After being diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome as a child, Danielle Brown MBE discovered archery and went on to enjoy a hugely successful professional career in elite sport. Not only is she a double Paralympic gold medallist, but a five-time world champion. She also became the first disabled athlete to represent England at an able-bodied event when she won gold in the team Archery event at the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
However, Danielle’s sporting career was devastatingly cut short in 2013 when World Archery declassified her disability, abruptly ending her eligibility to compete in disability sport.
Eight years on, Danielle has a different career path with a very successful motivational speaking business and two books to her name. Still passionate about women’s sport, her latest book, Run Like A Girl: 50 Extraordinary and Inspiring Sportswomen includes mini biographies of 50 incredible women in sport and adventure, shining a light on their achievements whilst reclaiming the ‘Like a girl’ phrase as a positive one.
Tell us when you first discovered archery?
Taking up archery is completely my disability’s fault. Sport played an important role in my childhood, but I had to give many of my hobbies up during my early teens because I couldn’t run or walk very far. Somebody on the school bus did archery and I asked them one day whether they thought I’d be able to do it. I can’t tell you how excited I felt when they said my disability wouldn’t be a problem and I booked myself straight into the next beginner’s course. I was absolutely terrible when I first started, but I wasn’t there to break records – I was there to have some fun.
Can you briefly explain what Complex Regional Pain Syndrome is and how it affects you?
Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (or CRPS for short) is a neurological condition that causes chronic pain. It’s usually caused by an injury: I was a mad little kid who had far too many scrapes, bumps and bruises to count so I’m not sure what the triggering factor was, but I became aware of it when I was eleven-years-old and my feet started to hurt after I’d been running. I have pain in both my feet, which affects my ability to walk so I get around on crutches and use a wheelchair for longer distances.
Talk us through the type of archery you competed in and what it involves?
I shoot a compound bow, which looks totally badass with its strings and pulleys. The target was 70 metres away for Paralympic events and 50 metres away (but on a smaller face) for able-bodied events. The aim is pretty simple – to get as many arrows in the middle of the target as possible, and winning medals is all about dealing with pressure. Fifteen arrows decide the winner in a match so you need to make fifteen great shots.
You had a hugely successful sports career. How did you cope with the pressure that comes with high level sport?
The stakes got higher with every event I went to, and pressure was a challenging companion. A big part was working on my confidence levels: the more confident you feel, the less of a threat that the pressure seems. I invested a lot of my time into working on confidence strategies which really helped over the long-term. In the moment though, it was all about running with the chaos, taking a flying leap from my comfort zone, and completely faking how calm I looked.
What kind of training was involved?
Archery is a skill sport, so we have to shoot A LOT of arrows. Every day I’d be shooting around 200 arrows, and on top of this I had to work on my equipment and do strength work on the gym. Mental training is also a big part of it; for me this included visualisation, meditation, reflection practises, and adding more building blocks to my confidence.
You are a double Paralympic gold medallist, a five-time world champion and the first disabled athlete to represent England in an able-bodied discipline. Is there a particular moment in your sporting career that you are most proud of?
Winning the gold medal in London 2012. I was totally relieved I’d pulled it off (especially as I was under so much pressure to win), and to win on home soil, in front of that home crowd, was just amazing. It was also the first time my family and friends had ever seen me compete internationally, so to have them there was special.
In 2013, World Archery declassified your disability, ending your right to compete as a para athlete. This must have been a devastating time?
Absolutely, I had set my sights on a third gold medal in Rio 2016 and whilst I knew about the classification rule change I didn’t think that it would affect me. I was completely blindsided when I was told that I’d failed, that I could no longer compete as a Paralympic athlete. In that moment I lost everything: my career, my passion, my identity. I went through the grief cycle, starting with denial where I spent a few months protesting the decision and got nowhere. Finally, with the support from my awesome family and friends I was able to move through to acceptance.
How did your life change from that moment?
Those first few months were really tough: I didn’t know what I wanted to do outside of sport and I had bills to pay. In some ways this was good because it gave me an avenue to focus my attention, and when I decided to set my own business up, I threw all my effort behind it and went for it. I knew nothing about business at the start, so I learned lots, made loads of mistakes, but when I won it felt AMAZING.
Do you think there’s enough support for athletes during the transition to ‘civilian’ life when they retire or can no longer compete?
When I retired my National Governing Body gave me some documents on how to write a CV and I was left to navigate life after sport by myself. I felt utterly alone, and was very fortunate to have brilliant friends and family who stepped up to help. Things are definitely getting better, and there’s a push to get athletes to think about life after sport whilst they are still training which is a brilliant idea. I wish I’d done more to prepare myself for what came next.
You’ve since forged a successful career as a speaker and have written several books. What lessons, tools and strategies from your Paralympic career have been able to share with your audiences?
So many…! In fact, I’ve copied and pasted much of how I approached my sport into business and it’s so rewarding giving back and teaching these skills to others. I specialise in giving practical strategies to improve confidence, resilience, adaptability and preparing for performance. These are essential for success in any field, but I found that they often came without a ‘how to’ manual so it’s brilliant being able to equip people with practical solutions that make a real difference.
Tell us about the latest book you’ve written, Run Like a Girl?
I’m super excited about Run Like A Girl, for many, many reasons. It features stories of 50 female athletes from around the world, and showcases the resilience, determination, and confidence of these amazing women. I wanted to highlight that no two paths are the same: some athletes overcame unimaginably tough barriers to achieve their sporting dreams, some lead teams, and others are using sport as a vehicle to make the world a better place. I loved researching each one, and I really hope they inspire you as much as they have me.
I decided to write this book because I wanted to change the way we think about women’s sport. Growing up I never realised that a career in sport was possible, partly because there was a lack of role models. We are seeing movement in the right direction, but we still have a LONG way to go – especially as only 7% of the UK sports media currently focuses on women’s sport. There are so many incredible competitors and barrier breakers who deserve to have their story told – and the children out there who deserve to hear them.
What plans have you got for the future?
Too many! I definitely want to write more books because I love the entire writing process, and I’ve got so many more books in me. I also want to do more with women’s sport to encourage more participation and engagement, and I’m currently working on some very exciting (although top secret) plans. Watch this space.
Watch the trailer for Danielle’s book:
You can follow Danielle via her social media channels: www.instagram.com/daniellebrownmbe and www.facebook.com/daniellebrownmbe. To find out more about Danielle’s books and speaking opportunities visit her website www.daniellebrown.co.uk.