Friday 26th of November 2021

Thank you Hannah

The Gaitpost’s Founder Sarah Heseltine pays tribute to Hannah Francis who sadly lost her battle on Tuesday.

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Standing on a wet polo ground in Surrey on Tuesday I checked my phone before the next chukka of pony club polo to find an email from the Friends of Willberry sweetly telling me before the announcement was made that Hannah had died. I will never forget that moment. For Hannah will be remembered all over the world for the enormity of what she achieved in her all too short time on this planet and how she faced her fears by turning them into dreams.

There hasn’t been a day that Hannah and Willberry haven’t been discussed in our house. We have followed Hannah’s story as a family since their smiley faces popped up on our social media feeds when Ben Hobday rallied the eventing community together to get behind Hannah and were struck by their incredible bravery in dealing with the horrors of such a wicked illness. As a parent, I laughed and cried at their good days and the dark ones and was overwhelmed by Hannah’s unfathomable positivity at such a young age when the future looked so bleak. Only 4 years older than my eldest son, I couldn’t comprehend what Hannah and her family were going through – but whatever was thrown at them, Hannah’s determination to kick this terrible disease and her positive outlook has made me a better person.
On many an occasion, when deadlines were late, when bedtimes were hurried, when time just wasn’t on my side, Hannah and Willberry’s courage made me stay for that extra Lego demonstration, squeeze a little tighter at bedtime and check myself when moaning about the minutiae.

In mid December, I still hadn’t found an interview for our Christmas special. There were of course stand out equestrians who had enjoyed phenomenal successes in 2015, those that had achieved ‘Christmas special’ worthy status due to the esteemed accolades and wins they had secured but every time I picked up the phone, I didn’t really think it was the interview I was after for TGP, which champions equestrian inspiration in whatever shape or form.

It wasn’t until my then 10 year old daughter said what about Willberry that I realised who better, who could be more inspiring, who really had touched so many people and it could only be one person. Hannah. Having never met Hannah, and being rather worried if Hannah would indeed want to talk about her illness, let alone the recent prognosis that things were very bleak and her cancer was now terminal, I drafted a rather waffly message to see if this might be something she and Willberry would like to do. Within seconds of sending it, I received the following: ” WOW WOW WOW! Yes please!” 
From that moment on, the cheery messages and emails I received plus the phone calls putting the finishing touches together were very special.

Knowing Hannah was preparing for her last family Christmas made it all the more tough but through it all, Hannah remained upbeat, loved writing her and Willberry’s brilliant answers to the questions and even apologised on numerous occasions for delays when she had to have “another boring epidural” or hadn’t slept for several nights due to the pain or even dropped her phone down the loo with her precious photos on. On one occasion, when I dreaded emailing to tell Hannah that the photos were too small to use, despite everything, she said she’d resend them by the morning and she did. They came through at 4am and I reeled thinking of her in pain not being able to sleep.

It was at this time that Hannah wrote her now famous bucket list. Tinged with sadness at all the amazing things she wanted to achieve, our social media feeds were filled with wonderful photos of her incredible visits to top level yards to meet elite equestrian stars and ride many world famous horses. At a worrying time when Ben Hobday had also been diagnosed with cancer, and both Andrew Nicholson and William Fox-Pitt were recovering from terrible injuries, the equestrian community rallied by the bucket load. Messages of support and photos of Hannah with Pippa Funnell, Carl and Charlotte, Olly Murs, Ed Sheeran.. you name it, bought many a smile in times of such adversity. Soon new Berry’s were added to the family and news of fundraising initiatives filled our timelines with incredible generosity from the eventing community. Hair was cut for Little Princess wigs, Christmas wreaths, chocolates, silver charms and even quarter mark stencils were sold to raise funds to help kick cancers butt. And all the time Hannah was fighting, fighting hard to stay with her loved ones, fighting to be well enough to do the thing she loved more than anything, ride her beloved Mavis.

We soon learned the amazing news that Ben Hobday had been declared fit and that he and the V8 super cob that is Mulrys Error, would be competing at Badminton together again. Who would that thought this 6 months earlier? Certainly not Mulry’s owner, the lovely Sallie Ryle, who went along with Ben’s plan purely to keep him positive. And it worked.
Still not up to full strength, Ben and Mulry not only achieved a PB in their dressage – a whopping 10 points higher than ever before, which Ben said was all down to Hannah schooling Mulry in the days before heading to the world famous 4*, but also a phenomenal double clear AT BADMINTON!

There was many a lump in the throat when Ben was interviewed by Clare Balding and spoke of his honour in being made a Patron of Hannah’s charity. The reality that Ben had made it, not only to Badminton but beaten his illness, when Hannah was facing a cruel and bleak future at all too young an age was too much for Ben and we wept with him and for Hannah.

Knowing how well Hannah wrote and with so much more to say since her Christmas interview, we asked Hannah if Willberry would like to write about his 1st 4* experience. Cue more excitement, more of Hannah’s wonderful sense of humour and more of her inspiring approach to dealing with the pain and suffering that no parent should have to see their child experience.

However, undeterred and with Badminton banked, this incredible young lady set her sights on the next batch of bucket list wishes. And as we looked forward to our first visit to Tatts, Hannah and her family, with Willberry and Mavis travelled to Ireland despite horrendous pain and discomfort to fulfil Hannah’s dream of riding in a top hat and tails, which she did faultlessly. For Hannah, the trip was gruelling and her pain revealed devastating complications.

But yet again Hannah pulled through and continued to update us all, share her hopes for her wonderful charity, Willberry’s Wonder Pony to be bigger than Pudsey and get to meet more amazing athletes from her bedside. On several occasions, Hannah was very open about her boredom with it all and her timelines were swiftly filled with positive thoughts and hundreds of messages of love and encouragement to keep fighting. With Rio looming, I sent her a message as had misplaced her address as I’d had an idea. “Don’t be too kind” came the reply and a copy of International Velvet was dispatched. And she kept on fighting.

We have all dreaded Tuesday coming for so long – I, like many, was numb by the news and our thoughts are with her brave family and friends. It has taken me a few days to think about what to say about what Hannah has achieved and how she has touched us despite everything she has been through. And I keep coming back to this. Hannah has gone, but Willberry hasn’t. Hannah has done something no one else has managed to do. She has united the sport we all love, the sport which in itself has its ups and downs, made us be better people, through her pain has created a legacy which we, as a community, will never allow to fade and she will continue to inspire us every day, as we look at her star shining bright.

Hannah, sleep well. It was an honour to help share your story. Be at peace now knowing Willberry is already bigger than Pudsey, that your life has touched so many and we are privileged to have had you in our lives.

Now gallop to the moon and back and maybe, just maybe, look down on Rio as we are all praying medals can be won for you x

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