Mel's meteoric rise to glory

PUBLISHED: 14:12 09 November 2012 | UPDATED: 22:18 20 February 2013

Mel's meteoric rise to glory

Mel's meteoric rise to glory

Mel Nicholls and her custom-building racing chair, Dolly, won the hearts of the nation this summer at the Paralympics in London

Mels meteoric rise to glory

Mel Nicholls and her custom-building racing chair, Dolly, won the hearts of the nation this summer at the Paralympics in London

Words by Katie Jarvis

Photography by Antony Thompson, Thousand Word Media

Paralympian Mel Nicholls won something more important than medals this summer she won the hearts of just about everyone in Gloucestershire. It seemed as if the whole county was cheering on this golden girl, who fought back from a series of strokes to gain a place in the 100m and 200m wheelchair sprints in her famous custom-built racing chair, Dolly.

Despite only starting racing two years ago, Mel has enjoyed meteoric success. Following selection, I came into the Games this summer as a platform from which to begin my athletics career, so to be a finalist was amazing, she says. My coach believes Ive another one, possibly two, Games in me so Rio is definitely on the cards. A talented horsewoman, she has also competed in para-dressage.

One particularly dedicated band of followers are the children at Winchcombe Abbey Primary School, where Mel works part-time as a teaching assistant.She shares her historic cottage with her equally-famous pet rabbit, Cam.

Where do you live and why?

I live in Tewkesbury, kind of by accident, but it means Ive got great access to Cheltenham and Warwick, where I train. Weve got a [wheelchair] racing academy at Warwick University, and my coach is based there, so I go two or three times a week; but Cheltenham Prince of Wales is my home track and I train there every day in between.

My house in Tewkesbury probably isnt ideal its down an alley, for one thing but I love where I live. There are so many ghost stories based around the towns old alleyways and, certainly, Ive had some strange happenings here: things Ive found in odd places or lost. But the house has a lovely feeling. Even if there is somebody there, Im happy to share!

How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?

I moved to Gloucestershire in 1996 when I came down to study at Hartpury College (though I guess thats not quite the Cotswolds). Then I moved to Cheltenham in 2005. But I grew up in the countryside of Worcestershire. Before I had my own horses, I used to cycle round with my friend for miles and miles, leaving notes on gates, saying, Do you want your horses looked after and ridden? I found all sorts to ride that way!

Whats your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?

My perfect weekend would be at a competition. Its so good to feel you havent sat around being lazy all weekend; that youve pushed yourself to the limits. On the social side, I get to see all my friends who are racing and also meet some fantastic new people. Until youve been around disabilities, its easy to have assumptions; but were all the same and were all individuals. Its not what people look like, or what they can or cannot do, or what theyre missing. You see the person; the amazing athlete.

If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?

In a fairytale dream, Id love to live in Broadway Tower, waiting for my prince to come along! To make it perfect, Id have a racing track built around it.

Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?

In a new house. In theory, it would be better for me to live in a modern building but life is full of challenges. If youre not careful, you can make life too easy for yourself.

Wheres the best pub in the area?

I do go to pubs but I havent drunk alcohol for nearly a year now; its just pointless calories and toxins. Because I wanted to give myself the best chance, anything I didnt need was banned cake was the hardest! Having said that, one of the best pub experiences was the night of my 200m final when I walked into a bar with my coach and the whole place erupted with applause. I was really embarrassed because people quite often mistake me for Hannah [Paralympic gold-medal winner Hannah Cockcroft] as were both Brits and blondes in the same race. But they actually knew it was me because theyd just seen me on TV. That was really nice.

And the best place to eat?

Star Bistro [at the National Star College, Cheltenham]. I support what they do there, helping disabled students prepare for the world of work, and the food is amazing. Rob [Rees, who jointly set up and runs the bistro] and his family came down to the Games to watch me.

Have you a favourite tearoom?

I havent a favourite yet but there are so many in Tewkesbury and Im working my way round them one cake at a time. Ive lost a bit of weight recently so my chairs a bit big; rather than the expensive option of having to get another new racing chair, Im eating cake!

What would you do for a special occasion?

The most fantastic celebration was the lap of honour with Hannah [Cockcroft, who won gold] after the 200m race. We talked about it beforehand and she said, No matter what happens, whether youre in the final or not, youre coming on the lap of honour. Sure enough, after she crossed the line, she looked back for me. I was like, Hannah, dont be so silly! but she insisted I went with her, which was lovely. It definitely brought a few tears to my eyes.

Whats the best thing about the Cotswolds?

