British Olympic diver Monique Gladding used to live for the sport – until the day she almost lost her life during a competition.
As she somersaulted into the air, spectators watched in disbelief as Monique’s head struck the concrete diving board with great force, instantly knocking her unconscious before she plummeted 10 metres into the pool below.
Amazingly, she survived the horror incident – after being pulled unresponsive from the bottom of the pool – and defied the odds to return to the sport and compete at the London Olympics 18 months later.
Looking back on the day she almost died, Monique says the accident and its aftermath have taught her how to persevere in the face of adversity.
It’s an attitude that’s served her well in recent years as she’s juggled becoming a mother, moving to New Zealand and caring for her young daughter Sienna through a shock cancer diagnosis and treatment – all while starting her own business, skincare range @One Organics.
“It’s been so intense, but my experiences equipped me with the tools to handle it,” shares Monique, 41, who first tried diving as a teenager after a knee injury cut her gymnastics career short.
At 19, she moved from her native South Africa to the UK to pursue her professional diving dreams.
“It was everything I had ever dreamt about,” says Monique, who trained six days a week for up to six hours. “I was the top British female and doing what I loved.”
But while competing at a diving event in Russia in 2011, her world came crashing down.
“On the second somersault, my head collided with the platform and took the top of my scalp off,” tells Monique, who took at least four minutes to be resuscitated. “It’s awful to think about. I’ve seen the video and from the moment I hit, I look lifeless.”
While recovering in hospital, she started to plan her return to the pool.
“I was on track for the Olympics and I didn’t want to walk away from that. It took lots of rehabilitation and small steps, but 18 months later, I walked in to the 2012 London Olympics and finally lived that dream.”
She retired shortly after to focus on starting a family with her husband and diving coach Steve, 49.
In 2014, their son Zachary, now eight, was born. The following year, Sienna, seven, joined the family, and when Sienna was just four months old, they moved to Aotearoa, where Steve had a job offer from Diving New Zealand.
“Nothing prepares you for motherhood,” muses Monique. “I don’t think I ever anticipated it being so tough but equally rewarding.”
The family’s life, however, was turned upside down when Sienna was diagnosed with leukaemia at five years old.
The first sign something was wrong was after the foursome went on a long bike ride that left the youngster crying in pain and complaining about a sore leg.
“We thought she’d just overdone it, but the next day she couldn’t stand on it and had spiked a fever,” tells Monique, who rushed her daughter to Starship Children’s Hospital.
Several weeks later, extensive testing revealed it was leukaemia.
Monique was devastated, but at the same time she recalled how she’d fought back from her own near-death experience, so she went into action mode.
“Steve and I have both been involved with sports all our lives, and work really well together under pressure,” she says. “He’d been with me through my head injury and we’re naturally very positive people. So once we’d digested and processed the enormity of it, we made a plan.”
The pandemic and Sienna’s illness also led to Monique losing her job as a product demonstrator and social media assistant for an organic food company. Despite the challenges she was facing with Sienna, the ever-resouceful athlete decided to start her own business.
“I spent a lot of my time sitting around in hospital while Sienna was sleeping and thought, ‘Maybe I can turn some of my ideas into something I’m passionate about,'” she tells. The result is @One Organics, a natural and ethical skin and bodycare line.
“It’s been a steep learning curve in a whole new realm for me, but starting a business and being with Sienna has taught me patience, to slow down and take each step as it comes,” enthuses Monique, who’s delighted that after two and a half years, Sienna has finally finished her last cancer treatment.
“It’s such a relief,” says the doting mum. “No one can give us any guarantees for the future, but I just hope my children are happy, healthy and good people.”