Coral Warren, founder of self-help group Sport Action for Women with and after Cancer, was awarded a British Empire Medal in the New Year Honours in recognition of her services. Here the former professional badminton coach hopes the group can help women who have been diagnosed with cancer during the pandemic
When Coral Warren got the call that she’d been awarded a British Empire Medal in the New Year Honours her first thought was ‘how on earth did this happen?’. Coral has been recognised for her services, having founded a post cancer surgery support group nearly three decades ego. The former professional badminton coach and tutor assessor found out she’d been awarded the BEM on December 1, and so had to keep mum for most of last month. ‘I went into shock – I couldn’t believe it,’ she says.
Coral was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988, the same year she started working professionally at the then Norwich Sport Village, and the idea to form the group came about when she was put in touch with a lady, called Lorraine, who thought she would never be able to play badminton again after her breast cancer surgery. ‘She was quite tearful,’ Coral says of that initial phone call.
At the time, Coral was head of department. ‘I said ‘come and meet me, and I will prove to you that you can’. I took her on a badminton court and asked her, ‘where does it hurt and how does it hurt; can you do this and can you do that?’ Then, for 10 minutes, Coral threw shuttlecocks at Lorraine’s racquet. Afterwards, Lorraine said: ‘I will remember this for the rest of my life’. ‘That,’ says Coral, ‘was really the catalyst for me. I started with five or six players and the numbers grew.’
Badminton and Aqua Stretch classes were the first forms of sport offered; yoga was added later to help those women who felt too frail to try badminton for the first time and others who were in the early stages of their diagnosis and treatment, and therefore feeling less energetic and more vulnerable.
The Post Surgery Support Group was founded to provide support and rehabilitation through sport and exercise for ladies with breast cancer. But, as Coral, says: ‘It grew from breast cancer patients to gynae patients to anybody with any cancer.’
She adds: ‘The Sport Village used to be wonderful to us.’ In 2006, when the Sport Village closed, the support group moved to the UEA Sportspark and soon afterwards was renamed Sport Action for Women with and after Cancer. Around that time, Coral retired as a professional coach.
Since the start, the group has been self-funding. Coral says: I’ve had some wonderfully inspirational people join me.’ One that springs to mind is the retired anaesthetist who Coral had assumed had been diagnosed with breast cancer – it turned out she had lung cancer. ‘She was in her 80s when she joined and was the most inspirational. She wanted to continue playing badminton with an oxygen tank on her back – so she strapped this oxygen tank on like a backpack.’ When it soon became apparent that it wasn’t going to be the most practical solution, Coral encouraged her to leave the tank by the side of the court and take regular breaks. ‘I loved her to bits – she died when she was 90.’ She adds: ‘She’s not the only one – I’ve met so many other wonderful ladies.’
She has lived in Wymondham for the past 50 years and has three children – Simon, Sandra and Daniel – eight grandchildren, three step grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. Coral’s husband Clive, a long-time badminton coach who had been diagnosed with lung cancer, passed away in 2015. Around that time, Coral took some time out from running the group to be with him and nowadays there are a couple of Badminton England Level 1 coaches present at the Sportspark sessions. ‘I feel confident that they can keep it going for me,’ she says.
There is also a cancer support choir called Shades of Pink. Coral makes the point: ‘If anybody says they can’t do exercise, can’t do badminton, or can’t do yoga…they can sing!’
After a period of ill-health last year, Coral, who turns 85 next month and is still involved with senior squad selection at county level, says: ‘I’m looking to get back on my feet and get back on the badminton court.’
Her support group has evolved over the past 27 or so years but the ethos remains the same: it is still organised to help all those diagnosed with, or recovering from, cancer to get fit, meet others in the same situation and either learn a new sport or renew their sporting activities.
The Covid-19 Lockdown rules enforced closure of all the classes for the first time in the group’s history. Coral says: ‘Before Covid I had very good numbers. After Covid our numbers have dwindled but cancer doesn’t stop.’
Coral is keen to raise awareness of the group, so that women who were diagnosed with cancer during the pandemic don’t miss out. ‘I’m always pleased to promote the group as I really, really want it to continue.’
Sport Action for Women with and after Cancer activities take place at the Sportspark, University of East Anglia, Norwich. If you would like find out more, call Coral on 01953 605208 or the Sportspark on 01603 593403. The group welcomes anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer recently or in the past.