You never know where your life will take you. Mandy Young’s dream was to be a hairdresser and she began an apprenticeship which she excelled at. But then she had to make a decision; continue to chop locks, or focus on building one of the world’s best indoor extreme sports centres.
She chose the latter – and proved to be a cut above the rest at that too, as Sammy Jones found out.
As a youngster, Mandy Young played county netball and was a fantastic musician. She worked in a foam factory (with the claim to fame that she was the first woman to work a band saw cutting large blocks of foam for commercial use), and by 22, she was a cake decorator and pregnant with her first child, John.
Today? She is CEO of the business she co-founded nearly 20 years ago with John; Adrenaline Alley.
The Corby-based charity is Europe’s largest indoor BMX and skateboard park and boasts Olympian winners on its books.
And Mandy – now an MBE – is also the Deputy Lieutenant for Northamptonshire.
But not even those giant foam blocks we mentioned could soften some of the blows she has faced on that journey from there to here – from a lack of belief to personal tragedy.
When Mandy and her son began the charity they were novices – and treated accordingly by the authorities and businesses in the area.
“We were told, ‘your idea is pie in the sky, it will never work.’ It was very disappointing and we felt we were way out of our depth. I was a woman in a man’s world with no sporting, business or industry experience, so barriers were getting higher and higher to jump,” she recalled.
Mandy’s son John had struggled with a wrongly diagnosed illness between the ages of two and nine, and hospital visits to Great Ormond Street and doctors appointments became their norm.
Finally diagnosed with a brain tumour, he underwent years of treatment, returning home aged 14. He found friendship with a group of skateboarders and life looked set to change for the better.
But then John became the victim of a vicious assault by local thugs. They had taken exception to him because of his skateboard. It was a senseless attack that he would never mentally recover from.
It was apparent that a lack of facilities in the area were a major barrier for young people participating in extreme sports safely – and so the seeds of Adrenaline Alley were sown.
Taking their ideas to those local businesses was tough. But every time she was told ‘no’ made Mandy more determined to succeed in her mission.
“Failure wasn’t an option. After John’s very difficult illness, and then the attack, I needed John to be able to do something he enjoyed in a safe place. The kids in the local community were behind us, and our voice was louder than those who refuted us.”
But Mandy really did have a steep learning curve ahead of her: “I didn’t know an ironing board from a skateboard, and I didn’t know what BMX, or inline skates were,” she admits.
The effects of John’s illness had left Mandy shattered: “I lacked confidence, self-worth and self-respect, and felt a failure. As his mother I felt I had let him down because he didn’t have the childhood he deserved and I suppose in a way this was my way of doing something positive for him from all the negativity we had experienced in our lives.”
That journey wasn’t without its own issues though: “At times I was so focused that I neglected my home life, daughter and family, but I think that was to cope with all my feelings, anger and emotions. It was a way of focusing on something positive and really needed in my community.”
The business was established in 2002, and moved into its own indoor facility four years later. It is now a world-class space occupying a huge six acre site.
But in 2010 Mandy and her husband Paul were devastated when John passed away aged 24 years.
“I still struggle but I know it’s his story, determination and inspiration that has touched so many other people and I truly believe the lives we change through the charity is a testament to John’s life.
“When John fell asleep I asked myself, ‘Why have we been through hell and back for nothing?’ Now I know; Adrenaline Alley is his legacy. It saved my life too.”
Its success is staggering.
In 2021, Adrenaline Alley employs 25 people and boasts a membership in excess of 146,000.
It has come a very long way from its humble beginnings in an old chicken processing factory!
“We could never have imagined our dream of having a small park on a local estate would turn into the biggest and best action sports centre in Europe and arguably the world,” Mandy says, “It is incredible when you look at the participation we have experienced on all levels – from beginners to elite athlete levels.”
And Mandy today is a million miles from that young girl who used to ice cakes and cut up foam…
“There are moments that I reflect on my incredible journey and the blood, sweat and many tears I’ve had along the way. I feel proud and overwhelmed that I’ve had the support from so many funding organisations, the board of trustees, the staff and volunteers and of course my family.
“My husband and daughter Jodie also work for the charity. It has been crucial to have people alongside me I can trust and that I know believe in the long term goals and mission of John’s legacy.”
The charity has also instilled a sense of pride and self-worth in those who attend, and has supported many vulnerable youngsters from the area; hosting activities for people with disabilities, from care homes, children who are at risk and those on low incomes.
Adrenaline Alley has also turned around the fortunes of those struggling with drug and alcohol issues – taking them away from substance abuse and allowing them to turn their lives around.
“This means so much to me as they were all the things John should have experienced but didn’t,” Mandy admits, “My heart lies more in this area of the charity than anywhere else, I feel that I really make a difference to these people and see the impact it has on them and their future.”
Earlier this year, Mandy was among those cheering on our Olympic hopefuls in Tokyo, not least because seven athletes had been training at her facility. Charlotte Worthington and Declan Brooks have spent many years training at the site, and returned with a gold and a bronze medal respectively in the Cycling BMX Freestyle category.
“It was overwhelming to see them achieve their dreams on the Olympic stage and we never imagined they would come home with a gold and bronze medal in the first Olympics BMX Freestyle has featured in…I never dreamed we would have been so influential for Olympians.”
If you are in trouble or need something done, you would want Mandy on your list of people on speed dial – she is a force of nature. While others think about ‘doing,’ she gets on with the job in hand. It’s of no surprise to learn she has been called a tornado in her time.
When not overseeing Adrenaline Alley, as we mentioned earlier she is the Deputy Lieutenant of Northamptonshire.
“It can overwhelm me because I feel humbled to have been honoured with an MBE from the Queen, and to work as a Deputy Lieutenant. It comes with the huge responsibility to help communities grow, and work on projects can be as big as Adrenaline Alley has been to me.
“I see it as a role I can grow with in the coming years; meeting with many other influential good people whose focus is their local communities, and to contribute to finding funding for projects and to support and advise others.”
These days Mandy has a secret weapon in her armour that sees her press the ‘stop button and relax; knitting needles!
“Knitting Aran coats and baby wear is the one thing that allows me to stop thinking about work, but still have something to show for my time,” says the lady who is in the process of overhauling her work/life balance.
“It’s about quality of life now that I’m getting older,” she told me, “Picking up my new puppy gives me something else to nurture and think about outside of work.
“I’m heading towards 60 and it’s time to start living a life and create the balance that I probably should have done years ago, so festivals, holidays, weekends away and possibly a mobile home to travel in are on the cards.
“And, after 31 years of marriage, I think my husband deserves more quality time with me.”
But don’t be fooled – she’ll not be taking it easy! There is still much to do: “Adrenaline Alley will always been a huge part of my life and the most important role I now have to focus on is the implementation of a robust succession plan so when the time comes we can break away and leave the charity in good hands knowing it will always remain as John’s legacy.
“I will continue to develop its future vision to create a world class Olympic training centre that will contribute to its future sustainability …”
“It has been an amazing journey and a mixture of emotions and amazing experiences. But my story goes to show that going out of your comfort zone and having the passion and determination to succeed overrides the risk of failure.”
> For more details on Adrenaline Alley visit adrenalinealley.co.uk