In 1999, UK-born Nathalie McGloin was just a regular 16 year old. She was starting to think about her future as a young adult: leaving home, choosing university courses, working part time, and enjoying time with her first boyfriend. But only two weeks into post high school study, Nathalie’s life changed forever.

A car accident left her with a broken C6-7, the last bone in the neck. Suddenly, Nathalie found herself needing to adapt to a new and unfamiliar life: a life of being paralysed from the chest down. Lacking independence and becoming socially isolated, she struggled with the sudden changes her spinal injury had caused.

I think the worst thing for me was being in the spinal unit surrounded by other people going through the same thing, but all of my friends were at school getting on with their lives without me. So, there's the difference between the emotional and the kind of practical side of breaking your neck.

Nathalie McGloinTetraplegic Female Racing Driver

For newly disabled teenagers it can be hard to juggle their goals and aspirations with their injury. For Nathalie though, her determination and strength took over and helped her through this difficult time. It was less than a year before she would embark on a journey through the world of disabled sports, that would lead to her becoming the world’s first and only female tetraplegic racing driver.

Even before the injury, Nathalie had a strong willed, rebellious nature that would sometimes even get her into trouble. But in her recovery, she had an epiphany moment, and realised she could harness this spark and turn it into strength.

“I can remember exactly the moment that I found a different kind of focus…or stopped being a victim of the injury.”

The nurses in the spinal unit brought in a female patient with a similar level of injury to Nathalie’s, who had been living with her spinal injury for a while. They demonstrated to Nathalie how this patient could do her hair and makeup with reduced hand and grip function, and how she drove an adaptive van from her electric wheelchair.

“They said that that was something that perhaps I should consider. And I just remember feeling really annoyed. I felt like they didn’t know me. They didn’t know what I was capable of achieving – and why should my standards be set by someone else’s?”

Just a few weeks later, Nathalie’s physiotherapist arranged another visit, this time from Allan Smith, a Paralympian involved in the wheelchair rugby community.  He was on his way to a training session, and Nathalie ended up going with him. She found herself inspired by the team and how fully they lived their lives after their own injuries.

“No one was limited by what happened to them. I think the main thing for me was they were like, proof of life after a spinal cord injury.”

Nathalie promised herself that her injury wouldn’t stop her from doing anything she was planning on doing before the accident. So, after 11 months in a rehabilitation unit she finished her A-levels, and then moved out of home to Nottingham University. There were some challenges adapting to a more independent life without her support network, but she also got to join her first wheelchair rugby team. Nathalie began to train and compete at different universities and completely threw herself into the community.

“I couldn’t get to enough tournaments. Everything was focused on wheelchair rugby! I felt like I really started to come to terms with things, and finally started to move forward.”

Unfortunately, circumstances changed again in 2012. Nathalie got Botox poisoning. She had had Botox injected into her bladder, a common procedure for tetraplegics, but it ended up reaching her bloodstream. This serious condition weakened Nathalie to the point that it prevented her from being able to train. Even after returning to rugby after a long 9 months of rest, her heart wasn’t in it anymore.

“I felt like that passion that have driven me to want to give rugby absolutely everything had just died. I knew without that, that I could never be the athlete that I wanted to be, and I would never be satisfied with my progress in rugby. So, I decided that I needed something else. And I still trained with rugby, but my focus wasn’t there in terms of wanting to achieve what it always wanting to achieve, which was Paralympics. I started to look for other things.”

All it took was a casual invitation to a track day, an event for people to drive their own car at a racetrack, to inspire a passion for driving that has become a huge part of Nathalie’s life.

I met someone in a wheelchair rugby tournament interlude who challenged me to a track day because he told me that his car was faster than mine. So, I agreed to go along. And I absolutely loved it!

Nathalie McGloinTetraplegic Female Racing Driver

After racing in her own car, a Porsche 911, Nathalie realised that it wasn’t just the adrenaline that made it so fun for her. She enjoyed the invisibility of her disability on the track: how both able bodied and disabled drivers would drive side by side. After five or six years of doing track days for fun, Nathalie decided to consider getting her racing license.

The licensing process turned out to be long and hard, because she was tested on not just the same things as able bodied drivers, but more. This involved practical skill tests, written theory off the course, and further sprint tests to show her ability as a disabled driver in competitive conditions. She was worried about some of the requirements, such as needing to be able to exit the car unaided in seven seconds – something that all tetraplegics know is not an easy task. But with her strong-willed attitude, Nathalie had no problem: “obviously, as soon as I thought that I had to, I had to just go for it.” She managed to successfully complete the test on her second ever try.

Nathalie became the first woman in the UK with a spinal injury to gain a racing licence, and later she gained her rally licence too. She quickly began competing and enjoyed being treated the same as the other athletes, despite many racing drivers being able-bodied men.

These days, when she isn’t racing, Nathalie is sharing her passion throughout the disabled community with her charity organisation Spinal Track, which helps other disabled people have a go at racing in an adapted car.

“We can potentially find people who haven’t really considered motorsport before, and we can change their perception of that.”

Nathalie is also the president of the FIA Disability and Accessibility Commission, helping disabled people enter the world of motorsport and raising awareness of racing as a great sport for people with spinal injuries. Her strong will and determination has helped her overcome many of the emotional challenges that can come with a spinal cord injury. She encourages readers to check out her charity’s website https://spinaltrack.org/. You can also find Nathalie on social media (@nathaliemcgloin), where you can check out how she Adaptdefies every day.

If you’d rather listen than read…

Listen to the Podcast with Nathalie McGloin now.