: "I did go through a complete identity crisis. When I stepped away from that sporting arena, so much of my identity was wrapped up in that sport. Even day-to-day things, I felt like I needed to eat my dinner at a certain time, like I had done when playing sport and that was really hard to deal with.

"I felt a lot of resentment at the time and found it very tough. I felt that my national governing body didn’t support me particularly well. It was really hard.

"When you look at the path that I took, one of my mentors told me that I went through the ‘grief cycle’. The anger, the bit where you actually don’t believe that it is happening, the sadness. But I came out the other side and I actually think it has made me a stronger person. I don’t feel that resentment anymore."

Brown now gives a number of talks to corporate companies in her role as a keynote speaker and coach

When she first tried archery at a young age, the joy was profound because Brown was able to compete against able-bodied people.  

She said: "The thing I really liked about archery was that when I joined a club, it wasn’t a disability archery club, it was just an archery club. It was all about ability. Disability in every other aspect of my life ruled but in archery, it was all about what I could do.

"Going to competitions was so much fun and I found that under pressure I actually performed better. Each time I went to an event I wanted to do better than the last time and that I think is where the drive and determination came from."

Looking back on her career, Brown should have been reminiscing with immense fondness but at perhaps the most important moment of her career in London 2012, she actually remembers it as an incredibly difficult time.

"I was surrounded by the entire team but I'd never felt more lonely in my entire life," she said. "I felt I couldn’t really talk to people or people didn’t understand.

"I was under so much pressure and I remember talking to the team manager beforehand, who had asked if after the Games we wanted to stay in the village or wanted to go home. I said the only reason I will stay is if I win, if I get a silver or less I am gone!

"I got treated like I was being a bit funny but the reason I said that was because of the pressure I was under, I didn’t know how to react. I didn’t have anyone to talk to, but my passion and family got me through."

The pressure that Brown felt in London seven years ago was something she faced at other times in her career and she feels the cut-throat nature of sport can be very difficult to handle, even if you achieve as much as she did. She also believes the support athletes get after they finish competing is not enough.

"My mum described it the best way. She said that I’m like a lettuce, when you’re nice and fresh they want all the leaves but once you stop being useful and have gone a bit mouldy, they throw you out in the bin. You are only as good as your last medal. Sport in that respect can be very harsh and cruel, but unfortunately that’s the environment we are operating in.

"I think there is definitely more work around athlete transition now and there are organisations who upskill athletes prior to retirement, which is very important. But the reality is that it is all based on funding and once you stop being useful, that’s it. I certainly didn’t get any support. I don’t think it’s changed much so when that support runs out or you stop being useful, it’s a case of being like ‘off you go’."

Brown will probably be best remembered for being the first Paralympian to represent England in an able-bodied event at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010. But again, due to the relentless nature of competition, she was not able to recognise the magnitude of the moment at the time, even if she does now.

"In some ways it was so difficult to enjoy it because I was so tired. At the time you don’t realise how big a deal it is, but now when I see people with disabilities trying to break through in their field and I look back at how I broke those barriers in sport, actually it is a really big deal."

Brown admitted that throughout her sporting career, all she focused on was herself but now it is the least. By being a keynote speaker and coach, as well as an author of the children's book 'Be Your Best Self', Brown she has completely transformed her priorities and wants to help as many people as she can.

She said: "My value base has also changed after leaving sport, which is very performance oriented. I found the sporting environment quite toxic because it was very much a case of do this, otherwise you will lose your funding. It wasn’t a pleasant environment to be in. I expected the business environment to be the same but it wasn’t. It shocked me that people just wanted to help me to achieve and they wanted absolutely nothing in return.  

"Now I love helping people and that is a key motivator for me. If I can make the world a better place for people with disabilities or for women, I would feel so proud of that."

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