Mel Nicholls loves adventure, and the combination of this and her passion for sport has taken Nicholls all around the World, including two Paralympic Games, world and European medals and world record endurance challenges.
A committee member of Tewkesbury Triathlon Club, the para athlete is now looking to take part in her first paratriathlon, the latest challenge in a life that continues to be lived by adventure after a series of life-changing strokes.
Nicholls has been unable to walk without crutches and has limited use of her left side since her third stroke in 2008, but she was determined to return to the adventurous and active lifestyle she had enjoyed before.
“I always loved being outside, being active and being fit and healthy, so it was natural for me to find any way I could after being ill to get back outside, to get fit and to have a focus,” Nicholls reflected.
“Once I was able to after my last stroke, I would find out whatever opportunities were available in my area for para sport because at the time I felt I had lost a part of me. I had lost my work, I wasn’t able to drive, I had to move out of the flat I was in, my life had been completely turned upside down, of course it was tough.
“But getting back involved in sport definitely gave me back my identity which I know sounds dramatic but it’s true. I tried and regularly took part in many different sports, and eventually turned my full focus to athletics. Really it was my coach who saw potential in me, knew all about the sport and guided me to getting classified, training and I had a really good group to train with.”
It was a whirlwind 15 months from when Nicholls first started wheelchair racing to representing Great Britain at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London having watched the 2008 Paralympic Games from her hospital bed just four years before.
A finalist at both London 2012 and Rio 2016, Nicholls also won medals at World and European Championships, along with setting world records on the track. Originally beginning handcycling for injury rehabilitation and as cross-training for athletics, Nicholls also went on to compete internationally in handcycling.
It was the combination of the two and wanting to train with others that saw Nicholls first get involved in swim, bike, run, joining the club where she lives in Tewkesbury.
“Wheelchair racing is amazing, and handcycling, cycling in general, is just next level freedom,” Nicholls said. “You can go anywhere and I just love exploring and being more independent on my bike, so that has always been a huge part of my life.
“After Rio, I talent transferred to the Great Britain Cycling Team and I was competing on the World Cup scene. Then, because I was both cycling and marathon wheelchair racing and they were both endurance and most of the time I was training on my own, which I don’t mind but it’s always nicer to train with other people, I thought about joining my local triathlon club.
“I knew of the club, but I always thought you had to be a great triathlete, which kind of put me off, but when I enquired they were nothing but wonderful, friendly and an inclusive club, so I first started for the social side to have people to train with.
“I’ve always loved swimming, I’ve never been great at it, but I wanted to get better, so I got in the pool and it’s great cross-training for my other disciplines. It worked for when I was focused on cycling or when I was focused on the marathons, but also improved all three elements as well with a great social side.”
Nicholls first joined the club a few months before the first national lockdown in 2020 and has since become a member of the club’s committee.
“I’ve loved it, it’s been really hard for sure,” Nicholls added. “I’ve always loved swimming, but I’m not a natural swimmer and especially now I don’t use my legs, so it is really challenging but I like a challenge and, while the coaches aren’t para specific coaches, they are willing to work with me to talk through ideas.
“Just being open to ideas and thinking outside the box is really, really important and listening to the athlete on what they think and what works best for them, and the club’s coaches are great at that.
“I love cross-training, I like mixing things up, so actually triathlon, for me, is the best of all worlds. I get to be the athlete and you have that social support and you have the three disciplines and putting it all together. We’ve really adapted as a club throughout the lockdowns, we still do online group training alongside the in-person sessions now, so even when we can’t get together, we’re still a big community.
“It’s enjoyable to have these sessions and everybody looks out for each other and you just grow as a person and as an athlete.”
Nicholls is no stranger to a challenge having set a world record in 2019 when handcycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats in under seven days. This year she took on an even bigger challenge, a year after having a 5kg ovarian tumour removed, handcycling 4,800 miles around the coast of the UK in 75 days unsupported – the furthest distance ridden by handcycle.
Is a triathlon now the next challenge for Nicholls?
“It’s definitely on my list,” Nicholls responded. “Because I’m a long-distance specialist in time I would love to do one of the bigger ones. We put our own event on as a club so maybe that will be the one I start with. It’s trying to piece everything together, adding in the transitions, having handlers and things like that, but I am really looking forward to taking on my first triathlon and want to give myself the best chance at doing alright at it.”
You can find out more about paratriathlon and taking up the sport by visiting the British Triathlon website on the link below.