health

Sport on Saturdays: Her spine was broken in 6 places. You won't believe what she did next.

Janine cross-country skiing.

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.

Janine in hospital.

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.

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Shepherd would then go on to spend another six months in hospital. She was told that she would never walk and never have children. She was told she would have to use a catheter for the rest of her life. “When I got home, I realised: my life is over,” she says. “At that moment, I wanted to give up. I remember being on the floor in my plaster body cast, thinking: I don’t want to do this. This is not my life.”

But then, something changed.

“Something inside me said – you can’t give up. You came back to this body, you have to find out why. And it was almost like I was letting go, letting myself figure out what I could do. After that thought, I was sitting outside and a plane flew over, and I looked up and thought… okay, if I can’t walk, I’ll fly,” Shepherd says. “And that moment changed my life.”

Janine.

Obviously, training was difficult. Shepherd was still in a full-body cast, but she was determined. She managed to get herself on a test flight, and from there built up to get herself a pilot’s licence; each day she would do exercises of lying on the floor and trying to lift her legs a little more. She would visualise herself walking. “It was just like training for the Olympics, but this time it was an inner journey,” she says.

She focused. She studied. Every day, she read her flying books, slept a lot, repaired her body. She visualised herself walking so that she could get her licence. All she did was picture her goal of flying – that was all she needed.

And she got there. She did. Within a year of her injury, Shepherd got her pilot’s licence, and then went on to get both a commercial pilot’s licence and an instructor’s licence. She also became the first female director of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.

Oh, and she’s had three children.

To this day, Shepherd still flies. She is also a keynote speaker, a teacher and an author – she’s written five books. And she also does everything she can to participate in events that raise awareness for spinal injury – while she’s not in a wheelchair, she still can’t run, making her a partial paraplegic.

“There isn’t a lot of funding for spinal cord research, despite the fact that they are getting close to finding a cure for it,” Shepherd points out to me. “But this isn’t something that happens to someone else. I thought that too. It’s not until it happens to someone close to you that you realise what a devastating illness it is. It’s a loss of function, a loss of your dream, a loss of feeling in your body, a loss of sexual function, a loss of bladder and bowel function. And it’s something people don’t want to talk about. But that’s the reality people in wheelchairs live with, every single day.”

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As a result, Shepherd is an ambassador for an incredible event that’s coming up – the Wings for Life World Run, taking place on the 4th May, 2014.

Janine skiing. All three of her children are also incredible skiers.

The Wings for Life run, sponsored by Red Bull, takes place simultaneously in 35 locations around the world – so participants around the globe will be running at the same time (whether it’s during day or through the night), for as long as they can. In Australia, it’s taking place in Busselton WA at 6pm.

There’s no finish line in this race. Instead, there’s a ‘catcher car’, released half an hour after runners start, which signals the end of your personal race once it reaches you.

So essentially, runners are competing against themselves to see how long they can outrun the catcher car. It’s brilliant, and all the runners are raising money for the Wings for Life Foundation, which supports research into spinal cord injuries.

If you’d like to find out more about the race, go here. And remember this final words from the truly remarkable Janine Shepherd:

“Life may change, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be spectacular and wonderful, whatever you decide to do.”

If you’d like to read more about Janine Shepherd, or watch her TED talk, you can find her website here.

And in other sport news from the week…

– The Austalian Gliders, our women’s paralympic basketball team, made it to Toronto this week to check out their host city for the World Championships in June. While there, they’ve already defeated Japan 53-30 (despite being jetlagged), although lost out to host nation Canada in a nail-biting game with an end score of 76-73.

– This week, Hockey Australia announced the Hockeyroos squad that will be going to Japan for a five match Test series in Kalgoorlie and Perth, Western Australia, later this month. All up, 22 athletes will be heading to Western Australia; Head Coach Adam Commens will also use the matches to decide who will be heading to the World Cup, which is scheduled for the end of April.

– The Southern Stars, Australian’s women’s cricket team, are currently taking part in the ICC Women’s World Twenty20. They’ve already recorded a 19-run win over Sri Lanka in their first warm-up match, with Meg Lanning and Jess Cameron being the top scorers for the defending title holders.