Multiple world champion archer Danielle Brown experienced the ultimate highs and lows of sport. Now with the help of two great Kiwi athletes, she’s written an award-winning book, Angela Walker reports.
Danielle Brown knows what inclusion looks like. It has enabled the archery champion to stand on the sport’s highest podiums.
But she also knows exclusion. That’s been part of her journey too – a journey that’s taken her from great highs, as a double Paralympic gold medallist, to devastating lows, excluded from the Games. And now propelling her into a new life as an inclusion champion.
Hers is an unlikely story that began amid the bucolic scenery of the Yorkshire Dales. Growing up in an outdoorsy family, Brown fell in love with walking and running – proudly “running like a girl” as it happens, but more on that later.
Brown says she was “really rubbish” at sports when she was a kid. After trying kayaking, she got a certificate saying she’d achieved more swimming than canoeing. Consequently she didn’t have any aspiration to represent her country. Sport, for her, was about staying fit, healthy and having fun.
But at 11 years of age, Brown’s feet began to hurt after running. The pain continued to get worse and she was no longer able to run. At school, she had to sit in the library during physical education, the teachers unsure how to adapt sport for her. It was her first taste of exclusion.
A few years on, she was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) – a neurological condition that causes pain in her feet.
After learning CRPS was a disability she’d have to manage for life, Brown searched for a sport she was able to take part in – and discovered archery.
“It was so much fun,” Brown says during a month-long holiday in New Zealand, with her Kiwi partner, Commonwealth Games archer Shaun Teasdale.
“After school every day, I’d pester my parents to take me to archery practice. I got quite obsessive, but that was my way of dealing with the pain. Having something to focus on really helped me manage it.”
Three years later she began representing her country. Having only discovered her chosen sport when she was 15, (“I hadn’t realised archery existed outside of medieval history or fairy stories,”) Brown is convinced there’s a sport out there for everybody.
“Just because you might not like the ones you do at school, it doesn’t mean sport is not for you,” she says. It’s something she often tells young people during her regular speaking engagements in schools in the United Kingdom.
Brown, 34, has never forgotten the trials of being a teenager herself.
“With an additional challenge thrown into the mix, I spent a lot of my teenage years living in fear – worrying if people would be able to see past my crutches, past my wheelchair, and actually see me as a person and the value I had to offer,” she says.
“Getting involved in sport really turned that around. It was about finding something I could do, rather than something I couldn’t.”
Archery turned out to be something she could absolutely do. Her international career saw her become a double Paralympic gold medallist, five-time world champion, and Commonwealth Games gold medallist.
Brown says her career highlight was successfully defending her 2008 Paralympic title, winning gold on home soil in London 2012.
“It was the first time my family and friends had seen me compete internationally. I was under so much pressure to win. It’s all very well winning, but it gets to the point where you’ve got to keep winning and the silver medallist becomes first loser,” she says.
Another career highlight was becoming the first Paralympian to represent Team England in an able-bodied event at the Commonwealth Games – in Delhi 2010, where she won gold in the women’s team compound event.
Despite making history, it wasn’t the first time Brown had experienced able-bodied competition.
“One of the great things about archery, which I’d always loved, is domestically we don’t have any disabled-only competitions or clubs,” she says. “Everybody competes on a level playing field. And it helped me that I wasn’t there as a disabled athlete. I was an athlete.”
Until then, archery had wrapped Brown in the warm embrace of inclusion. However that ended suddenly when a classification rule change meant she would no longer be eligible to contest the Paralympics. Her disability was now deemed to have no direct impact on her archery performance. Having come so far, Brown was excluded once again.
Unable to defend her Paralympic archery title in Rio 2016, Brown was devastated.
“Overnight I lost everything. It was my career, my mission. I lost my identity as an athlete. I’m a disabled person who wasn’t disabled enough. It was a real struggle. I went through all the stages of grief,” she says.
Brown continued competing for a time, contesting the world championships as an able-bodied athlete. But with her specialist event not included in the Olympics, Brown lost her funding and struggled to combine earning a living with elite sport.
In pondering her post-sport future, Brown knew she wanted to make the path easier for others.
“You’re the one that stands on top of the podium, but there’s a whole army of people behind you that make it possible,” she says. “So I wanted to find a way to help. There were so many things I’d learned on the way that I wish I’d known at the beginning.”
She set up her own business “to inspire and empower people to overcome adversity and achieve more.” As well as becoming a keynote speaker, Brown helps organisations practice diversity and inclusion, and has written three books.
Remarkably, a serendipitous conversation with an eight-year old was the catalyst for Brown becoming an award-winning children’s author.
“I was speaking at an event about what it takes to be the best in the world. And eight-year-old Nathan [Kai] came up to me and said: ‘I’ve been looking for a book about how to become the best I can be and I can’t find one – so can we write one together?’,” she recalls.
Brown agreed and they went on to co-create Be Your Best Self: Life Skills for Unstoppable Kids.
She continued to write for children, recently releasing her book: Run Like A Girl: 50 Extraordinary & Inspiring Sportswomen, which won the 2022 Sunday Times Children’s Sports Book of the Year.
It’s a collection of biographical stories told by 50 highly successful sportswomen including Kiwi athletes Dame Valerie Adams (“Throw Like a Girl”) and Nikki Hamblin (“Kind Like a Girl”), Serena Williams (“Play Like a Girl”) and Simone Biles (“Win Like a Girl”).
In writing the book, Brown set out to challenge outdated stereotypes. “Turning ‘like a girl’ on its head, turning it into a positive – running like a girl, catching like a girl – is something we can and should be proud of,” she says.
Does she have a favourite extraordinary sportswoman?
“Writing the book was hugely inspiring, learning about all these amazing women. It was really hard narrowing it down to 50,” she says. “I especially love stories about overcoming adversity – like the story of [refugee swimmer] Yusra Mardini who journeyed from Syria to Germany and at the end of it still wanted to pursue her dreams.”
Finding ways to amplify voices from underrepresented groups is important to Brown. She cites education and exposure as two factors critical to fostering diversity and inclusion.
“Being around different people and cultures is so important,” Brown says. “I certainly learned that through sport, travelling around the world and meeting people from different countries.”
She even met Teasdale – who finished fourth in the compound bow representing New Zealand at the 2010 Commonwealth Games – at a World Cup event in China.
For Brown, being an inclusion champion is about more than simply drawing on her own experience of being different. “I can share my experiences, but at the end of the day, that’s just my experience. For me, it’s about creating a whole platform where different people can get together and we can drive progress together.
“I know what exclusion looks like. I know what inclusion looks like. And when we get it right, amazing things can happen.”
* Run Like A Girl: 50 Extraordinary & Inspiring Sportswomen by Danielle Brown, published by Button Books, RRP $18.99.