It was an enormous pleasure – and great fun – to talk to Mel Clarke, record-breaking archery champion and two-time Paralympic medallist. By the age of 20, Mel had been struck down by two debilitating illnesses, but that didn’t prevent the budding child athlete from blossoming into the superb world-class contender that she has become.
Her story is quite remarkable.
Mel, born and brought up in Norfolk, was a lively, competitive little girl, who enjoyed a wide range of sports, including football, rugby, dancing, and athletics; at a very young age, she was running for her county. But after a serious fall during a dance exam, which led to hospitalisation and surgery, Mel had to come to terms with the fact that her legs would never work properly again.
She was just 11 years old.
As a result of the injury, Mel developed osteomyelitis (a bone infection) in her hip. Her mobility now depended on a wheelchair or crutches. She lost all interest in sport.
“I was pretty much told I couldn’t do sport, because I was in a wheelchair. I was allowed to play table tennis, but I found that boring.”
In her teens, Mel was a Girl Guide Young Leader, and was helping to run the local Guide sessions. Her life turned a corner at 15 years old, when she took part in the Guides’ have-a-go archery event.
“I liked the way I was treated the same as everyone else. If I missed the target, I had to go and retrieve my arrow; nobody did it for me. Being treated equally helped me to gain independence … and I really enjoyed the archery.”
Four years after first picking up a bow, Mel was competing at international level, winning a gold medal and setting six IPC (International Paralympic Committee) records at the Disabled European Archery Championships in Poland. The year after, 20-year-old Mel became the first European disabled archer to compete in an able-bodied event at international level.
It was 2003, and Mel was competing at the World Archery Championships.
Contracting Lyme Disease
When Mel collapsed at the 2003 World Archery Championships in New York City, USA, it appeared that she was suffering from the July heat. However, Mel’s condition deteriorated rapidly, and she was rushed to hospital, where she remained unconscious for two weeks, connected to a life-support machine.
The prognosis was grim; doctors did not expect Mel to survive.
Mel was diagnosed with Lyme disease, which is caused by bacteria of the genus Borrelia, carried by ticks of the genus Ixodes. Mel was now paralysed from the waist down and had lost all vision in her right eye. Her hearing, too, was damaged.
It wasn’t long, however, before Mel was itching to get back to her archery. Doctors, family members, and friends all said that this was impossible and that they wouldn’t allow it. But Mel was a determined young woman, and eventually her persistence paid off.
Being right handed, Mel had previously relied on her right eye for archery, and her blindness in this eye posed problems. Rather than train her whole body to left-handed shooting, Mel began to shoot with her head turned to the right, allowing her to use her left eye whilst drawing with her right arm. This awkward-looking stance has become second nature to Mel, and familiar to her fellow shooters and her fans.
Life goes on
Paralysed from the waist down and blind in one eye, Mel continued to attack life’s challenges with her own characteristic vigour. The additional disabilities that were a result of the Lyme Disease did not deter Mel from resuming her role of teaching assistant at Bignold Primary School, near Norwich. I spoke to some of Mel’s former colleagues.
“She had the ability to motivate and inspire – to build a nurturing rapport with individuals and groups,” Laura Bounden told me. “I’m sure the children were influenced by her determination to achieve her many goals, even when faced with really difficult situations.”
“The children never saw her disability as a barrier,” said Julie Formoy, “because she was able to overcome any barriers she came across.”
Janet Wright, former headteacher at Bignold, said of Mel, “She showed everyone – staff and children alike – that disability in any form does not, and should not, stop anyone from always trying to do their best.”
Mel was now confined to her wheelchair full time – no longer able to get around using crutches.
“Mel’s wheelchair provided added excitement to our days,” continued Mrs Wright. “As well as trying to avoid her as she raced the thing though corridors and negotiated crowded classrooms, she decorated it to celebrate various events at school and in her own life. Flags, Union Jack decals, and flashing lights were quite normal – and Christmas brought out all the glitter imaginable!”
Claire Gabillia summed up the feelings of the whole staff: “We are very proud to have met, worked with, and become friends with Mel.”
Mel worked at Bignold until 2007, when she left to begin full-time archery training in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games. To this day, the staff and children of Bignold First School and Nursery continue to follow her career, and Mel is considered to be one of the greatest influences in the history of that little school.
Mel returned from the Beijing Paralympics with a bronze medal. The year after, she won Silver at the World Championships in the Czech Republic. At the 2012 London Paralympics, Mel won Silver, pipped at the post by her friend and fellow British competitor, Danielle Brown.
A combination of shooting, weight work, and wheeling, on top of an old injury, began to take its toll on Mel’s right wrist. During 2015, the pain and swelling in her wrist became so bad that Mel was no longer able to draw her bow. She therefore transferred this task to her elbow, using a bespoke release aid that she designed and built for herself.
“I used a tennis-elbow cup, climbing rope, carabiners … and a bit of initiative! I’m the only person in the world,” she added cheerfully, “who shoots using an elbow and the wrong eye!”
This home-made release aid proved to be so efficient, that Mel built a similar mechanism for her team mate, Jo Frith. Jo, a world-class swimmer, who took up archery at the age of 51, has won numerous medals at international competitions, including a gold and a silver at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Jo is the reigning European para-archery champion.
Due to multiple health problems, including the wrist injury, Mel didn’t compete in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. With the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games in sight, though, Mel’s training is back on track. She shoots 200 arrows a day, six days a week, and works out at the gym on a regular basis.
But Mel always makes time for visits to schools, in her role as athlete mentor. She says, “I tell my story to kids, and talk about not giving up.”
Once again, Mel’s life is changing dramatically, because she is about to become a mother. Mel and her long-term partner, 37-year-old Richard Hennahane (an archer who reached the last 16 at the 2012 London Paralympics), are expecting their first child in December, and the couple are to be married next spring.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve spoken to people who know Mel well, and in every case, their words are full of love and admiration. One of her coaches told me, “She’s so unlucky. If anyone’s going to fall out of a wheelchair, it’s Mel!”
Frankly, I’m amazed at how Mel Clarke has flourished through such overwhelming adversity.
Mel says simply, “You learn to adapt to anything in life.”