Face to face with Melanie Brown

her latest Face to Face interview, KAREN BETHELL talks to North Norfolk District Council fitness scheme co-ordinator Melanie Brown. An accomplished athlete, Melanie two years ago fulfilled a lifelong dream of running for her country.

her latest Face to Face interview, KAREN BETHELL talks to North Norfolk District Council fitness scheme co-ordinator Melanie Brown. An accomplished athlete, Melanie two years ago fulfilled a lifelong dream of running for her country. But her passion for sport is matched by her interest in African American history and, for Melanie, Barack Obama's milestone election victory on November 4 held particular resonance . . .

A sports fan from a young age, Norwich-born Melanie was in her school netball, hockey and cross country teams.

She was county high jump champion 5 years on the trot between the ages of 15 and 20 and, since taking up running at 19, has been Norfolk 400m champion 9 times, breaking her own record in 2002.

After studying leisure and recreation at City College, she worked for 3 years as a fitness instructor at Norwich Sport Village before travelling to the US to study at Wallace State Community College in Alabama in 1993.

Melanie then won a scholarship to the University of North Florida, where she completed a degree in history, also running for the university.

A job as a museum archivist saw her spend 3 years working at a former lighthouse in Florida, regularly returning to the UK to compete in running events.

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After winning a second scholarship, Melanie went back to Florida to study for a masters degree in African American history, writing her thesis on Black Panther movement founder Huey Newton.

While studying, she met an Olympic-class coach and, after being offered a fellowship to do a PhD in African American history, decided to stay in the US to train with him.

But, when two of her tutors left and her coach moved away 2 years later, Melanie decided to give up her studies and return to Norfolk.

Staying with her parents Brian and Marlene at Sheringham, she toyed with the idea of joining MI5 or the National Archives in London before taking a temporary job as a conservation and leisure administrator with North Norfolk District Council.

She was last year asked to set up Fit Together, a pilot programme run by Active Norfolk with funding from Lloyds pharmacy and Sport England.

The scheme, which aims to improve the fitness of those in mid-life and beyond, has been a great success, with around 430 people living in the north Norfolk area signing up to take part in walks and keep fit and badminton sessions at Holt, Mundesley, Briston and Sheringham.

Melanie, who is now Fit Together co-ordinator, is planning to add more activities next year, including Nordic walking sessions at Sheringham and badminton classes at Gresham.

In spite of her busy working life, Melanie, who lives at Sheringham with partner Mark and their Labrador retriever cross Teddy, still finds time to train for up to two-and-a-half hours 6 times a week.

A member of top London club Woodford Green and Essex Ladies, she has been competing as a master since 2006, winning the British championships and running for England at a tri-national event at the age of 35, and, last year coming 6th in the world 400m championships in Italy.

Melanie, who still holds the Norfolk 400m record, is now working towards the World Masters Association championships, which takes place in Helsinki next August.

A talented singer, she enjoys entering karaoke competitions with dad Brian, with the pair both past winners of Sheringham carnival talent show, which they entered as Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra.

She also hopes, in the future, to write a book on the life of Huey Newton.

What's the best thing about your job?

In the same way I was given the opportunity to do things in the US, I think it's brilliant, in a small way, to be able to change people's lives. Many of the people who come along to Fit Together events have lost partners and, for them, it's not just a way of keeping fit, it's a chance to meet new people and socialise.

And the worst?

Apart from not being able to control the weather, not being able to please absolutely everyone; if there are 100 people on a walk and 99 are happy and one isn't, then it will spoil my day.

What is the one possession you would save if your house was on fire?

I'd try and get my trophy cabinet out of the door!

Where do you go to unwind?

If I'm really stressed, I go training as, when I'm running, it calms me down and I forget everything.

What is your favourite Norfolk building?

Oxburgh Hall because, in some states of America where the only English people they have seen are on TV, they think we all live in places like that. I wish I did!

Have you ever done anything outrageous?

When I was 15 I wanted to be a model, so I joined an agency and ended up doing a fashion show modelling wedding dresses. I was so nervous, my mum gave me some brandy and I didn't remember a thing about it afterwards!

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I'd be able to run faster!

What is your proudest moment?

After dreaming of running for my country all my life, finally getting my England vest at the age of 35.

And your greatest achievement?

Getting my masters degree.

Whom do you most admire?

I couldn't choose between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X - seeing Obama become the first black president seemed so easy, but so many people died in the 1960s and seventies for that cause and I just hope they were looking down on November 4.

Do you have any fears or phobias?

Spiders - if I ever saw a tarantula, I'd be breaking the record for the 100m for sure!

What makes you angry?

Being injured, cruelty to animals, and people driving below the speed limit.

Favourite book, film and TV programme?

My favourite book is Watership Down as it brings back happy childhood memories, the film I'd choose is Shakespeare in Love, and I do get very drawn into the X-Factor on TV as I think it's great to see ordinary people being given a chance to shine.

How would you like to be remembered?

As a good daughter and, because I like to see myself as an athlete, I think that's how I'd like to be remembered.