Annabel Croft has opened up about the heartbreak she experienced following the death of her husband earlier this year.
The former tennis player and TV presenter takes part in the new series of Strictly Come Dancewhere she dances with South African pro Johannes Radebe.
When she was first announced as a cast member on Strictly In 2023, Croft, 57, shared that she hoped to “find a little joy” on the show after her husband Mel Coleman died from stomach cancer in May.
In a new interview today, Croft opened up about the heartbreak she faced after her husband received an “unthinkable” diagnosis and died 16 weeks later, aged 60.
“The day they said, ‘Cancer is everywhere,’ I went into free fall. I was one of those women crying in the hospital parking lot,” she said. Online mail in a new interview.
“Poor Mel was the one who was told he was going to die, and he was comforting me. Three months later, I picked up a death certificate and our three children had to understand that their father’s name was on it.
“Our son, Charlie, said it was like a hand came down from the sky and snatched Mel away, leaving our family with a gaping hole that will never be filled.”
Speaking about the grief following Coleman’s death, Croft said she had cried every day since his death and was unable to bring herself to collect his ashes from the crematorium.
“I know I have to do it,” she said. “People say it’s a comfort to have them, but I just can’t. Ashes? Email ?
“Until now, I didn’t understand what grief was. I didn’t even understand death, I had never thought about it. Now I’m thinking, ‘My God, Mel, you killed yourself.’ How is it possible?’ How can I be a widow? We were a team.
Croft and Coleman had been together for 36 years and he was her first serious boyfriend. She was just 21 when she met Coleman, at a time when her tennis career was at its peak and much of her life had been devoted to the sport.
“I was in a bubble, I was playing from the age of nine, on the international circuit from the age of 12. It was an adult world of managers, contracts, sponsors. I had never gone to parties or danced, like teenagers do. I wasn’t fully trained.
The former tennis player recalled that when she met Mel, she realized there was a different life outside of sport.
“It was the first time I went out with people my age. I wear normal clothes – not tennis clothes. I went to the pub. For the first time, I didn’t have to think about my forehand or backhand, or presenting myself in front of the crowd.
“And once I met Mel, I realized I didn’t want to keep doing that. I think I drew strength from who he was. He gave me confidence. He taught me how to do it. . . live.”
It was an explosive announcement when Croft announced her retirement that year, but she continued to work in sport: as a Wimbledon commentator and the head of a tennis academy in Portugal.
Croft shared the mental burden of being next to her husband’s hospital bed the day he died.
“Have you ever seen someone die?” It’s so traumatic. I was traumatized. I’m still traumatized, but at the same time I can’t believe he’s gone.
“We used to hold hands in bed, talking and now I look to his side and say, ‘Where are you?'”
Still raw in his grief, Croft says that being Strictly Come Dance helped her forget the feeling of loss.
“When I got the offer, I asked myself, actually, what else am I going to do: come home at 4 p.m. to a dark, empty house, a house that Mel has built in winter?
“Plus, I’m an athlete. The idea of using my body to try to relieve something – pain, I suppose – was appealing.
“It brings joy, or at least a glimmer, back into my life. I actually still cry every day, but in the last few weeks I’ve come home once or twice and realized, ‘I haven’t cried yet today.’
Croft describes his dance partner, Radebe, as an “angel” who came into his life to “take some of the pain away.” She managed to get through the first presentation of the results of this series of Strictly, and will return to competition for Movie Week this weekend (October 7). She and Radebe will dance a waltz to “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Strictly Come Dance continues Saturday October 7 at 6:20 p.m. on BBC One.