Annabel Croft says husband Mel loved Strictly partner Johannes

The dark autumn afternoons can be a gloomy time for those who are alone, so when Annabel Croft was asked to take part in this year’s Strictly Come Dancing, it was something she considered as she weighed up the pros and cons of whether to accept. Her husband of 30 years, businessman and former professional sailor Mel Coleman, tragically died in May at the age of 60, just months after being diagnosed with stomach cancer.

Annabel and her three children are still reeling from the shock of losing him, but the former tennis star says she has never once regretted taking on the challenges of the Strictly ballroom, at this, the most difficult time of her life.

“No, quite the opposite,” she reflects. “It came at the right time completely. I just thought quite carefully – what would I be doing now that the nights are closing in and it’s dark at 5pm?”

Don’t miss… Annabel Croft says show’s given her ‘purpose to get up’ after ‘horrific’ year

She continues: “Our whole family is still trying to come to terms with what has happened, so this has been an amazingly positive distraction. I’m not quite sure what I would have done, other than go back to the family home and wonder where he is, which we still do every day, but it would have been very difficult without this.

“Strictly has taken up so much time; it has been the most incredibly positive experience and helped me through the grief. I hoped I would find some joy and I’ve found more joy than I could have imagined; I’ll be sad when it’s all over.”

One unexpected joy has been the close bond she’s formed with her professional dancing partner Johannes Radebe.

“We’ve laughed so much in the rehearsal room, Johannes has a wonderful sense of humour,” she says. “Mel had a wonderful sense of humour and I know they would have got on really well.”

Annabel, 57, has emerged as this year’s surprise dark horse on the popular BBC1 show. In week two, she only managed 22 marks for her quickstep, with notoriously hard-to-please judge Craig Revel Horwood awarding her only four points.

But since then, she has thrown off any inhibitions.

Last week in Blackpool she notched up an impressive 35 points for her elegant American Smooth, a score that matched her emotional Couple’s Choice dance – a memorable, moving routine dedicated to her late husband’s memory.

The dance left judges Shirley Ballas and Motsi Mabuse dabbing their eyes and Annabel struggling to speak.

“It was a very emotional week, it’s hard for me to talk about it, to be honest,” she recalls. “It was a very special moment in my life. It was for Mel.”

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Annabel’s honesty about her grief and the way she is healing through dance has clearly touched the nation and thousands of viewers contacted her after the Couple’s Choice dance.

“It took my breath away actually,” she says. “I just didn’t realise the impact that dance would have on so many people. I’ve had literally thousands and thousands of messages – emails, texts, letters, and messages on Twitter – from people talking about their experiences of grief. It touched people in a way I never thought was possible.”

Mel had always been a huge fan of Strictly and Annabel says she knows he would have been her proudest and most emotional supporter. “He would have been a blubbering wreck,” she says with a soft smile.

“He loved Strictly anyway. He’d watch Johannes and pull us over to the screen and stop it, replay it and play it again and tell us how amazing he was. He used to have tears running down his face watching it, he was so moved by the dancing.”

Annabel’s children, Amber, 28, Charlie, 27 and Lily, 25, are also cheering for her, although she admits they are surprised by what she has achieved. “We’re a family that sometimes sticks music on and dances around the kitchen, but I was always the one that was a bit embarrassing,” she says.

“Their dad was a good dancer and we always used to have fun, but they definitely thought I was a bit stiff, so they probably thought I was likely to be more like that on Strictly; I think they are quite blown away actually.

“They’ve loved coming to the live shows; they’ve completely immersed themselves in the whole experience and I think it’s been really helpful for them too because I keep forgetting that as much pain as I’m in, they’re in the same amount of pain, but they’ve been supporting me.”

Annabel, who grew up in Kent, hasn’t danced formally since she was a child.

She began ballet lessons at the age of four, but stopped a few years later when she took up tennis. At 15 she became the youngest British player to compete at Wimbledon for 95 years.

In 1984 she won both the Wimbledon and Australian Open girls’ tournaments and had achieved a world ranking of 24 by the following year.

But when asked to take part in a TV show about learning to sail, her entire life changed course. Enter Mel, 6ft 4in, with a wide smile; as laid back as she was anxious. Annabel realised she was tired of life on the tennis circuit and the relentless travel. Buoyed by the confidence Mel instilled in her, she retired from the sport at just 21. She quickly and successfully switched careers, becoming the face of Channel 4’s prime-time show Treasure Hunt.

This was followed by her own show, Interceptor. Meanwhile, she and Mel opened a tennis academy in Portugal and Annabel forged a new career as a commentator. In 2005, she appeared in the ITV programme Celebrity Wrestling and four years later was one of five volunteers who took part in a BBC documentary Famous, Rich and Homeless, about living penniless on the streets of London.

She says: “All through my life I’ve had weird opportunities that have come up and I’ve always taken them and never been afraid to fail. I would say to my children that in life doors open and you always need to keep walking through them and see what’s behind them. That has always been my attitude, so Strictly was an opportunity that was too wonderful to turn down. Of all the things on TV, I’ve always thought it was the most wholesome – good old-fashioned, family entertainment.”

Annabel was paired with South African-born professional dancer Johannes and the couple have become firm friends.

“He’s the most amazing human being,” she enthuses.

“We just click, we have a wonderful chemistry and I adore his company. We will train all day and then we’ll speak for an hour and a half on the phone in the evening; it’s been wonderful getting to know him.”

Tonight, Annabel and Johannes are dancing a dramatic Paso Doble. She has so far avoided the dreaded Sunday night dance-off, but is nevertheless fearful that every week could be her last.

“Every single week I say to Johannes: ‘Let’s go and practise our dance again because we’ll be in the dance-off.’ I don’t take anything for granted,” she says.

For the same reason, she has not allowed herself to think about reaching the show’s final, now only three weeks away. “I think it would be really mad to do that,” she says firmly. “Johannes and I always say to each other not to think beyond the next step of the next dance. It’s like being in a tennis tournament. You would never think about getting to the final, you only ever think about the next shot in front of you; it’s a step-by-step approach.”

And despite the fact that eight million viewers are tuning in to watch, Annabel refuses to allow herself to get too anxious.

“Strictly is stressful, but nothing can be more stressful than what happened to Mel and what we’ve been through as a family,” she explains. “Nothing is more important than that, so Strictly is about learning how to enjoy living in the moment and not worry about things that really aren’t so important. Even if I make mistakes in a dance, it doesn’t matter that much.”


  • Strictly Come Dancing continues tonight at 7.30pm on BBC One and BBC iPlayer

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