Embracing the Storm
Blasted by severe wind gusts and sideways rain, Mel Nicholls feels most alive and passionate. She is an outdoor girl, and always has been. Intuitively, and especially in these conditions, she understands her insignificance in comparison to the natural forces around her. But, at the same time, is infused with life energy that flows amongst the flora, fauna, and everything alive. This makes her feel most powerful and significant. “I love life, I like being happy, and want those around me happy.” It sounds ‘Pollyanna-ish’, but Mel is as real as can be. She lives life like an explorer, unique in her pursuit of finding HER way of doing things she loves. She is motivated and is also determined to help others find their unique way, by encouraging creative problem-solving.
After three devastating strokes in her twenties caused by an Atrial Septal Defect, or hole in her heart, Mel has had plenty of practice facing personal storms and hardship. She has learned to transform, through a mind-set that reaffirms, “There is always a way to do the things you love. It might be harder, take longer, be further, but you can find your unique way of doing them.” For Mel, her disability has forced her to be a better problem-solver, and ultimately a better person. “The challenges of nature and the elements, teach us all so much”, says Mel. Her life is a tapestry of realized intention, from sports, to working with at-risk youth, to Search and Rescue (SARs).
Mel is one of those beautiful people who experiences defeat and yet moves forward with courage. In her words: “Life is for living. Make that happen. Understand you are always the person you’ve been, but now can be better.”
Tell us about the journey that led you to SideStix.
I found SideStix because of my sports background, but also my outdoors background. I love the outdoors. I’m far happier and want to spend as much time outside as I can. I found that quite limited with my other crutches. The first few years, I certainly never thought about going up a hill or anything like that. My crutches always held me back. I’d wear through the ferrules on the bottom pretty quickly if I was putting any distance in, because I was literally putting all my weight on my crutches. And if you’re trying to get through any sort of mud or anything like that, it would just suck the bottom off.
I thought I could go further, and get a bit of my outdoor “adverturiness” back, so I began experimenting with my day chair. Because of the strokes, I still suffer with fatigue sometimes, so I use a day chair if I’m struggling, or if my shoulders are not in a particularly happy state. But I do try to walk on crutches as much as I can. I enjoy being upright, and I quite like being tall! (Laughs) Walking on crutches, that’s who I am! They’re a part of me now. I can’t stand up or walk without crutches. I can’t use the left side of my body, and I don’t have balance either, so I love to have that stability and the function.
I had an off-road wheel attached to my wheelchair and I’d go down cliffs and try to work out how to get back up, but there’s only so much I can do with that. I was looking into what else was available, and I couldn’t find anything until I found SideStix. To have the option of having the different bottoms for different terrains was exactly what I needed, and what I hoped that somebody would come up with. And thankfully you did!
What has been your best experience with your SideStix?
Since my strokes, nothing has really bothered me that I couldn’t do, because, like I said, there was always a way of doing something. I’ve always loved horses, but since I couldn’t jump anymore, I learned that I could do para dressage so I could still ride. I learned to ski after my strokes, with outriggers. Thankfully, I’m a pretty strong swimmer. But the one thing that I missed was when I saw people just walking up on the hills. I love putting my walking boots on and just getting out, particularly in wild weather. There’s not many people out, and the wind’s howling, the rain’s pouring down, and there’s something really special and energizing about that. That was something I really missed, and I just wasn’t able to do that. But my SideStix totally reopened a part of my life that I thought I couldn’t get back.
Here in the UK there’s a charity called Adaptive Grand Slam, run by injured military veterans, that supports people through their recovery journeys through mountaineering. It’s really important to be around other people that have gone through similar journeys, and I love meeting people, so it was a great excuse to go and meet some new friends. I was really interested, but thought what they were doing was way beyond anything that I could do. One of the goals I had set when I was back in hospital was to climb a mountain again, and in my head, I felt like if I had the right equipment and the right team around me, I could do it. We got in touch after the Rio Paralympics, and they set up a plan to go for a weekend in the Alps. Now, the mountain that I’d planned to do eventually was probably one of our UK mountains, like Snowdon or Ben Nevis. I certainly didn’t expect to be able to do this! The group was going to try and summit Gran Paradiso, a 4000m peak and the largest mountain solely in Italy. I didn’t expect to summit; I just wanted to see how far I could get! But I knew it would be my equipment that held me back, so that’s why we ended up getting the SideStix.They were a total game changer!
