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Family of Northern Ireland equestrian star Sherelle Duke recall tragic death 10 years on

'After my beautiful daughter died there was a crack in my heart that will never heal'

By Claire McNeilly

Published 15/08/2016

Sonya with CJ, her son’s pony
Sonya with CJ, her son’s pony
The late Sherelle Duke
Sonya and Miriam
Sherelle with Zara Phillips
Ross McCandless
Sonya and Miriam at the funeral
The Duke sisters with their horses
Sherelle in competition

Ten years on from tragic horse riding accident that killed talented showjumper Sherelle Duke, her mother and sister speak about the tragedy and how they have coped.

"There's been an accident".

"Which horse?"

"No, it's Sherelle. She's gone..."

You never forget the worst moment of your life, and every aspect of this one is seared into Miriam Duke's memory.

The mobile phone ringing. Sherelle's about-to-be fiance Ross McCandless, his voice unusually leaden, mentioning something about "an accident".

The understandable presumption that one of the wealthy Co Armagh family's horses had got injured.

Those five, indelible, disembodied words shattering that presumption, replacing it with the worst news imaginable.

The immediate shock, the handing of the phone to husband Ronnie. The ashen look on his face.

The initial disbelief, followed by a torrent of unparalleled grief. The cascade of collective tears as the pair hold each other, shaking.

She was gone. Sherelle Duke, beloved daughter, radiant, beautiful 28-year-old, brilliant showjumper, a woman who could count the Queen's grand-daughter as one of her best friends, killed while competing at an event in England.

It's 10 years since that fateful call arrived at the Duke family home on the outskirts of Portadown but, for 75-year-old Miriam, it might as well have been today.

"Ronnie (76) and I talk about Sherelle as if she was still here," revealed Miriam, who is speaking publicly about the death of her youngest daughter for the first time.

"I go past her photograph every day, smile and say 'my wee pet'. Only people who lose a child could really know what it's like."

Sitting opposite me at the kitchen table beside her daughter Sonya Rowe (47) in the latter's countryside home, Miriam says she finds it hard to believe that a decade has passed since "that day".

"It just seems like yesterday," she said.

"It was Sunday evening, we were heading out to church. I'd left my mobile phone on the table and it rang," she said.

"We were just going out the door and I said 'Ronnie, I'll go and see who that is... maybe it's Ross ringing to say how Sherelle has got on'.

"It was Ross - and he just broke the news. He said he didn't want a policeman or anyone else to tell us, that he wanted us to hear it from him.

"I yelled, handed the phone to Ronnie and the two of us stood and cried. It was horrendous, the worst day of my life."

Sherelle died after her horse fell on top of her during a cross-country event in Hampshire on August 20, 2006.

Like her older sister, she was a world-class competitor who had so much to live for, both in and out of the saddle.

The 1999 World Young Riding Champion had the 2008 Beijing Olympics in her sights - and Ross, the love of her life, was getting ready to put a sparkling diamond ring on her finger.

She was also enjoying her close friendship with a kindred spirit in the equestrian world - Zara Phillips, daughter of Anne, the Princess Royal.

The pair enjoyed reminiscing about their epic trip to Sydney, Australia, for the 2003 Rugby World Cup final which England - with Mike Tindall, Zara's future husband, in the team - won in dramatic style, courtesy of Jonny Wilkinson's last-gasp drop kick against the host nation.

Life couldn't have been better for Sherelle, but it all ended, so suddenly and so tragically, at the Brockenhurst Horse Trials that afternoon - on a cross-country course that, incidentally, had been designed by Zara's father, Captain Mark Phillips.

The super-fit ex-Moyallon Primary and Portadown College pupil's preparation had been meticulous, and everything had been going to plan until Sherelle, on her 12-year-old gelding Ballystockart, reached fence number nine - the final one on the course.

She successfully negotiated the first part of the sunken road obstacle, but then went over the top of the horse as they approached the second.

Ballystockart then also went over and landed on top of Sherelle, who sustained severe, fatal injuries.

Everyone watching - including a 24-year-old Ross - instantly sensed that something was terribly wrong and Sherelle was given immediate medical assistance before being rushed to Southampton General Hospital, but nothing could be done to save her.

A brilliant, shining light had been extinguished in a matter of seconds.

Sherelle was laid to rest at Mullavilly Churchyard on Friday, August 25, following a service at Portadown Presbyterian Church attended by over 1,500 people.

A grieving Zara missed the funeral - her brother Peter attended on her behalf - because she was on her way to winning the biggest event of her life at the World Equestrian Games in Germany.

And afterwards Zara, who out of respect wore a ribbon in Sherelle's trademark red and white throughout the three-day event, said: "I went out to win this for her, to get a gold medal for my dear friend.

"I was just so relieved that I managed to do it for Sherelle, because I didn't manage to get over to Northern Ireland and say goodbye."

At an inquest in Southampton - where a verdict of accidental death was recorded - equestrian expects described what happened as a freak accident at a fence that should have presented little difficulty to someone of Sherelle's vast experience and talent.

After all, Sherelle and Ballystockart had competed 28 times together over the previous three years.

The only plausible explanation was that the horse, having stumbled, still attempted to get over a fence where only one other competitor out of 200 had fallen that weekend.

