A music teacher who refused to let her love affair with mountain sports end when multiple sclerosis (MS) robbed her of feeling below her knees has qualified to represent Great Britain as a para-snowboarder. If Nina Sparks, 31, goes to the 2026 Winter Paralympics in Italy she will become team Paralympics GB’s first ever female Paralympian snowboarder – making every minute of her relentless training since being diagnosed with MS in March 2021 worth it.
Buoyed by her competitive nature, Nina, who lives with her mum, Barbara, 77, a retired teacher, and dad, David, 79, a retired market researcher, in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, refuses to give in to the condition, affecting the brain and spinal cord, saying: “Having MS feels likes like a ticking time bomb, but you can either laugh or cry.”
She added: “I am the only woman on the GB Paralympic Snowboarding team right now. If I could go to the Paralympics in 2026, I will be the first female para-snowboarder for Paralympics Great Britain to make it and that’s pretty cool. I may have MS, but I don’t have to give up on my dreams.”
After falling in love with the mountains on a family holiday to Switzerland, aged five, Nina discovered skiing at a young age.
She said: “I was amazed by the mountains and the scenery and just fell in love with it all. I never forgot it and when I was about eight, I started skiing lessons so we could visit Switzerland again and ski.”
It was catching a glimpse of snowboarding on TV in her early teens that first nudged Nina in the direction of snowboarding however, and away from skiing. Begging her mum for lessons at 13, Nina spent a week devoting herself to becoming a champion on her local dry slope, Wycombe Summit.
She laughed: “I fell over lots and grazed my knees, but it didn’t put me off. I loved feeling like I was flying – it is the best feeling.”
Thanks to a skiing family friend, Nina was able to enjoy Easter holidays in France, practising her snowboarding and cementing her love for the sport.
“It was amazing – they took me with them every Easter and I would count down the days,” she said. “I really enjoyed it and thought, ‘I want to do this all the time and live in the mountains’.”
Her enthusiasm never waned and Nina, who is single, went on to qualify as a snowboarding instructor at home on the dry slopes when she was 19, but the idea of competing professionally seemed like a pipe dream. While studying Adventure Sports at the University of Central Lancashire in 2010, she enjoyed skiing and slope racing at The Hill dry slopes in Rossendale, but still could not see herself making snowboarding her career.
Instead, she started teaching music back home in High Wycombe. She said: “For five years I tried to settle down, but I would go away skiing with friends and think, ‘Oh, I really, really enjoy this’.”
Remaining a self-employed music teacher during term time, Nina also began the first of three ski seasons in Austria between October 2018 to 2020, after signing up with the GBX Academy. But in March 2019, she was involved in a terrifying accident on the slopes in the Zillertal Valley, Austria, left her with a fractured back.
She said: “It was the last day of training before a competition and I was going across the piste when I saw someone heading my way. The next minute, they crashed into the back of me and I flew in the air and landed on my bottom. I just remember seeing a flash of bright orange on the back of their skis and then being face down in the snow.”
But, despite serious injuries, as soon as she recovered, Nina went back to the slopes. She said: “I was never scared. I broke my back in the March and was back on my snowboard in the November.”
Then, in September 2019, her first symptoms of MS began kicking in. She said: “I got into the shower and went to shave my armpits and I couldn’t see one of them. I covered one of my eyes and it was fine and then I covered the other and I couldn’t see anything.”
An emergency appointment with the optician led to a diagnosis of optic neuritis, inflammation of the optic nerve, in her right eye and she was told to take ibuprofen for six weeks. While the symptoms calmed down, a check-up appointment a few weeks later, signalled it could be MS.
She said: “The doctor briefly mentioned that it could be a sign of MS, but said it could also be fine, so I didn’t think anything of it.”
But when, a year later, in September 2020, Nina felt an unusual numbness, the news was devastating. She said: “I was packing up for my third season and my right foot felt numb.
“I didn’t think too much of it as I often have cold feet. When I arrived in Austria, the other foot went numb and the sensation spread to my knees. Again, I thought, I’d been sitting in a van for 24 hours, so it was probably just discomfort. ”
But, over the next couple of weeks, the numb, tingly feeling spread upwards, reaching Nina’s belly button.
“I knew something was wrong when I was sat on a heated chairlift, but I had no idea it was heated,” she said. “When I felt my skin later, my legs were ice cold and I couldn’t feel anything.”
Heading to hospital, after dozens of tests, it began clear that Nina had multiple sclerosis – which cannot be cured – and she was officially diagnosed a few months later, in March 2021.
She said: “I thought I might have a trapped nerve – but not MS. It was lockdown so my parents couldn’t come over and I couldn’t see anyone. I couldn’t believe it.”
For two weeks, Nina was in hospital on a steroid drip, with the aim of restoring feeling to the top of her legs.
“It was the worst week of my life, I could barely stand up or get out of bed,” she said. “I had a thumping headache and I couldn’t eat for two weeks.”
Determined to focus on something else, Nina – who now wears an ankle foot orthosis brace to hold her foot up and prevent ‘drop foot’ – turned to her sporting colleagues for support. They guided her towards Paralympic snowboarding and, within a month of leaving hospital, she was back on the snow.
She said: “If I had gone back home to the UK, I don’t think I would have snowboarded again, but because I stayed in Austria, I thought, ‘Let’s try it’. It was very weird snowboarding for the first time with no feeling in my feet and legs. I was very nervous about it, but it felt good to be doing it again.”
Dislocating her left knee on Boxing Day 2020 set Nina back a few months, as she needed surgery, but it did nothing to dampen her urge to qualify as a para snowboarder, so she could try for a place at the Paralympics. And in November 2021, she achieved the first part of her dream.
She said: “There were so many times I could have packed up and gone home but I didn’t want to do that. Getting classified as a para snowboarder was such a great feeling and made all the struggling worthwhile.”
Within three days of being classified, Nina competed in four Europa Cup Banked Slalom races in the Netherlands, finishing fourth in her first race, before winning two silver medals and one gold.
She said: “I was then selected to represent Great Britain for the Para Snow Sports World Championships in Lillehammer, Norway, in January 2022, where I finished sixth, which was amazing.”
Her next dream is to compete with team Paralympics GB at the Winter Paralympics in Italy in 2026.
She said: “It would be so special and it would make me the first female para snowboarder for Great Britain. It gives me goosebumps thinking about it. Let my story be a lesson to everyone that having a disability shouldn’t stop you from doing the things you want to do.”