Motor sport

Multiple sclerosis and the magic of motorsport

STAND UP STRONG: Anji Silva-Vadgama

By: PRIYA MULJI

HOW ANJI SILVA-VADGAMA OVERCOMED HIS DISABILITY TO ADVANCE

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is one of the most common causes of disability in young adults and with a wide range of potential symptoms such as problems with vision, movement, sensation and balance, diagnosis can be devastating.

Anji Silva-Vadgama was unexpectedly diagnosed in 2019 with a chronic disease that affects the brain and spinal cord, which is two to three times more common in women than in men. Instead of being defeated, the business development manager from Northamptonshire joined a team of fully disabled race cars and now has her sights set on competing in the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans race.

Besides following in the footsteps of her grandfather, who was a rally champion in Africa, she also embarked on an IVF journey with his wife.

eastern eye caught up with Anji to discuss his difficult journey from being diagnosed with MS to dreaming of being a race car driver.

When were you diagnosed with MS and how did you feel?
My GP was the first person to tell me I had MS on December 4, 2018. To be honest, I didn’t know much about it, but I was told there was a reason behind what I felt. I suffered from horrible pain in the back of my right eye, as well as pins and needles in my arms and legs, but more on the left side of my body. Then, after seeing the neurologist, they confirmed my GP’s diagnosis of MS. I tried to stay positive, but I’m only human and there were a few days where I got really down.

What are the main impacts of MS on your life?
Having to adjust to using a cane and a wheelchair was a huge change as I am a very athletic person. Along with having two dogs, I had to learn that I can’t walk without help, which took away my independence as well as my confidence in driving.

What led you to join a racing team?
(Smiles) It’s in my blood. My grandfather won the very first off-road Safari Rally race in Tanzania in the 1950s, and my father, who is now retired, had his own garage. So I’ve been around cars all my life. I never considered racing and the idea seemed even more impossible with my MS diagnosis, but one day I saw a TV report about Team BRIT and what was possible. I visited a track day at Silverstone in September and received excellent feedback from the team’s driver coach.

What happened next ?
I returned to the track at Donnington Park in October and was offered a place in the team’s rookie development program. The team has developed some of the most advanced manual control technologies in the world to allow drivers with disabilities to compete on an incredible equal footing.

What do you like about racing?
It helped me build my confidence not only on the road, but also to focus on something different and unique.

What was the experience of being part of a racing team?
They’ve been like family, and sharing a bond of not just wanting to race cars, but also a disability, is definitely an eye opener.

How would you describe the feeling of accelerating on a circuit?
There’s definitely a lot of adrenaline going through you, but also the feeling of being invincible and elusive.

Are your family and partner supportive of your racing aspirations?
One hundred percent. My wife is always by my side, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, and my family supports me when and where they can.

How are you preparing for the Le Mans race?
A lot of training, not only physical but also mental.

Tell us about the team you work with and how are you feeling?
The team is great and has come up through the ranks, which is what I hope to do. It’s also great to be part of the Team Brit family. It’s a long journey, but I’m determined.

How did you balance your MS diagnosis with running?
As well as I balance it with everyday life. Take one day at a time and try to stay as positive and motivated as possible.

What is the difference between a disabled race car driver and a regular racer?
It depends on the individual’s disability. But the car was adapted to have all the controls on the steering wheel. This allows drivers who have no leg movement to operate the steering wheel only. Or like me, since I have limited movement in my left leg, I’ll use foot acceleration until I can with the handbrake on the steering wheel.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to do the same?
Don’t give up and keep trying. If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.

What inspires you?
What inspires me is being able to show that a disability does not define who you are and that we are capable of doing whatever we want too.