Multiple sclerosis (MS) affects about 1 in 500 Britons and can vary dramatically by person. For those reasons it can be misunderstood by those not directly impacted, but helping to raise awareness among the athlete community are several elite sportspeople who’ve made their diagnosis public: Kadeena Cox, Laviai and Lina Nielsen, and Dave Phillips included.
Para-snowboarder Nina Sparks is another, having been diagnosed just over two years ago. A keen snowboarder for much of her life, Nina was reclassified as a para-athlete after developing MS in 2021, but she made the switch with success: she recently scooped the BEAA’s Athletes’ Athlete of the Month award after an accomplished end to the season.
Here, she explains her story as part of MS Awareness Week.
Nina’s first symptom came 18 months before her official diagnosis: she went blind temporarily in her right eye. Her vision recovered and doctors arranged a follow-up MRI, but it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A year later, while travelling to Austria for the snowboarding season, Nina woke up with a numb right foot, which she blamed on the cold. Over a month the numbness spread up her thigh and eventually affected both legs, until one day she sat on a heated chairlift and couldn’t feel the warmth.
She went to hospital in Innsbruck and, thanks to Google Translate, explained her situation to an Austrian doctor. A host of tests and appointments later and, in March 2021, Nina was diagnosed.
“I couldn’t go home and my family couldn’t come out to me,” she says. “I was on my own in a foreign country.
“Going into the appointment where I got officially diagnosed I knew that it’s not the end of the world, not a death sentence, is manageable, and actually I can get classified as a para-athlete and carry on snowboarding. Don’t get me wrong, that all sounds very jolly, but it was devastating and I cried a lot. I had no idea what to do, but I suppose I made the best of a bad situation.”
Delaying treatment for her symptoms left Nina with permanent nerve damage in her right leg below the knee, which limits her ankle function. Her calf is also atrophying “at a rate of knots” and she wears an orthotic for daily life.
“If you think there’s something wrong with your body, don’t leave it for ages like I did,” she says. “It’s not normal to experience random numbness, tingling or blindness, so if something goes a bit off, definitely get it checked out.”
But Nina hasn’t allowed MS to prevent her from spending much of her life representing her country in the mountains. Her reclassification allowed her to secure a first World Cup podium, became Europa Cup champion, and bag silver and bronze in the World Championships.
She explains the process of reclassification for any athlete approaching it themselves: “I actually get reclassified every year because I have a changing disability. Conditions like MS and several other neurological conditions are considered non-permanent, whereas something like an amputation is permanent.
“I have to submit some medical paperwork from a doctor saying that I’ve got MS and this is where it’s affecting, and that goes to GB Snowsport, who send it to the organisers of para-snowboard. So that’ll be to whatever sport you’re doing, and your governing body would help you with that.
“Then there are events throughout the year that are specifically classification events. You go to this event and basically have a cross between a doctor’s appointment and a physio appointment. You will often have a doctor, someone with medical experience, and a physio, someone who’s an exercise specialist. They will look at how your body works.
“They then look at the classifications for the sport, because that varies as well. Different sports require different levels of disability to be in various categories. For me, for example, I’m in the lower limb 2 category, which is if you have a relatively minor impairment in one leg, usually below the knee, usually affecting your ankle function – which for snowboarding is quite important.
“They check how your body responds to various things: for example, how many times you can do a movement with a certain limb. That’s basically it, and if they give you a permanent classification you’re classified for years, but you may be on a review, like me, when you have to go back 12 months later.”
For now, Nina’s success in the 2022/23 season is still sinking in, and she’s taking every goal as it comes. But one thing’s clear: staying in sport post-diagnosis was the right decision.
“When I first started para-snowboarding, I was like: ‘This is cool! I want to compete for my country.’
“I found out in April-May that I’d got onto the World Class Programme. I was like: ‘Oh my god, I wasn’t expecting this!’
“Even if you think you’re not good enough for something or are never going to make it, take every opportunity that comes your way. Throw everything you can at it, and all you can do is try your best and say hand on heart: ‘I threw everything at that.’ You never know where it’s going to lead you.”
For more information on MS, head over to the MS Society’s website here.Access our support >