‘My world came crashing down’: dancer bids to become first known female jockey with multiple sclerosis to ride in a race

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  • A professional dancer whose life was turned upside-down when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) is to become the first known female jockey to ride with the condition, in the Markel Magnolia Cup.

    Olivia Kimber will be one of the 12 female jockeys lining up for the charity race on 28 July at the Qatar Goodwood Festival. The 28-year-old from Portsmouth said she went to see her GP after she noticed some unusual symptoms.

    “I started noticing bizarre symptoms last October, such as numbness and loss of sensation between my right hip and knee, pins and needles in my right foot and double vision whenever I looked to the left,” she told H&H. “But I thought as I’m a dancer, I might have trapped a nerve and that the issues would disappear. However, five weeks later, they got worse and my leg was starting to drag on the floor, so I went to see my GP.”

    Olivia was immediately referred to Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth and an MRI of her brain showed multiple swellings. She was diagnosed with a rare form of MS.

    “My world came crashing down at 27 years of age with this diagnosis. It’s just rubbish,” she said. “The doctors advised that while relapses may be few and far between and that medication and research has come on tremendously, later on in life disabling factors are highly likely.”

    Olivia said she applied to take part in the Magnolia Cup soon after her diagnosis.

    “I was scrolling through social media and I saw that applications had opened for those who might want to take part in the race,” said Olivia. “I thought ‘do you know what? There’s no better time to give this a go and to give myself a goal and something to look forward to.”

    Thousands apply to take part in the race each year, and Olivia did not think her application would be successful.

    “I didn’t expect anything from from applying and then two months later I got a phone call to say I had made the cut – I was absolutely ecstatic,” she said. “I’ve been racing at Goodwood my whole life as it’s a local track and my family own racehorses, so it’s really special that I’ll now get to ride there.”

    Olivia Kimber

    Olivia Kimber. Credit: Dominic James Photography

    Prior to securing her place in the race, Olivia had no experience of riding racehorses in training.

    “I have an ex-racehorse and have competed at a low level locally, doing a bit of everything, but I’d never ridden up gallops in racing tack,” said Olivia, who started riding out for Berkshire Downs-based trainer Eve Johnson-Houghton in February.

    It has not been plain sailing for Olivia while she has been riding out at Eve’s twice a week, riding three or four lots per morning.

    “It has been quite difficult – I wasn’t expecting it to be quite such a challenge,” she said. “In March I contracted Covid but didn’t realise and while riding out one morning, my leg went numb while I was galloping and I could feel myself starting to topple sideways. Thankfully I was on an absolute saint of a horse and I managed to pull him up.

    “That was a reality check for me and I had to admit that I get very fatigued more quickly than I used to.”

    Before taking part in any charity race, all participants must past a rigorous fitness test, which is run by the British Racing School to make sure all jockeys are up to the challenge and will be safe on a racecourse.

    “The test was brutal,” said Olivia, who has sessions with a personal trainer and goes to the gym two or three times a week in preparation for the race. “But I was told that I passed with ‘flying colours’. We had to squat for four minutes on a wobble cushion, which I managed to do, but by the end my leg had completely gone and I had to be helped by someone to stand up properly.”

    In terms of her goal for the race, Olivia, who continues to dance and teaches 10 ballet classes? each week. is very clear.

    “I want to canter down to the start and finish the race in one piece. I don’t care where I’m placed – I just want to enjoy it and ride a race. For me just being able to get there is a huge achievement,” she said.

    Donations can be made to support Olivia on her fundraising page.

    Since its inception 11 years ago, Magnolia Cup has raised £1.8m for various charities. This year, funds will be raised for The Brilliant Breakfast, an initiative in aid of The Prince’s Trust.

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