At the time, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was a two-day summit attempt, and it was in October after a big storm, so there was a lot more snow further down that we’d expected. On day one, we were walking through snow and ice, but the fact that I could just stop and change the bottoms and put on the ice spikes or the baskets was fantastic. They just gave me so much more confidence. I wasn’t the “Bambi on ice” that I normally am!
We got to the mountain hut the first night, I think at just under 3,000 metres, and got out to see the sunrise over the Alps at 4 o’clock in the morning. To be out there in the mountains with no one else around was just the most magical experience. We could see Mont Blanc in the distance, there was snow everywhere, and the sky was all purples and blues. We were just standing there and feeling that warmth come to our bodies. We were literally on top of the world and feeling insignificant and powerful all at the same time. It took me 10 years to climb a mountain again, but I still didn’t expect it to be anything that big. And I couldn’t have done it without my SideStix.
What does ‘defy convention’ mean to you?
I think I defy convention in a couple of ways. Society has a habit of trying to fit people in certain boxes, whoever you are, or whatever walk of life. I don’t feel like anyone should have to fit in a certain box, because we’re all individuals. Just because we have disabilities doesn’t mean we’re breakable or vulnerable or limited. We are who we are. Whatever convention is supposed to be, we defy it. And it’s not necessarily anything to do with disability; it’s to do with being human. It’s about being adaptable and resilient, and finding those ways to live your life.
One of my mottos is “there’s always a way”, so whatever convention way of doing something, whether it’s walking up a mountain or whatever you do day-to-day, there is always a way to do it your own way. It might be harder, it might take longer, it might be further, but I do truly believe there’s still always a way you can find to do it. We’ve got limitations, but it shouldn’t be our equipment that holds us back. When you’ve got your crutches, that are a part of you, who knows where you can go!
What is your favourite part about your SideStix?
I think everything is my favourite part! But if I had to say one thing, it’s what they enable me to do. I love the suspension that helps my shoulders. I love that I can choose adaptations for terrain, and can quickly split them down and pack them in my back for abseiling down a rope or jumping on my paddle board.
I also love that my Stix are pink! My favourite thing is that you can choose the bright colours. I can never fly under the radar because I’ve always got my pink Stix!
You know, the average pair of crutches aren’t great for long-term shoulder health, and it seems to be that crutches are still made for people that are just on them short-term, for broken legs or something. They’re not made for full-time users. The fact that SideStix have got suspension is just fantastic. I’ve started working with a volunteer group and they mentioned the other day that I had to go and search an area down a path, and told me to just “go and bounce down that path”. It really made me smile because I love that people don’t look at me and think, “oh, should I ask her if she can go down there if she’s on crutches?”. They just think I bounce! (Laughs)
How do you stay motivated?
I like being positive because it makes me happy, and it makes other people happy. But everybody goes through things in their lives, we all have challenges and really rubbish times. I had another particularly bad sort of health problem last year and I’ve come out the other side now, thankfully, but we all have those ups and downs. It’s tough, but it’s human for us to feel down and get depressed and think, “how am I going to carry on?”. But I like to be happy and positive. I love life. And as tough as the last stroke was – and it was really tough because obviously I’d had two others quite a few years before – I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t know at the time when I’d get better, or how much I was going to get better. I never accepted that I couldn’t do things. I just thought, “well, this is what I’ve got now… what can I do with it?”
I remember watching the Beijing Paralympics when I was in the hospital, and that was a real moment for me. I’d never been into sports like track and field. I’d never even watched a Paralympic games before. But when I watched it, it wasn’t about thinking that I was disabled and they were disabled. It was that they were athletes and they were so passionate about what they were doing and why they were doing it, and being the best versions of themselves. And I just thought, “however long this takes me to get walking again, to get running, cycling, or even driving… if they can do it, I can do it”. And that sort of started my journey into sports, really. It was my motivator, and helped me find my identity again. I did feel that I’d lost it, because life had changed, and I wasn’t quite sure who I was. It was a massive help just being around people that loved what they were doing, loved life, and loved sports. Just having a laugh with each other was great, and so was having that focus, that goal.
