It was 1986, and Janine Shepherd was a 24-year-old cross-country skier, training for the 1988 Winter Olympics.
She was a remarkable athlete – by the age of 10, she’d won several national athletic titles. Although she had natural talent at a number of sports, she decided to stick to cross-country skiing and attempt to win herself a gold medal.
Ultimately, it was her training that irrecoverably changed her life. And it all happened on a bike ride with her fellow teammates on one spectacular autumn day.
Shepherd wasn’t even meant to be on the bike ride that day. “I was feeling really tired and fatigued from a lot of training,” Shepherd tells me, over a phone interview. “But a friend of mine was coming up from Victoria so I thought, oh I’d better go along.”
And so she and her teammates got on their bikes and started riding from Sydney to the Blue Mountains. It was a long ride, but Shepherd was fit and loving the bright sunshine of the day.
They were five-and-a-half hours into their ride, and Shepherd was loving the hills, pumping her legs, sucking in the cold mountain air, and turning her face to the sun.
That is her last memory of that bike ride. After that, everything went black.
Shepherd had been hit by a speeding utility truck, with only 10 minutes to go until the end of the bike ride. “I was airlifted by the Westpac rescue helicopter, and they didn’t think I would survive the flight on the helicopter,” she tells me. “I spent 10 days in intensive care after that. I spent 10 days in and out of my body, wanting to let go. I say it was more like a death experience than a near-death experience. I was drifting between two dimensions.”
Shepherd had broken her neck and back in six places. She’d also broken five ribs, her right arm, her collarbone and some bones in her feet. She’d also lost five liters of blood – which is just about all the blood someone like Shepherd would have in their body to lose.
After 10 days in intensive care, miraculously, Shepherd decided to return to her body. “That was the beginning of life with a disability,” she tells me. “The bleeding had stopped but I was paralysed from the waist down. They told me I’d have to be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life.”
She had an operation where they literally cut her in half. They fixed her ribs, picked all the bone fragments from her body and rebuilt her back. They took an hour to stitch her back up again.