The support I get. My coach has told me there might be a time when I have to move to be based closer to a track. I may well do that but Gloucestershire will always be my home. Its as if were all one big team. Local people cant do enough for you. As far as Im concerned, were all on this incredible journey together.

... and the worst?

Sunday drivers. Its a lovely place to tootle along but, when Im trying to get to training, it can be infuriating.

Which shop could you not live without?

Cheltenham Cycles [in Winchcombe Street]. Theyve been brilliant. If ever theres something I need tweaked with my chair, or if Im trying to get tyres on (which, being a girl, I really struggle with!), then theyre there. For the Games, they lent me a special time-trial racing helmet and supplied me with lots of tyres.

Whats the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?

When it comes to sports for disabled people, weve got the facilities, weve got the coaches; its just a case of people in authority seeing the potential out there. Rather than schools thinking, This child is in a chair, therefore they cant do PE; they can sit on the side well, no; not at all! Theres so much they can do and I hope the Paralympics have highlighted the opportunities that there are.

What is a person from the Cotswolds called?

A lot seem to be called Jack, which is a good name.

What would be a three-course Cotswold meal?

When you live on your own, you tend to eat what you can find so Ive become a bit boring when it comes to food. Ive been a vegetarian since I was 15, though I do eat fish, and I love anything really fresh. So Id have a lovely salad with pine nuts; then vegetables with some kind of fish. An ideal three-course would have to have chocolate pudding but thats not good for training. What Id really like is a zero-calorie chocolate pudding, full of protein: Go-Faster Chocolate Pudding.

Whats your favourite view in the Cotswolds?

Sadly, I didnt get a medal at the Games but, when I came back, I found a friend of mine had hand-painted my letterbox gold. I thought that was just the best thing.

Whats your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?

I really like Ford, over towards Stow, because it has the racing stables, Jackdaws Castle, and the Plough pub. Horses always will be part of my life its in my blood. I did para-dressage up until April last year but, sadly, my horse became lame so I made the decision to concentrate on my athletics.

Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds

Cotswold stone walls; Horses;People.

Whats your favourite Cotswolds building and why?

Sudeley Castle. It must hold so many stories and so much history.

What would you never do in the Cotswolds?

Id never give up.

Starter homes or executive properties?

I hate to see fields being built on and there are so many empty and derelict buildings they could make habitable Alternatively, everyone could just live in Sudeley Castle. Im sure its big enough.

What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?

You can take the girl out of the Cotswolds but you cant take the Cotswolds out of the girl: so wherever Ive been America, Tunisia, Switzerland thats where the Cotswolds begin. They come with me.

If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?

I have a locket with a photo of my old horse, Joey, who died. I had him for 16 years and he had been through everything with me; he was my rock and got me through the bad times. When I lost him, it was really hard so I have his photo and a lock of his tail that was made into a bracelet, which I take wherever I go. The last place he lived was on Cleeve Hill so thinking of him always reminds me of the Cotswolds.

Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?

Not being able to walk far is the main thing I miss. I used to love going over Cleeve Hill, wandering in the wildness for hours and hours.

Whats the first piece of advice youd give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?

Its not London.

And which book should they read?

My book. I havent written it yet but Im going to.

Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?

Cheese-rolling. I dont think anywhere else does anything so crazy.

If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?

Id go and have a mooch around Highgrove, just to be nosy. Id find out if Prince Charles really does talk to the trees, and Id look around Harrys room to see whats going on.

To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?

To Harry Potter (but I dont know if hes died because I havent read all the books so please dont tell me). Or JK Rowling even though shes still alive - because she based a lot of it on characters around Gloucestershire and because the books were partly filmed in Gloucester Cathedral.

The Cotswolds aspic or asphalt?

I love to keep things as they were. I had to have a new bay window in this cottage: the old one, which had beautiful whorls in the glass, had to be ripped out. I was told, But its rotten and draughty and would have cost you a fortune in heating, but I loved it.

What attitude best sums up the Cotswolds?

Wed do anything for you.

With whom would you most like to have a cider?

Even before the Games, it would have been Oscar Pistorius [the South African Paralympian sprint runner]. I met him on the warm-up track, just after hed lost his 100m race against Jonnie Peacock. I had a chat and asked him if I could have my photo taken with him, and he said, Excuse me, Ive been crying; I didnt have a very good race. For a guy to be so open well, that just melted me! He then helped me get on the bus after the driver had said there wasnt room for another wheelchair, and talked to me about the work he does with youngsters in South Africa. Hes such a gentleman.

If youd like to find out more about Mel, or to sponsor her, visit

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