Author, speaker, commercial pilot and former Olympic hopeful, Janine Shepherd AM, has experienced many life-changing shifts during her remarkable career since the major car accident that left her partially paralysed and ended her Olympic aspirations.
But for all the physical and emotional pain she’s endured, she’s says there’s one key mantra – learnt during her days as an athlete – that’s enabled her to go on: loving the hills.
Speaking in the lead-up to her talk at a Business Chicks event in Sydney on Friday, Shepherd says the hills are there to teach us something. Take the hill as a challenge, be tested by it, and learn something along the way, she says.
“They’re there to teach you something,” Shepherd says. “Embrace them and see them for what they are. See the deeper purpose in what’s behind them.”
That’s all well and good, I reply, but I can’t find much joy in taking the hills during a morning run – aside from the ability to catch my breath while running back down the other side.
Shepherd responds that she often still feels the same way. “I went riding the other day and I took the wrong turn and ended up having to ride eight kilometres of hills, in 35-degree heat. I too was cursing myself but I said, ‘No, you keep going!’ When I got home I was exhausted, but I went out and did it again the next day.”
It was a remarkable feat, for more than one reason. In 1986, Shepherd was hit by a truck while on a training bike ride in the Blue Mountains. Left partially paralysed and forced to abandon a promising sporting career and plans to go to the Winter Olympics as a cross-country skier, she spent years adjusting to a new body and determining a whole new set of goals and life ambitions.
And still, all these years later, she manages to love the hills.
“I believe every single challenge that happens is there to teach us something,” Shepherd explains. “It would be pointless if we went through a challenge and we weren’t tested. I don’t believe you can just bounce back. Sometimes you do fall apart. But with the right skills you can pick yourself up.
“It might not happen in a day, it might not happen in a month. But at least you know you have the skills to be able to do it. And that’s an incredibly empowering place to be.”
Indeed, although Shepherd says she made a deliberate decision to keep living following her accident, she tells how she broke down regularly after returning home from hospital in a wheelchair and dealing with her new life without competitive sport. “It wasn’t easy. I got home and I had to learn to use a catheter, I had no feelings, I was basically a paraplegic. I did think about taking my life,” she says.
After hitting rock bottom during that recovery period, she realised there had to be something else she could do. “I still had the same values, I still valued personal growth and I still valued working hard and having goals and trying to achieve them. I’m still the same in that sense but instead of putting my energy into sport I had to find a different channel to put my energy into.”
Shepherd was tested but a new world of possibilities opened up. Looking out her bedroom window one day at home, she noticed small planes in the sky and became determined to take a flight herself. One flight turned into another, and then into taking a flying lesson, passing a medical, getting her pilot’s license and, eventually, embarking on a new career as a commercial pilot. She also became an aerobatics instructor.
“When I first started, I never thought I could be a flying instructor,” says Shepherd. “I wasn’t even walking at that stage! It was one step at a time. Each little hurdle I climbed over was a little more empowering, a little more self-belief, a little more ‘yes I can do this’.”
Shepherd appreciated the hills, and picked up plenty of skills and tools for dealing with adversity along the way. She says she still needs those tools regularly, especially having just endured one of the worst year of her life – one in which she lost her father, her marriage and her home.
She has written five books in the past 20 years, and taken her story all around the globe. Her Tedx talk from August 2012 has been viewed almost half a million times on the TEDx site, and another 100,000 times on YouTube. Her first book, Never Tell Me Never, was made into a feature-length movie starring Claudia Karvan.
While she’s certain there will be more books in the future, she wants to now share the skills she’s developed to cope with adversity. She hopes to develop such teachings into workshops on resilience.
And, of course, she wants others to hear her mantra of learning to love the hills. “The tools of resilience are the challenges we face in life,” she says.
Janine Shepherd is speaking at a Business Chicks event this Friday, February 8. Tickets are available online.