Danielle Brown: Keeping her eyes on the prize

The archer is the first Paralympian to be selected for England's able-bodied team in the Commonwealth Games. She's taking no prisoners. Emily Dugan meets Danielle Brown
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The Independent Online

Danielle Brown wears a formidable frown. The 22-year-old Paralympian archer has many things to glower about – the excruciating pain she experiences daily from a neurological condition; the fact it has left her unable to stand without a crutch, and the realisation she can never again play the sports she loves.

But it is the memory of the week she learned she had become the first ever Paralympian picked to represent England's able-bodied team in the Commonwealth Games that is making her irate now.

It's not that Brown wasn't pleased by the news; she was. But having struggled for years to get sponsorship as a Paralympian and even winning gold in Beijing, she was taken aback by what happened next.

"After Beijing, I wrote to a bow company to ask for sponsorship," she explains, sitting in the café at the archery centre where she practices outside Bingley, West Yorkshire. "They said: 'No. We're full up'. But as soon as I was chosen for the able-bodied team I was given two bows to try for free and a potential sponsorship deal. So, in a way, I don't know whether to be pleased or really annoyed about being selected. It's bittersweet. What really annoys me is that the country claims that disability is on an equal footing and you've got all this brilliant disability legislation, but in practice it just doesn't work out."

Qualifying for the Commonwealth team is not the only first Brown has achieved this year. A few days earlier she got a first in her law degree from Leicester University; yesterday she took gold at the European para-archery championships in France, and last week she set a world record with her qualifying score. Scoring 697 out of a possible 720 in a round of 72 arrows, she was just 4 points behind the able-bodied record.

Born in Lothersdale, near Skipton, North Yorkshire, to Duncan and Liz Brown, a business consultant and a teaching assistant, she is the eldest of three sisters. The family has always been active, participating in lots of outdoor activities together, so when, at 11, Danielle began experiencing sharp pains in her feet they hoped it was temporary.

"It started coming off and on after I'd been running, mainly. My mum initially thought it was because we hadn't done as much walking because the foot and mouth outbreak meant we couldn't go up in the hills. She thought it was because I wasn't exercising as much, but the more exercise I did, the worse it got."

Eventually she was diagnosed with reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a neurological condition that causes unrelenting pain. As time went on the condition worsened, until she could barely walk. She describes the sensation as "a really intense, sharp, burning pain all through my feet", adding, matter-of-factly, "On the pain scale, they put it on the same level as terminal cancer."

Before she begins a gruelling description of the years spent trying, with increasing trauma, to continue as normal, she warns: "I really hate sob stories". Her story is one of determination and even foolhardiness but it is not, she insists, sob-worthy.

"I have done some pretty stupid things. I was determined to do my Duke of Edinburgh Award expedition and that was a 30-mile walk over three days on crutches. I couldn't walk for a month after. I said to myself I'd get round the course if I had to do it on my hands and knees. I can't remember any of it. It was awful. My mum went to the doctors to say can we have some painkillers that will just knock her out, because she's in so much pain."

Not long after attempting the type of physical exertion many able-bodied people would baulk at, she reached a stage where she could hardly walk at all. "There was one point where my balance just completely went and I wandered round looking like I was drunk. I kept getting thrown out of shops; at a petrol station I got told I couldn't buy things because I was drunk, and I was, like, 'well, actually I'm disabled'. My friends were brilliant, they'd link up with me on either side and then off we'd go. That was when I was 15, 16. My legs are slightly stronger now. I've had to relearn how to walk, so when I walk it's a conscious thing."

It was then that she turned to archery. "I've always been really, really active and my family always did a lot of cycling, running and walking together. When I became disabled I had to give that all up and it was driving me nuts. I was just sat in the house all the time. I thought, 'well, archery doesn't involve running around' and I didn't know much about Paralympic sport in general, so I figured I'd start. I signed up at the archery club when I was 15."

Her family did more than support her in her choice – they joined in. Mum, dad and both sisters all took up their own bows and arrows and went to shooting practices with her. Now Georgina, her 17-year-old younger sister, is also a rising star on the British junior team.

Before lunch Brown had been showing off her shooting skills at the range. Every arrow went straight in the bullseye, as she focused with almost eerie calm on the target. Once all the arrows had been shot she got up from her trademark red stool – a bicycle seat on a tripod that she uses to lean on in competitions – and began the long walk to pick them up.

Brown politely declined offers of help, wincing as she made the halting and laborious journey towards the target. Her insistence seemed like stubbornness but the real reason soon emerged: "These arrows are £400 for 12 and I can't afford to get them bent". Without a sponsor, such considerations are vitally important.

Despite the severity of her condition, she has made a point of not wanting to be in a wheelchair. "I felt, no matter how bad mine gets, I'm not going in a wheelchair. It's kind of like giving up." The exceptions, where she has used one, did not go well, she says. "I was in Edinburgh once and these Chinese people got off the bus and started taking pictures of me because I was in a wheelchair. I got really, really angry. It was horrible."

Not using a chair has its problems too, though. "Every tutor I had at university, the first question would be 'How did you hurt your leg?', and I'd be like, 'I'm a cripple'. Every single one would say 'I'm sorry'. I just thought, don't say that, it makes me sound like some sort of defect."

Having proved she can match and exceed the able-bodied team, she is keen the Paralympians get more recognition when 2012 comes around. Together with her boyfriend, Ali Jawad, a Paralympic powerlifter whom she met at a photo shoot ahead of Beijing, she is keen to see their sports get the recognition they deserve.

"I went to Sports Personality in 2008 after Beijing and I was a bit disappointed" she explains. "The Olympic team got nominated for team of the year and the Paralympic team didn't even get nominated. We got more gold medals than they got medals in total and we didn't even get a nomination. It was a bit gutting," she admits. "It makes you think, obviously, our medals don't mean the same as their medals."


Having taken up archery at the age of 15, Danielle Brown won a gold medal at the Beijing Paralympics

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