After a 23 year career with the Royal Navy I was excited to start a new job, but was desperately seeking new challenges to fill the hole I knew the Navy would leave in my sporting & social life. Fortunately, I found myself in a forward-thinking company with a sports & social scheme that promoted (and subsidised) extracurricular activities - as long as someone was prepared to organise it – it was then, at the grand old age of 43, my Wakeboarding journey began!
I was lucky to have an opportunity to ride both boat and cable and I have to admit, after not getting past corner 3 on the cable, I made the rash decision to stick to boat riding; a decision I would be forced to review later.
We live in Dorset in the UK so the sea seemed like the obvious answer and after spending a small fortune on 15-minute sets in Poole Harbour, we decided to commit. A freezing cold weekend on a powerboat driving course and a small boat purchased, that was us up and running.
My partner and I spent the following few years introducing as many of our friends as possible to our new-found passion and took ourselves off to various countries to ride. We went to Spain at Extreme Gene, Bulgaria at Snow&Wake and we rode in Florida with the fabulous World Champion, Tarah Mikacich and her partner Cobe Mikacich.
Summer 2014, a good friend booked us both in for a Ladies Morning at the New Forest Water Park - a cable park! To say I was reluctant is an understatement, but she had paid for me so I couldn’t be ungrateful! I arrived at NFWP convinced that I would prove the cable wasn’t for me, only to find that after a couple of attempts, I was all the way round. I rued my earlier decision having wasted many an opportunity waiting for conditions to be good enough for the sea!
Very quickly NFWP became not only our second home, but our happy place and we met lots of like-minded people; our social life flourished and my riding improved too. It took courage to start hitting features but thanks to the fantastic owners, staff and supportive community at NFWP, I made real progress. We branched out and rode at other cable parks like Hip-Notics in Turkey and riding into my 50th Birthday at Liquid Leisure (Windsor, UK).
At the end of the season in October 2017 the unimaginable happened; I won the local riders ladies competition. Maybe this was down to few entries rather than me doing anything amazing, but the boost to my confidence was real and I went into the winter impatient and excited for the new season to begin.
I was on a high, and it was about then where my journey hit a snag.
My lower jaw was experiencing this extreme pain. Assuming a problem with my teeth, I visited the dentist. When they couldn’t help, the events that transpired were absolutely horrific.
Numerous desperate medical appointments and cocktails of drugs, I was finally diagnosed with a condition known as Trigeminal Neuralgia. I had pretty much sussed this out for myself through good old Google, but to have it confirmed was like an iron curtain coming down on my life. My research confirmed it is a condition that can’t be permanently cured, learning that it is known as “Suicide Syndrome” told me all I needed to know.
Trigeminal Neuralgia is a condition that affects one or more of the branches of your Trigeminal nerve that comes from the brain just by the ear and spreads to three areas of your face. There are potentially lots of causes; anything from a brain tumour or Multiple Sclerosis through to just wear and tear of the myelin sheath that protect the nerves.
The pain was indescribable. For me it was the lower V3 nerve on my right side and it had numerous triggers; temperature change, vibration, chewing, swallowing and talking would result in excruciating electric shock like sensations causing my face to become temporarily paralysed.
I am a bit of a chatterbox so perhaps it was a relief for some people! Joking aside, it was just hard to do anything. I didn’t get any warning when an episode was going to happen and they could last anything from seconds to 30 mins plus; with my career as a Project Manager, I could be partway through a telephone call and find myself unable to speak!
I count myself lucky that I was diagnosed reasonably quickly, it’s a little known condition and I know there are many sufferers out there who go undiagnosed for years, going through unspeakable torture trying to convince the local GPs that there is a problem. Typically, the treatment is to try and control the symptoms with variants of anti-convulsion medication usually prescribed for patients suffering from Epilepsy. Sufferers can experience some relief but the side-effects of these drugs are debilitating and often the condition will become immune to the medication and the episodes will start to break through.
It was 2018 and all I knew was I was determined to ride. I forced myself out on the water even though I felt like a zombie. I had zero energy levels from the meds and always fearful that the vibration from the water or falling from features would trigger an episode. My friends were supportive and tolerant but being an invisible injury, I was conscious there were those that just thought I had suddenly become a wimp! It made me ride less, and I started to wonder if my Wakeboarding journey was at an end.
By winter 2019, I started to research my options. I was so determined not to spend the rest of my life on meds, missing out on so much. Eventually, I self-referred to a Neurosurgeon at Southampton Hospital, an expert in the condition; the £500 fee was a small price to pay to find out my options.
Luckily for me, Mr Vagrimani saw that this condition was having such an adverse impact on my otherwise healthy life and recommended brain surgery. I didn’t hesitate in agreeing to this and we set about raiding our savings for the extraordinary amount of money needed to make it happen.
The procedure is called Micro-Vascular Decompression (MVD for short – Google it if you aren’t squeamish!) and it’s certainly not without risks. For me, they were worth taking. Whilst the 2019 season was as much of a washout for my wakeboarding as the previous, I waited in anticipation for an appointment.
Apparently I was in theatre for something like 6 hours. All I know is, the first night felt like it had been run over by an HGV – I had wondered what I had done! 4 days later, I was discharged to begin my recovery and rehabilitation. I am so lucky to have a wonderful partner and lots of fantastic friends and neighbours who rallied around to help out. Living in a very rural area, without public transport and unable to drive during recovery, I quickly became part of the “ladies who lunch” in my village, bringing the average age down by about 20 years!
Mr Vagrimani had remained cagey about what & when I would be able to participate in my sports again, just advising not to wear a helmet for 6 months! I had to withdraw from my annual snow trip with our gang and couldn’t get out on my MTB for several months.
2020 came around and I remained hopeful that I would only miss the first few weeks of the wakeboarding season. I followed his instructions, came off all medication gradually and I was healing well.
Unbelievably, the next hurdle appeared like a steam train, throwing all lives into disarray – COVID19…. But with low numbers in our area, actually the general slowing down of life has probably been a good thing for me, it stopped me getting back to extreme sports too soon.
Finally, a few months later, our local cable, the NFWP opened to limited numbers and lots of precautions, but I was welcomed back to my happy place at last.
I was very nervous the first time I jumped from the dock and wondered if I would have even find the stamina to ride! It’s my self-proclaimed ‘come-back season’ and I am gradually building up to all the tricks I could once do; I am nearly there now and I’m already thinking about what I am going to learn next.
To date, I have not experienced any further irregular nerve behaviour, the operation has been a success. I know that there is no guarantee just how long I might be pain free as every sufferer is different; but for now I am enjoying my new found zest for life.
The moral of my story is to never ever give up and certainly don’t see age or medical conditions as barriers; I absolutely love that at 54 I confidently stand on the dock with the youngsters and have just as much fun as they do.
I am really looking forward to being part of the “She Flies” community and can’t wait to meet lots of other women this year and many years to come.