Dancing in the dark: She’s the blind Dancing On Ice star who has enchanted viewers with her skill. Here, a very modest Libby Clegg, who began to lose her sight aged nine, explains why she really doesn’t think she’s anything special…
Outpourings of emotion may be the lifeblood of reality TV shows, but there was nothing staged about skating legend Christopher Dean’s tears while critiquing blind paralympian Libby Clegg’s remarkable performance on Dancing On Ice.
He spoke for every viewer when he told the double gold medallist, who has Stargardt macular dystrophy: ‘I just hope that in your mind’s eye you see what we see’.
Six weeks on, Libby, who struggles to see a hand in front of her face, together with professional skating partner Mark Hanretty, continue to wow the judges and audiences with her routines.
Last night she survived a skate-off to go through to the semi-finals of the ITV competition.
There was nothing staged about skating legend Christopher Dean’s tears while critiquing blind paralympian Libby Clegg’s remarkable performance on Dancing On Ice. Pictured: Libby with dance partner Mark Hanretty
However, so humble, and lacking in self-pity, is Libby, 29, that Christopher’s show of emotion — which prompted his long-standing partner on the ice, Jayne Torvill, to reach out a comforting arm — took her by surprise.
‘I think because I’m busy being me all the time I forget that some people see what I do as incredible,’ she says with a self-deprecating laugh. ‘As an athlete, I have a goal mentality and forget that dancing on ice, especially when you can’t see, is not the easiest thing to do.’
Too right it’s not, which is, presumably, the reason Paula Dunn, British Para Athletics head coach, was far from thrilled to learn Libby, who won gold in both the 100 and 200 metre sprints at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, would be competing in the show in the run-up to the 2020 games in Tokyo this summer.
A broken bone would likely scupper her chances of a repeat performance.
But thankfully, Libby, who had never before been on the ice, has, so far, escaped with nothing worse than bruises and a cut under her chin, from when she slipped during rehearsals of a routine with a suitcase, hitting the handle as she fell.
Six weeks on, Libby, who struggles to see a hand in front of her face, continues to wow the judges and audiences with her routines. Pictured: Libby in training with Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean
As with the many obstacles she has encountered over the years, Libby is sanguine: ‘I have bruises all over my body from falling, especially my knees and bottom.
‘It takes you by surprise and I’m never sure where I’m going to land. But it’s just one of those things.’
She admits that her solo routine a couple of weeks ago, in which she skated around the rink without holding onto Mark, was particularly daunting as she feared, without a guide, ‘ending up in the judges’ laps or crashing into the audience’.
Even without being registered blind, Libby’s achievements would be impressive, given that she gave birth to first child, Edward, last April and, on top of the four hours a day she’s on the ice, is also training daily for two to three hours on the track.
But how does she overcome the hurdles to perform in front of millions each week?
While her competitors learn routines through watching their partners’ demonstrations, Mark teaches Libby by manipulating her body into positions and numbering each one.
She must then use her phenomenal memory to string the movements together into a routine as he calls out the numbers.
Another huge support to her is fiance Dan Powell, who is also blind, due to a condition called cone-rod dystrophy, and part of the Team GB paralympian judo squad. Pictured: Dan and son Edward in the Dancing On Ice audience
Far from easy for someone who began losing her sight at nine and therefore has only vague recollections of seeing a skating routine.
‘Through my right eye everything is blurred, but I can see the movement of my hand,’ she says.
‘Through my left eye I can see my hand close up but I can’t see any details, such as the lines. When I’m on the ice, I know the really dark area is where the audience sits and where there’s some colour is the back of the rink, so I get my bearings using these reference points, while also listening to where certain noises come from.
‘What I do see day to day is really pretty, like a firework all scrunched up — there’s pinks, yellows and greens — and it sparkles.’
Libby’s enthusiasm and positivity are contagious, so it comes as a shock when she confesses that, for almost two years after Rio, she was in a very bad place.