I think it’s very important to set goals. I’ve never looked too far into the future, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. People sometimes ask, “where do you see yourself in five years?”. I’d say, “I want to be happy, and I want those around me to be happy and healthy, but other than that, I have no idea”! And that’s fine! But you’ve got to have goals and targets, and you’ve got to have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, and however many more, because life doesn’t always go according to plan. It’s good to be able to adapt and be resilient, and just keep moving forward. I’m very grateful for every day, and just try to make the most of it. Sometimes I don’t want to get up, sometimes I am miserable and grumpy. But I try not to say that it’s a bad day or a bad week. it’s more about how I accept where I am at that moment and think about how I can turn it around to make the most of the rest of the day. There’s always a way to do that, however big or small. Motivation definitely comes from other people as well. I love what I do through sports, but for me it’s also about giving back, and feeding off connecting with others through the charity work I do, and my expedition leadership work. That definitely keeps me motivated.
It’s also important to push yourself out of your comfort zone and face your fears. Fear is definitely part of being human, but life is for living, and you have to go out there and make that happen. It’s not an option to just sit on the sofa and wait for something to happen, because it’s not going to work like that. I don’t see it as courage; I see it as pushing myself in a ‘calculated risk’ way. I get out in the hills and I’m on my crutches, but I’m prepared. I know my routes, I have my maps with me, I have my backpack with anything I might need in case I get stuck, I’ve got my head torch, and everything else. Sometimes people look at me and say something like, “you’re so brave for being out, walking down the road”, but that’s not brave. There are far braver people in this world! Even if I’m climbing a mountain with the right team around me, it’s because I’ve prepared, the team is prepared, we know what to do, and it’s all planned. But you still have to push yourself out of that comfort zone. It’s an uncomfortable space, but that’s important because the next time you can push even further because you’ve made that comfortable space a little bigger!
Tell us about some of the defining moments in your life.
As cheesy as it sounds, I think life is a journey. Obviously competing at London 2012 was an absolutely incredible dream. I had this dream of competing at the games, and it could have gone either way because I was a complete newbie to the sport. I’d been racing 15 months and then I got the call to say I was going to London. I had a bit of a meltdown because I didn’t know if I was ready for it, but it was incredible. My first marathon in New York was definitely a highlight. I hand-cycled and hiked around the Faroe Islands on my own, and broke the world record of hand-cycling Britain end-to-end. These are all highlights on their own, but they’re all part of the bigger picture. You grow from everything, you learn from your mistakes, and you learn from the successes as well. I never want to just stop after one of those moments and say, “well that’s it” and then just talk about that one thing for the rest of my life. I like to think about what’s next, and that’s quite exciting, isn’t it?
Is there anything you would do differently?
I try never to look back. You can’t change the past, can you? I think whatever happens, happens. I had a great life before my strokes, but I have a great life now, and I think it was the fact that I made of my life what it was. You can’t take life for granted. I just think you have to make the most of it, and try to live the best way for yourself, and make a difference for the better. Again, it sounds really cheesy (laughs), but that’s what’s important to me.
What is the best investment you’ve ever made?
I think an investment we should all make is in our health. Without our health, we aren’t really anything! I work hard to keep healthy and be as fit as I am able, because we can’t always control our health. What we can do is give ourselves the best go at it, and try to lead healthy lives, both mentally and physically.
Do you have a message for other crutch users?
Don’t think of your crutches as a negative, or as a barrier. Don’t let anyone else make you feel that way either. I’m often apologizing because they’re in the way, or falling down, but we shouldn’t feel that we’re in the way. My Stix are me! I call them my “adventure legs” (laughs). I can’t walk or stand up without them. They’re awesome and I love them! So be proud of them. They’re not barriers at all – they can take you wherever you want to go. Make them work for you, because they are you, and they just make us more awesome!