Molly Sanghera has always been a rugby fan. She loved watching England play but had never played herself.
When the 31-year-old spotted an advert for an England Rugby Warrior Camp she knew she had to give it a try.
‘I was worried that I might be too old or that I wouldn’t fit in as an Asian person,’ says Molly. ‘But what I realised straight away is that everyone is welcomed in rugby no matter your background or ability.
‘I was coming up to turning 30 and, really, I had nothing to lose by giving it a go.
‘Overall, fitness and sport is of course a great way to stay fit and healthy. But for me, it’s about more than that – it’s a release.’
Molly is a lawyer and has a really intense and stressful job. Playing rugby has helped teach her how to unwind and how to manage that daily stress. It brought a sense of balance back to her life.
‘It has also played a fundamental role in meeting new people, and in establishing some of the most brilliant friendships that I have today – the teams are like a family,’ she says.
‘After I tried it out for the first time at a Warrior Camp local to me, I was invited back to train with the team at Handsworth Rugby Club – and I’m now in my third season of playing rugby, today I play for Lichfield Ladies.’
When Molly recieved a shock diagnosis of lupus, she was absolutely gobsmacked. It came completely out of the blue and she wasn’t sure how to respond.
‘I had thought that I had a skin allergy or something, that it was linked to my new rugby kit,’ says Molly. ‘I had even switched my washing detergent to try to combat it.
‘To go from that, to suddenly being in hospital and having biopsies carried out, to then being told that you have an auto-immune disease – and this was all two days after my 30th birthday. I felt so incredibly down.
‘Fortunately for me though, it wasn’t as bad as it can be.’
Lupus is a systemic autoimmune disease where your body’s immune system attacks your own tissues and organs. It can cause really painful inflammation in loads of different parts of the body.
‘I have poor joints and I have episodes where my back and my hands, can just completely go, and I can get really awful rashes all over my body which are pretty uncomfortable,’ explains Molly. ‘But I’m getting better at knowing and understanding my body, and seeing the signs that I need to rest and take things slower.
‘Rugby is, for me, an escape from all of this. It’s the one time when I don’t even think about it, it’s no longer an issue for me.
‘Your team help you to keep going and to push you on – I play with some amazing ladies and they always keep a smile on my face.’
Molly has always been fit and active. She enjoys going to gym, but playing rugby takes her enjoyment to a whole new level.
‘I have honestly never experienced anything that makes me feel the way that rugby does. I’m so glad that I found out about the Warrior Camps and got started with the sport.’
With her lupus, Molly knows that she has to be careful with her body and ensure that she is getting enough rest and recovery. There will be times when she won’t be at her best to play sport, but her team are always there for her.
‘My coaches at Lichfield are all aware of my illness and they know that if I step away to the side for a few minutes in the middle of a game, it’s because I need to,’ she says.
‘Equally, I’ve always been open about having lupus at work and there is a room at work that I can use if I need to go and have a rest away from my desk.
‘If people know about it, then they can support you and help you to manage it, so that open communication is key.’
Having an invisible illness is difficult, and Molly sometimes finds it hard to convey to people exactly what she’s going through. That’s why she thinks it’s so important to share her story and raise awareness.
‘For me, the main thing that is hard for people to understand is the level of fatigue, and the joint pain that I experience. These things aren’t visible and so they are hard to relate to unless you’ve experienced them.
‘People think that you’re just tired and that they know how that feels; but the fatigue that comes from a disease like lupus is just on another level and it’s hard for some people to get it.
‘I’m actually a mental health lawyer, so I’m always advocating the importance of looking after your mental well-being and that we should talk openly about it.
‘While some people will agree, there are also some people who will simply never understand.’
As a rugby player, strength is crucial to Molly’s game. She has to take hits like a champ and get back up, ready to sprint at top speed. But the concept of strength runs deeper than they physical, and Molly knows this more than most.
‘I think that it’s mental strength that really makes someone a strong woman,’ she says.
‘To be able to pick yourself up, no matter what is thrown at you; to have that strength of mind to just keep going is what makes you strong.
‘I think I’m strong because I’m not overly reliant on others. I’m single and I’m doing it all for myself.
‘I don’t let my illness define me; I play rugby, I work, I do hair and makeup on the side. I keep going and it’s that ability to manage my mental well-being and my outlook on things that makes me strong.
‘It’s easy to focus on the negatives, but I like to focus on the positives, and that’s what works for me.’
You can register online for a free place at one of more than 100 Warrior Camps taking place across the country this September.
Strong Women is a weekly series that champions diversity in the world of sport and fitness.
A Sport England study found that 40% of women were avoiding physical activity due to a fear of judgement.
But, contrary to the limited images we so often see, women of any age, size, race or ability can be active and enjoy sport and fitness.
We hope that by normalising diverse depictions of women who are fit, strong and love their bodies, we will empower all women to shed their self-consciousness when it comes to getting active.
Each week we talk to women who are redefining what it means to be strong and achieving incredible things.