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Rio 2016 Paralympics: Wheelchair racer Mel Nicholls dreaming big ahead of second Games

Create: 08/27/2016 - 15:13
'Dream big' might well be Mel Nicholls' motto but not even the wheelchair racer from Gloucestershire could have imagined the path her life would take when she first decided to give parasport a try after suffering a series of strokes.
The third of those, in 2008, left Nicholls with left-sided hemiplegia, balance and co-ordination problems and unable to walk unaided. She had ridden horses since she was a child and enjoyed a variety of outdoor activities, including running, mountain biking, kayaking and climbing and was not going to let her disability prevent her from doing what she loved the most.
Nicholls had celebrated her 30th birthday by that point, however, and she readily admits that a future as an elite sportswoman was far from her thoughts. While recovering in hospital, she had watched athletes at the Beijing Paralympics on television with awe, describing their efforts as “superhuman”, not realising that by the time the next Games came around in London in 2012 hers would be one of the British names cheered to the rafters by sell-out crowds at the Olympic Stadium.

A 1,500m world record and a silver medal on the global stage have followed in the four years since and, in July, Nicholls' selection for a second Paralympics – held in Rio from September 7-18 – was rubber-stamped in the first wave of athletics selections for the GB squad.

“I bugged people and asked them to let me try sports,” recalled Nicholls. “That sparked it and it just shows anything is possible. 
“I've always loved sport and had been really active so I wanted to do everything I could do. I used to love running and couldn't do that any more, and I couldn't get on my bike any more, so wheelchair racing was the next best thing. It started out as going round the block after work and turned into a just bit more than that!
“You never know if you are going to be good at a sport unless you try it and the good thing about parasport is that there are a lot of opportunities to do that now. I have tried so many and wouldn't have been able to do it without the various groups who get you there and help you – be it sailing, wheelchair basketball or dry-slope skiing in Gloucester. It is all really accessible and it is thanks to those guys that I am where I am now. I might not be in the sport I started in, but if I hadn't tried all of those, I wouldn't have moved on.”

As a former equine student at Hartpury College, where she now inspires the next generation of rising stars as a sports ambassador, Nicholls initially competed with some success at national level in para-dressage. The horse who helped her, Harry, developed a deteriorating lameness, however, and in 2011 she took “one of the hardest decisions I've had to make” and began to focus on wheelchair racing – a sport she had first tried in Leeds but in which she was progressing quickly under the watchful eye of coach and mentor Job King following similar encouragement from Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson.

Classified in the T34 category, she had already posted Paralympic A qualifying standards the previous spring and, 15 months after her first race competed for ParalympicsGB in the 100m and 200m, finishing seventh in the latter. For Nicholls, it is a case of the longer the distance, the better and she will race over 800m in Rio, having finished second to Hannah Cockroft at the IPC World Championships in Doha last October. Bronze medalist, 14-year-old Kare Adenegan, completed a British 1-2-3 but repeating such a clean sweep in Brazil will be an altogether tougher proposition.
“We all want to get a medal but the 800m is still a long sprint – and I'm not a sprinter,” said Nicholls, who turned 39 in July. “It's the longest distance in my class [T34] so it is the best one available. We have some great youngsters coming through and there is an American girl who is rapid and has beaten Hannah Cockroft's record twice. 
“I am the oldest in my class and there are 15 and 16 year olds coming through – there is nowhere else in life that you would be competing against people who are less than half your age. That's the way it is and the good thing is that there are no barriers or prejudices. You are all athletes when you're on the track and that's great. The youngsters have their fast-twitch fibres but hopefully I have the experience and can use my brain a bit more and race that way. There is probably a lap of tactical stuff, which is my thing, so that's what I need to work on. 
“Going into London I was a complete outsider and it was amazing to be selected. I went there for experience but ever since then I have been on the British team and it is my job, so there are pressures that go with that. It feels very different. It's still very exciting but in a different way. Rio will be fantastic and to get this opportunity twice in my lifetime is incredible.”
Nicholls will be joined in Brazil by a racing chair christened Dolly because its pink and orange colour scheme resembles a bag of Dolly Mixtures – which is also the name she gives to her supporters and backers. The need to don the ParalympicsGB kit will not prevent her from breaking with the tradition of painting her nails to match, or wearing a sock of each colour on either foot.
Hartpury sponsor Dolly and also provided the handbike called Acorn that has proved invaluable to Nicholls, who lives 11 miles away in Tewkesbury and competes for Coventry Godiva Harriers, as she works herself into peak condition for the Games.

While not ruling out a third Paralympics appearance at Tokyo in 2020, Nicholls is planning to focus on marathons once her next adventure is over. She has an entry confirmed for the New York event in November, although logistical issues may prevent her from taking part, and is gunning for the London race in the spring after a puncture saw her last attempt at the capital's showpiece end in heartbreak in 2015.

She said: “There are lots of paths to go down, but I haven't decided which one to take yet. I'm certainly not thinking of stopping. I love road racing and marathons and am definitely doing London next year. I'm going to smash it.
“I know I could be really good at that. At the moment, there is not a class for me but hopefully I'll trailblaze and get people along and build that side of things for the sport as a whole.
“I don't know whether I will be doing track athletics come Tokyo because I'm getting older and the younger ones are really quick but you never say never. I could well be there but who knows what I'll be doing.
“For now, though, I've got a chance of a medal in Rio and I'm just going to go for it,” she added. “As long as I do well and don't let anyone down, I'll be happy.

About Author

Neil Beck
Neil edited XtraTime magazine across all 11 issues from September 2015 to the spring of 2017. He is a vastly-experienced West Country sports journalist who cut his teeth at the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald before moving on to become head of sport at Bath News & Media.