Back home, meanwhile, the Duke family were doing their best to try and make sense of it all.

"After the accident happened, I knew people were walking on the far side of the street to avoid me just because they didn't know how to approach me," said Miriam.

"I always broke the ice and brought the subject up which, I suppose, made it easier for them.

"And we were back at church within a couple of weeks. I just felt that Sherelle wouldn't want you sitting at home not praising God.

"I was asked to give my testimony in church about three years ago - I wasn't ready for it after she died - and I said there was a crack in my heart which, even after you've used superglue, will still be seen.

"There will always be that crack; it'll never mend."

Since the accident, Miriam has taken to writing to other bereaved parents "because I know what they're going through."

"I have boxes and boxes of cards from 10 years ago and I've put all the letters into folders," she said.

"I couldn't reply to all the letters I got; there were thousands."

She added: "You always think it'll never happen in your family. But Sherelle knew the risks and on more than one occasion she said to me 'Mammy, if anything happens to me, I want it to be a happy day.' That's why her cousins sang that hymn 'Oh Happy Day' at the funeral..."

Passers-by have regularly remarked about how beautiful Sherelle's grave is, but Miriam said: "I don't get any comfort from it. We know she's in Heaven and not there."

Notwithstanding that, a visit to the Mullavilly plot is planned for this weekend.

"A friend of ours gave us five lovely red roses called Loving Memory just after she died and we liked them so much we made a bed," said Miriam.

"I might cut her some of those roses and put them on the grave. They're quite rare. They're huge, big red roses; they're lovely."

The Duke family have always been synonymous with two things: the successful freight delivery company they built up and, of course, their considerable equestrian interests stretching back many years.

But, save for one pony belonging to Sonya's son, there are no horses to be seen on the Duke properties now. They were all sold after the accident. And Sonya never rode competitively again.

"My oldest, Joshua, still rides but the others (four boys) don't," said the mother-of-five, who competed for Ireland at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

"They're into hockey and golf; they've gone a different route really. I don't mind that."

When the Duke sisters were competing regularly at international level, there was a team of 14 horses in the yard but everything changed after the tragedy.

"Very soon after the accident - that month, in fact, we sold the ones we owned and gave the others back to their owners," she said.

"It was tough on the girls who were working with us at that time because they had to find other jobs. Two of them had gone with Sherelle to England; it took them a long time to get over everything that happened back then."

For Sonya - whose sons are Joshua (19), Jake (16), Edward (13) and twins Louis and Charlie (12) - it took at least three years.

"We used to call each other twice a day. I was probably 12 months before I stopped instinctively picking up the phone, and a lot longer than that to feel anywhere near normal again.

"By 'normal' I mean not feeling guilty about laughing, smiling... you're more yourself again. But you never really get over something like that. You just learn to live with it."

One of the most striking images from Sherelle's funeral was of heartbroken, would-be fiance Ross McCandless carrying the coffin.

Ross, a renowned hockey player with Banbridge, had been preparing to ask Sherelle to marry him.

He remains a good friend of the Duke family.

"My husband Ken (Rowe, the former Ulster and Ireland tennis star) and I attended his wedding to Kirsty McCollum (ex-Pegasus, Ulster and Ireland hockey player) five years ago," she said.

"I was delighted for Ross when he told me he was getting married because at the time (of Sherelle's death) you just wouldn't have known how he was going to move on.

"Ross and Kirsty have three kids now. She's a strong, excellent person for him."

It was also Ross who told Sonya about the accident - via her husband, now aged 49.

"We were at our caravan in Cranfield at the time," she recalled.

"Ross asked to speak to Ken when he called; I'm not sure why he did that...

"We don't have the caravan any more - not for that reason but because the boys had grown out of it.

"But it's maybe no bad thing that it was there I heard the news, so I can sort of leave it there."

Sonya said her strong Christian faith helped her cope with Sherelle's death - and is still helping.

"Myself and all the girl cousins have a prayer meeting every month when we remember Sherelle," she added.

"We haven't missed a month in the 10 years since she died. We rotate around all seven homes. That has been a real blessing; something amazing that's come out of something tragic."

The cousins will meet again this weekend; they always have a dinner to celebrate Sherelle's life on the anniversary of her death.

Thoughts have often turned to what she might have achieved had she not been taken away so young.

"In terms of her career, she'd been a pro for 10 years and was in her prime; she was ready," said Sonya, who has two brothers Michael (46) and Peter (42).

"She had a really good team of horses, and the preparation, everything, had been excellent."

And away from the horses?

"I think she would have been a great mum. She was really good with my kids. She was a fun aunt," adds Sonya.

"When she was babysitting she always had to be doing something with them - on the trampoline and things like that. She was lovely that way."

Sonya believes her sister would have liked to be remembered "more for who she was as a person and not what she achieved in equestrian events", adding: "even though she loved her horses, people were more important to her. She loved her friends and her family."

Last Christmas the Dukes got a special card with a beautiful little girl on the front.

The blonde-haired, blue-eyed toddler? Mia Tindall - daughter of Zara Phillips.

"Zara sends us a card every year, and she was speaking to our son Michael only last weekend," said Miriam.

"She hasn't forgotten..."

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