Sara McFadden is rallying on

Sara McFadden is Ireland’s first visually-impaired navigator for tarmac rallying and speaks of her experiences in the sport

When a doctor told Sara McFadden at 12 years of age that she would never be able to drive, it was a crushing blow to her dreams. Growing up with an intense passion for rally car racing, Sara had aspired to become a driver herself some day. “I went to my first rally when I was about six weeks old,” she reveals. “Both my parents have been involved in the sport for 20-30 years–they bought their first car when I was born, and my father started driving and my mother started navigating, then took up driving as well. I suppose you could say there was petrol running through my veins!” It therefore makes sense that she would have such high hopes to get behind the wheel of her own car.

“With driving out of the question, she did what anyone would do; she became Ireland’s first visually-impaired navigator for tarmac rallying.”

However, Sara was born with both Albinism and Nystagmus, two conditions which would impair her vision permanently. “Albinism is a genetic condition where there’s no pigment in my hair, skin or eyes, which means I’m quite sensitive to light and changes in light, so if it’s glary or sunny outside, I can see very little. And then Nystagmus means the nerves in the back of my eyes never fully developed, so my irises constantly and uncontrollably move from side to side. It means you always have to be focusing and that leads to a lot of eye strain.” So, with driving out of the question, she did what anyone would do; she became Ireland’s first visually-impaired navigator for tarmac rallying.

For the uninitiated, the navigator sits beside the driver in the car, reading the course maps and barking out directions while their teammate steers along the winding roads. One would think, however, that navigation would not be the natural alternative to driving for someone with visual impairment. But Sara reveals that while visual acuity is important for navigating, it is not essential: “I can do it mainly through feel, so I’ve adapted the role a small bit, but not too much. In rallying, the navigator always has to be reading two or three corners ahead of where the car actually is, so I can count which corner we’re on by feeling the movement of my seat in the car.”

“Of course, other navigators can look out the window and see which corner they’re at, but actually when you get to the higher levels and the WRC [World Rallying Championship], the way the cars are built means the navigators sit so far back that they can’t actually see out of their cars. So while I adapted the role a bit so I can do it by feel, it’s actually a common thing to do at the top level.”

“She studies her car’s performance after every race, watching back tapes from the cameras fixed inside her car and ensuring she improves for the next race.”

Sara’s determination to become an elite navigator would come as no surprise to anyone who knows her. She learned to play camogie through sound alone, excelling at her local club Ballyvary and even won an All-Ireland silver medal with the Mayo camogie development squad. Her strong work ethic, married with a serious competitive streak, makes her more than capable for any challenge that comes her way. That said, there have been occasions when some may have underestimated Sara’s resolve. She admits that at the start, people just assumed she would “sit in the car and have a slow lap around the track, or whatever.” But Sara defied those expectations; she studies her car’s performance after every race, watching back tapes from the cameras fixed inside her car and ensuring she improves for the next race.

Her passion and diligence extends beyond sport–she is currently studying for a Bachelor’s degree in Sport with Business at IT Sligo. Sara reports that the college’s accessibility services have been extremely helpful in catering to her needs; indeed, their willingness to help her was in sharp contrast to what she was used to in secondary school. “It wasn’t my school’s [Davitt College, Castlebar] fault at all–they were terrific. It was the Department of Education, really. I was left without school books for a long time in 5th year, and the school sorted it for me, but I think it was April before I got even a Maths book off them, and even then, it was in large print, whereas I had been using the e-book at the time. I think it was just that you had to fight for everything, so when I went into college, I had my back up, ready to do battle again.”

“But the college came back to me and said, ‘oh don’t worry, we’ll get it all for you!’ and I was shocked! I need special equipment with my condition, like laptops and iPads and things like that–and the Department had taken them all off me since secondary school, so I was left with nothing–and they said, ‘if you can wait, we’ll have it in a week’. So, they have been second to none in terms of the support they’re giving me.” In 2019, IT Sligo awarded Sara with a sports scholarship for the semester, renewing it last September for 2020/21. As Sara alludes to herself, there are not too many sports scholarships awarded for motorsports.