The comedown from achieving a lifetime’s ambition by winning two gold medals, followed by the realisation that, given the limited funding for paralympian sport, financial security still evaded her, sent her into depression.
‘I felt sad and upset all the time, but also numb to all emotions — I could never be happy. Things that would have previously made me feel good just didn’t,’ recalls Libby. ‘I didn’t want to get up in the morning, I didn’t want to get breakfast, showering was an effort.
‘It was a horrible time: I completely lost my sense of self. I had no idea who I was any more, outside of being an athlete.’
Libby received news that she had been awarded an MBE in the 2017 New Year Honours list for her achievements in Rio. Pictured: Libby, with guide dog Hatti, collected her award
During this time, Libby received news that she had been awarded an MBE in the 2017 New Year Honours list for her achievements in Rio, but even that recognition had little impact.
In fact it was almost a year before she felt strong enough to collect her honour, from Prince William at Buckingham Palace.
‘It was only once I was there that I thought: “Wow this is a really big deal,”‘ she admits.
By her side were her parents, now divorced, who have both been a huge support throughout her life.
Libby was born with normal vision but started struggling to see the blackboard in class around the age of nine.
She was diagnosed with Stargardt macular dystrophy, a recessive eye condition that meant her sight would gradually deteriorate. Although neither her parents had been affected, they both carried the gene, meaning she and two of her three siblings developed the condition.
Her prognosis was ‘terrifying’ but Libby credits her parents, who refused to mollycoddle her, for her subsequent successes. By 12 she was registered blind and attending the Royal Blind School.
Over time the macula, the centre part of the retina where vision is sharpest, has drastically deteriorated in both eyes.
Another huge support to her is fiance Dan Powell, who is also blind, due to a condition called cone-rod dystrophy, and part of the Team GB paralympian judo squad.
Dan proposed to Libby shortly after they returned from Rio, though wedding plans were put on ice due to her depression.
Neither of them, however, had any doubts that they wanted to be parents and, after genetic counselling, during which they discovered their offspring would not be born with Libby’s recessive eye condition (both parents must be carriers) but had a 50 per cent chance of inheriting Dan’s, Edward was conceived.
‘Some people, though not anyone close to us, questioned our decision saying: “I think it’s a bit weird that you’ve had a kid when they could potentially go blind,”‘ says Libby.
‘But there are lots of ways of developing a disability — and it really isn’t the end of the world.
‘Of course we want life to be as easy and kind to our son as possible, but if he does have an eye condition, he’s got two really good role models with very positive outlooks on life.’
Edward was born last April by emergency C-section. Although Libby had to hold him very close and use touch to make out his angelic features she was instantly smitten. Spending time with her son is now her favourite pastime. They don’t yet know if he has inherited his father’s condition.
Becoming parents is a daunting enough prospect for most young couples, so how challenging was it for two people who cannot see?
‘When I told people I was having a baby some asked: “How are you going to cope?” and questioned whether we would have a carer to help us, but my whole life has been about problem-solving, so I knew I’d figure it out,’ says Libby.
‘At first I couldn’t be sure whether I’d cleaned his bum properly so, whether it was dirty or not, I’d still wipe everywhere and, if I had any doubt, I’d put him straight in the bath, just to make sure,’ she says. ‘I also worried I might miss a rash, but you can feel rashes, and high temperatures, and instinctively tell when your child’s not well.
‘Phones are fantastic tools too. Edward’s eye was slightly weepy recently and I took a picture of it and sent it to my sister asking: “Does this look really bad or is it a bit of sleep?” and she said: “It’s just a bit of sleep”. It was fine the next day.’
Libby does have one concern about how they’ll cope as Edward gets older: ‘I’m not looking forward to when he starts playing with Lego because we’re bound to tread on it and that stuff hurts,’ she laughs.
Becoming a mother changed her outlook to competing. ‘In Tokyo I’d like to repeat what I did in Rio and win my 100 and 200-metre races. However, I’m not worried about becoming depressed again afterwards. If I go there and do a personal best time and come fourth I’ll be happy with that. At the end of the day my little boy is the most important thing to me and I’ll still have him.’
