If you missed our recent Extraordinary Humans event with the remarkable Janine Shepherd, our friends at Suncorp Team Girls have you covered.
Janine Shepherd kicked off her Extraordinary Humans online event by asking listeners to think about their hill. That obstacle they’d like to make disappear. “The difficulties and hills in life are there for a reason. We are supposed to turn towards them. Research shows us that if we turn towards the things we fear, the fear pathways in our brain decrease.”
From an early age these hills taught Janine a lot about life. “I learned that they didn’t just make me physically strong, but mentally tough. I learned that no one else liked the hills, so that was my edge. I also learned that the hills never stop.” Just when you’re over one, you’ll find that another one appears.
“Once you accept that life has hills, the fact that life has hills doesn’t matter anymore. You roll up your sleeves and you just get on with it. Solving the problems, instead of lamenting them.”
Janine went on to share the story of the biggest hill she has faced, the story that has motivated and inspired millions around the world. As a young athlete, her goal was to compete as a cross country skier at the Olympics and show the world that Australians can ski. One warm Autumn day before the Winter Olympics, Janine was five and a half hours into a six hour training bike ride from Sydney to the Blue Mountains and approaching her favourite section – the hills. She got up, started pumping her legs and breathing in that cold mountain air. As she looked up to the sun, everything went black. She had been hit by a speeding utility truck.
Janine was airlifted to a spinal unit hospital with extensive and life-threatening injuries. She had broken her neck and back in six places, broken five ribs on her left side and her head was cut open. With a blood pressure of 40/0 when help arrived, medical staff doubted she would survive the flight.
“I left my body. For ten days I drifted between two worlds. I remember looking down at my body, thinking, I don’t want to be there. That body cannot serve me.”
Ten days after the accident, when doctors told Janine’s parents that they’d done everything they could to try and save their daughter, Janine opened her eyes. The internal bleeding stopped. “I remember feeling utter confusion. I’m not meant to be back here? My life as an athlete is over.” She was paralysed from the waist down.
Following surgery where doctors picked bones out of her spinal cord and corrected broken ribs, Janine was transferred to the Acute Spinal Ward. For six months she lay flat on her back, covered in braces and compression bandages, in the company of five strangers. While difficult, the time proved rich in experience. She had nothing in common, yet everything in common with these people she shared a ward with. They all hoped for the same thing – to get their life back.
“I remember the words of a nurse who told me that when I got home, I would be depressed. ‘Not me, not Janine the machine!’ I had thought at the time. Yet soon after returning home I realised that the nurse was right. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t use the bathroom, I had a body I couldn’t feel and everything I had worked for was over. And it was taken by one speeding driver. A man who was charged with negligent driving and given an $80 fine. Who never came to hospital to say sorry. I got depressed, I got so down I didn’t want to get out of bed. I had lost everything I valued and wanted to give up.”
It was at the pits of depression that Janine remembered the hills. And the realisation that she had returned to her body when the odds were stacked against her. Life was inviting her to say yes to the experience of living.
“You can’t cherry pick experiences. You have to say yes to the experiences that come to you. I decided that I was going to find out why I had come back to my body, and say yes to life. I had to let go of the life I had planned.”
Soon after returning home from hospital, Janine saw a plane flying overhead. She instantly felt a deep sense of provocation, an initiation from life. “If I can’t walk, I can fly!” she recalled thinking. Despite never expressing interest in flying, Janine was suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to learn to be a pilot.
Weeks later, her mother and a friend carried her, a six stone woman in a plaster cast, to her first lesson at Bankstown Airport. On her first lesson, Janine’s teacher asked her to take control of the training plane and steer towards the Blue Mountains, the scene where her life had changed. That first lesson put a fire in her belly to learn. “When I was in an aircraft no one could tell I walked funny and looked different.”
In the years following, alongside rehabilitation, tests and hospital visits, Janine trained, received her private license, and flew around Australia. She would go on to get her instrument reading, her commercial pilot license and her instructor reading. “My body was limited, but my spirit was unstoppable. Flying chose me. It couldn’t be anything further than the spinal ward. Flying around the clouds was the ultimate freedom.”
“We can change the narrative of our lives. At any time we can make the decision – are things happening to us, or are things for us? Is this an obstacle, or an incredible opportunity filled with possibility? Our superpower is choice, it is attitude.”
After hearing her remarkable story, Janine wants you to think back to your hill. That thing you’re struggling with. “Ask yourself, what’s one thing you can do, no matter how small, that will move you over that hill, towards the life you intend?”
Janine wants you to get up tomorrow and do that one thing. And do it day after day after day.
Business Chicks and Suncorp Team Girls have teamed up to bring you the Business Chicks of Tomorrow content series. We want to equip parents, carers and families with the tools they need to build meaningful connections with their teen and tween girls, in order to build their confidence, strengthen their mental health and overcome difficult circumstances. For more information on how Suncorp is helping to build a nation of confident girls, visit the Team Girls website.