Defying trauma and tragedy: Melea's ambition could never be tamed

This is the face of tenacity.

Bowra girl Melea Castle has not had the easiest path in life; there have been more obstacles in her 21 years than most people have in their entire existence.

But as the old adage goes: 'what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger'. All the pain and suffering she's experienced has just made her a more determined and resilient person.

Melea said when her Pop gave her a horse at the age of nine, she wasn't all that interested.

"I thought it was the most boring thing in the world," she said.

But when school became a torment, and bullying followed her from one school to the next, horseriding quickly turned into an escape.

She was a natural fit to be a jockey - she was the right height, for starters, she had determination in spades, and she loved the adrenaline rush she experienced flying down the track.

She left school to chase an apprenticeship as a jockey down at Taree.

It was while driving back to work at the stables from Port Macquarie one day in 2017 that life gave her another huge slap in the face.

A car travelling northward along the highway lost control in the rain and crossed over into Melea's path.

She still recalls the moment she realised the car was about to hit her head-on.

"It was really slow, but really fast at the same time," she said.

She was trapped for an hour and a half in the wreckage as rescue workers tried to get her out, and witnesses comforted her.

"It was raining and I was getting wet. It was so cold and I could feel blood everywhere," she said.

"I remember everyone telling me not to look at my knee, but I couldn't not. I looked at it and passed out."

Her blue sedan had no airbags, and the force of the crash had done a lot of damage to Melea's body.

"She was just a mess, she was smashed to pieces - it was pretty horrific," Melea's Mum, Pam Mitchell said.

"She was only 17 - she'd only just gotten her Ps."

Her knee was "smashed into a million pieces", her arm had snapped in two places, and there were large contusions all over her face.

"The rescuers came and saw her in hospital and they told me they'd thought she was going to die judging from the amount of blood in that car," Pam said.

The doctors were incredibly doubtful that Melea would ever bend her knee, let alone ride again.

"I was so devo'd," she said.

But if you tell me I can't do something, then I'll do it, and probably end up doing it ten times better.

After months of painful rehabilitation she returned to light duties at work.

The screws and wires were eventually taken out of her knee, which caused another frustrating three-month delay to getting back up on a racehorse.

Seven months after the crash Melea was ready to begin her trial rides.

"But my knee was still giving me grief - it swelled up and I could barely bend it," she said.

She eventually relented to getting her knee scraped to "smooth it out and remove the floating bone fragments".

That meant another month more until she was able to finish her trials.

"But after that I came back as a better rider - there was no more pain," she said.

She was finally back on track when yet another hurdle was thrown across her path to becoming a jockey.

Two years ago Melea received an epilepsy diagnosis, which she believes was triggered by the trauma from the crash.

"They can't pinpoint it, but I've only had it since the accident," she said.

And NSW Racing wouldn't allow her to ride while taking her prescribed epilepsy medication.

"But Queensland said if a neurologist could give me the all-clear then I was ok to ride up there," she said.

So Melea made the move across the border to Mango Hill - about an hour north of Brisbane.

Melea with her partner at the track in Queensland

Melea with her partner at the track in Queensland

She spent most of 2019 riding in bush meets, travelling hours on the road just to get there.

In Queensland when you ride out bush it's pretty rough. When you get out there, you wonder whether you'll get home in one piece.

Melea Castle

Still, she was relishing the chance to be riding at all, and was making real gains ... until her arm brought everything to a halt again.

One of the screws was coming loose in the plate the doctors had used to put her arm back together, and it was necessary to remove it altogether.

During the eleven months she had off, Melea also gave birth to a beautiful baby daughter, Courtney.

Just one month after having a baby - a time when other new mothers are still repairing and adjusting to the haze of caring for a newborn - Melea was back in the saddle.

"I had her and everything bounced back. I'm lucky really, she's the easiest baby - she's awesome," Melea said.

She rides 15 horses each morning, only taking Sundays off. And she also takes boxing classes to keep her fitness up.

Melea has been back racing for a month and a half now. In her second week back she rode a winner.

Two weeks later I rode a double, and a week after that I rode a treble in Beaudesert.

Then last Monday she sprinted to victory on the back of another horse in Lismore.

But Melea's not letting her string of recent successes go to her head.

"I'm pretty hard on myself - even though I'm going good, I know I can do better. Although I do feel like I'm a stronger rider than I was 12 months ago," she said.

She's now halfway through her four-year apprenticeship - something she hoped she would have finished by now.

But she doesn't dwell too much on that, instead focussing on making up for lost time, and the resilience she's built from her experiences.

It's exactly the kind of perseverance you need to make it in such a tough industry, and it's something that can't be taught. Just ask Michelle Payne, who broke the ultimate glass ceiling when she became the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup in 2015, a decade after a brutal fall nearly ended her career.

Melea was stoked to receive words of encouragement from Michelle during her recovery in hospital in 2017. That interaction helped spur her on.

One hundred per cent, everything that's happened to me has given me more drive. I've had to work my arse off for it.

Melea Castle

She's made untold sacrifices to get to where she is, and she's grateful for the support she's had from her family to get back on the horse, time and time again.

"I couldn't have done it without them," she said.

Her next goal is to ride in provincial races, and she's planning on making her debut on her home track this month at the Macksville Cup.

"I've been itching to do it," she said.

Eventually she'd love to have a crack at town and group races.

"And I think it's every jockey's dream to ride in a Melbourne Cup," she said.

But her future course will never be completely smooth.

Her injured knee has no cartilage after the trauma it sustained - "it's just bone on bone now".

And it's already "riddled with arthritis".

"But if I keep on top of it I should be alright for a long time yet," she said.

The thought of her injuries finally ending her career does worry her "a little bit".

"But while everything's cruisy I'm just going to enjoy it while I can and make the most of it."

LEFT: Pam, Melea, and her little sister Bayliss, and RIGHT: Melea with her Dad, Nathan

LEFT: Pam, Melea, and her little sister Bayliss, and RIGHT: Melea with her Dad, Nathan

Whatever her future holds, her Mum is in awe of her daughter's fighting spirit and what she's achieved.

"Me and her father (Nathan Castle) are both super proud of her - she never gave up. No matter what, she's racing," Pam said.

"Her life would have been a lot different if she didn't have the accident. But she's a tough cookie and she's a great role model for her daughter."

Melea and baby Courtney

Melea and baby Courtney

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