The athlete lived with her parents and three siblings in Macclesfield, Cheshire, until 12 when the family moved to a village in the Scottish Borders to be close to Edinburgh, where Libby was enrolled as a weekly boarder at the Royal Blind School.
Her brothers, James, 26, and Stephen, 24, who both also have Stargardt macular dystrophy — and have competed in the paralympian swimming squad — also attended the blind school from 12.
This meant sister Felicity, 28, a veterinary nurse who is sighted, was the only sibling left at home.
‘Growing up, me and my brothers would sit right in front of the TV and my sister, who loved films, would try to look over the top of our heads, so in that respect it was easier for her when we weren’t at home,’ says Libby, jovially.
‘But it was also very hard for her because, despite not having the eye condition, my brothers and I related to one another in ways she couldn’t and she was the odd one out. I know people find special schools controversial but for me it was a positive experience. Of course it’s a bit scary at first but also exciting — we got things we didn’t get at home, like hot chocolate at night.
‘I also learned lots of independent living skills, like how to ask for help, which is a really difficult skill because you have to swallow your pride, and how to get on buses, travel around Edinburgh on our own, clean an oven, cook, iron, change our own bedding.
‘I’m also hugely grateful to my brave parents who, instead of wrapping us in cotton wool, exposed us to all kinds of challenges, like catching trains alone, aware that they wouldn’t be around to accompany us for ever.’
Dan is currently in Petra, Jordan, with his judo squad so Libby’s mum has been looking after Edward at their Loughborough home while Libby is in Hertfordshire for Dancing On Ice.
Aside from their trusty guide dogs — Libby has had Hatti for six years while Dan got Elmo three years ago — the only other regular help the couple receive is from a weekly cleaner.
When Libby talks about this she gives an insight into the black humour that binds her and Dan.
‘We refer to our efforts to clean up as “blind tidy” — it seems clean to us but in reality it’s probably not, we just can’t see the dirt,’ she says, chuckling. ‘Fortunately our cleaner is fantastic so we know she’s done a good job.
‘Dan is my first blind boyfriend. Before him I dated sighted people because my criteria for a partner was that they had to be able to drive, so they could give me a lift when it’s raining, as well as read my post. Then Dan came along and he can’t do either of those things. Obviously walking in the rain can be annoying, but at least we get to do it together.’
The couple met four years ago when Dan, from Liverpool, approached Libby’s coach for help with assisted running, attached to a sighted guide, which is how Libby competes.
She offered him lodgings in her house while he was in Loughborough and, after a night out, during which they realised how compatible they were, he moved in permanently.
‘For Dan and I it’s not about physical attraction, it’s our personalities that are important,’ says Libby, adding with a mischievous laugh, ‘apparently he’s really fit but it doesn’t matter to me if someone is drop-dead gorgeous, I take time to get to know them.’
Although Dan can’t see his fiancee’s performances, when possible, he and Edward have joined the Sunday night audience.
Libby is unable to watch her fellow contestants’ performances live but tunes in later, via her iPad, zooming in, pausing and playing, to get a feel for the competition.
Naturally competitive, it’s easy to assume she is hell-bent on winning. However, her money is on Perri Kiely, of dance troupe Diversity, or former EastEnders-actor-turned-TV-presenter Joe Swash.
Joe enabled Libby to realise a long-standing ambition to drive when he gave her a lesson, in a nearby airfield, in his Lexus.
‘Perri is outstanding but I’d like Joe to win,’ she says. ‘I remember watching him in EastEnders, before I lost my sight, so my brain helps fill in the details of his face when I’m speaking to him.
‘He’s kind and funny — I asked if I can spray tan him this week and he agreed. He said: “I’m a bit patchy anyway so you can’t make me look any worse.”‘
Whoever skates away with the title next month, Libby, the first blind contestant on Dancing On Ice, will be the true star.
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