In 2015 I was lucky enough to be one of six people chosen out of over 11,000 nominees to appear on a special four-part edition of Strictly Come Dancing on BBC1. As people watched me being twirled around the dance floor by my professional dance partner Aljaz Skorjanec, you’d never have guessed the journey I’d been on to get to that point. Adaptability, acceptance and creativity have been key to keeping myself active after I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 2008, aged 28.
BEING ACTIVE IS PART OF WHO I AM
I often say to people that sport and being active is my life. Some of my earliest memories involve watching my Dad playing league hockey and running around emulating him with one of his old wooden sticks that he’d sawn off to make into a “mini.” At school I’d turn my hand to anything – netball, football, tennis, basketball, squash, softball, volleyball, rounders, athletics… You name it, I’d try it. At the age of 12, I moved to the Netherlands for two years. They have an amazing infrastructure for hockey there and it’s where I started to play competitive league hockey.
We’re a hockey family. My Dad has played since his university days. He’s now over 70 and still plays league hockey and also internationally for Wales. Both my sisters, my uncles, brother-in-law, cousins… Hockey is in my blood and by the age of 16-17 years old I was playing almost seven days a week between school, club, adult, youth, indoor, outdoor, mixed, ladies…. I went on to play U21 county level and played for my university 1St XI throughout my degree. After graduating, finding a job and moving back home, I continued to play regular league hockey for many years. I couldn’t imagine a life without hockey.
A LIFE-CHANGING DIAGNOSIS
In 2008, I received the life-changing news that I have Multiple Sclerosis. It’s an autoimmune condition whereby the protective coating of nerve fibres in the brain and spinal cord become damaged, resulting in interruption to nerve signals. There is no cure. Symptoms can include loss of mobility, bladder/bowel issues, sight problems, cognitive issues, pain, muscle spasms, fatigue and sensory problems. My first symptom was losing the strength in both my hands. I then went on to lose the feeling down one side of my body and I developed muscle spasms, fatigue and a host of other symptoms.
My first question to the neurologist when I was diagnosed was “can I still play hockey?” Ironically, when I’d lost the feeling down my left side, I’d at first assumed I’d trapped a nerve whilst playing. I actually continued to play through that relapse, quite stupidly thinking “well if I get hit, it won’t hurt!?” Luckily, my neurologist said I could continue to play and in fact exercise is really important for people with MS, to retain muscle strength, keep weight down and stay flexible.
Adaptability has been key to me staying active 12 years on from my diagnosis. I continued to play hockey until around 2013. I’d adapted my training schedule, the number of times a week I was playing, even the position I played on the pitch, to take into account my increasing fatigue levels and slower reactions as my life with MS progressed. But I had to start looking for other ways to stay active that didn’t take as much out of me. And I discovered dance.
“We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.” ― Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Dance is fantastic for someone like me because it’s creative – there’s no right or wrong. I can go at my own pace and there’s no team relying on me. I can adapt moves according to what I can manage and it’s something I can do anywhere and at any time. I can make the most of my good days and go easy on myself on my bad days. With hockey, I couldn’t ask for a match to be rescheduled if I was having a bad day. As such, I was becoming increasingly frustrated because I was having to push my body beyond what I knew was sensible. Matches were increasingly wiping me out for two or three days. And I started to get injured because I couldn’t move out of the way of flying balls fast enough. I knew I had to listen to my body.
Don’t get me wrong, I still miss lots of things about hockey – the team camaraderie, hearing the ball slam against the backboard of the goal, the feeling of winning an important match. However, I don’t dwell on it. I instead focus on what dance has given me – joy, a new passion, a new set of friends, an exercise that I can do whilst waiting for the kettle to boil! It’s also something that I will be able to still do regardless of how my MS progresses. My sister is an inclusive dance instructor and our classes include people of all abilities. Seeing what other people in the class do has made me much less scared of my own future with MS. Most importantly, it’s something that I enjoy. I’ve never been a gym person. I find it boring. That’s just me. Exercise needs to be something that doesn’t feel like a chore. With hockey it never was. And with dance it isn’t either, I’m having way too much fun!