To a certain extent, this feeds into the perception that motor racing is not really a sport, certainly not to the same degree as football, hockey or athletics. Whereas those sports require peak physical performance, robust mental agility and plenty of effort, the assumption is that in motorsport, the machine does the bulk of the work, with the driver somewhat riding on its coattails. Sara stresses that this is a gross misconception: “In rallying, stages are about 10-15 minutes long. For the navigator, you almost don’t have time to breathe, because you have to be constantly giving directions to the driver for that 10 minutes. Your attention has to be on point, you need perfect concentration.

“For a driver, their fitness levels have to be incredibly high. You’re exerting so much effort because it’s not a slow meander along the road–you’re going up steep country lanes and sharp turns, wearing a three-layer fireproof suit. You could be in an older car, which has no power steering, so it is a very physically demanding sport. But, even when I was starting out, I also would’ve thought ‘what do you mean, it can’t be that physically demanding’, but I changed my opinion on that fairly quickly!”

“It’s fitting that Sara would want to challenge the prejudices around motorsport; she has made a habit out of defying everyone’s expectations.”

It’s fitting that Sara would want to challenge the prejudices around motorsport; she has made a habit out of defying everyone’s expectations. She regularly receives correspondence from others who have been inspired by her story to follow their own sporting dreams. One such example occurred after her appearance on Virgin Media’s Six O’Clock Show. “I got this message from a mother whose son had always wanted to take up football,” she recalls, “but never thought that he could because he was visually impaired. Then, he happened to see me on the show because his mother was watching, and turned to her and said: ‘I’ll go to football tomorrow night’. And that was because he had never imagined beforehand that someone who was visually impaired; I was the proof that it could be done.”

Indeed, in the last few years, more and more is being done to demonstrate to people with disabilities that they can realise their sporting dreams. In January, Trinity Sport signed the Cara Sport Disability Inclusion Charter, which calls on clubs and organisations to cater more to the needs of people with disabilities and look at how facilities and sporting programmes can be more inclusive. With role models like Sara and John Tanguay [rowing] here in Trinity, there is plenty to encourage those with disabilities to take up a sport.

However, one must exercise caution when talking about athletes with disabilities; one has the tendency to paint them all with the same brush, as Sara suggests. “I can’t really speak for athletes with disabilities who compete in, say, the paralympics, because I’ve always played sports alongside people without disabilities. I know a lot of sportspeople who do compete in versions of the game that accommodate their disabilities, but it’s not fair for me to speak on their behalf when our situations are different.”

Her comments correspond to a greater problem in sporting culture and the perception of athletes with disabilities–that events such as the Paralympics are viewed as a consolation prize, a separate event from the Olympics for those who are not able to make it in the real event on account of their impairment. Paralympic Swimmer Ellen Keane referenced this a few weeks ago saying that the Paralympics are “often put into the same category as Special Olympics–but the Special Olympics and the Paralympics are two different things.”

The media, organisations and fans tend to put all these sportspeople into a box called “disabled athletes”; by doing so, they completely fail to understand the nuanced implications that a certain condition can have on an athlete’s ability to perform. There can no longer be this simplistic binary between athletes with disabilities and those without them. Sara’s sporting career thus far has managed to challenge and undermine this harmful aspect of sporting culture. One would assume that visual impairment would make it impossible for her to be successful as a navigator, yet she has adapted the role and made it her own. She holds the map for a future where athletes with disabilities can someday be celebrated for their achievements, rather than their mere participation. Drive on, Sara.

Cameron Hill

Cameron Hill

Cameron Hill was the Sports Editor of Trinity News for Michaelmas 2018. He is a Senior Fresh English Literature and French student.