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  • Life is about opportunities, creating them, and embracing them

  • and for me that was the Olympic dream,

  • that's what defined me, that was my bliss.

  • As a cross-country skier and a member of the Australian ski team

  • headed toward the Winter Olympics,

  • I was on a training bike ride with my fellow teammates.

  • As we made our way up towards the spectacular Blue Mountains west of Sydney

  • it was the perfect autumn day:

  • sunshine, the smell of eucalypt, and a dream.

  • Life was good.

  • We'd been on our bikes around five and a half hours

  • when we got to the part of the ride that I loved,

  • and that was the hills, because I loved the hills.

  • And I got up off the seat of my bike

  • and I started pumping my legs and as I sucked in the cold

  • mountain air, I could feel it burning my lungs

  • and I looked up to see the sun shining in my face

  • and then everything went black.

  • Where was I?

  • What was happening?

  • My body was consumed by pain.

  • I'd been hit by a speeding utility truck

  • with only 10 minutes to go on the bike ride.

  • I was airlifted from the scene of the accident

  • by a rescue helicopter to a large spinal unit in Sydney.

  • I had extensive and life threatening injuries.

  • I'd broken my neck and my back in six places.

  • I broke five ribs on my left side, I broke my right arm,

  • I broke my collarbone, I broke some bones in my feet.

  • My whole right side was ripped open filled with gravel.

  • My head was cut open across the front,

  • lifted back, exposing the skull underneath.

  • I had head injuries, I had internal injuries, I had massive blood loss.

  • In fact, I lost about 5 liters of blood

  • which is all someone my size would actually hold.

  • By the time the helicopter arrived to Prince Henry Hospital in Sydney,

  • my blood pressure was forty over nothing.

  • I was having a really bad day.

  • (Laughter)

  • For over 10 days, I drifted between two dimensions.

  • I had an awareness of being in my body,

  • but also being out of my body

  • somewhere else watching from above,

  • as if it was happening to someone else.

  • Why would I want to go back to a body that was so broken?

  • But this voice kept calling me, "Come on, stay with me."

  • "No, it's too hard."

  • "Come on, this is our opportunity."

  • "No! That body is broken. It can no longer serve me!"

  • "Come on, stay with me. We can do it! We can do it together."

  • I was at a crossroads.

  • I knew if I didn't return to my body, I'd have to leave this world forever.

  • It was the fight of my life.

  • After 10 days, I made the decision to return to my body,

  • and the internal bleeding stopped.

  • The next concern was weather I would walk again

  • because I was paralyzed from the waist down.

  • They said to my parents, the neck break was a stable fracture,

  • but the back was completely crushed.

  • The vertebra at L1 was like you'd dropped a peanut,

  • stepped on it, and smashed it into thousands of pieces.

  • They'd have to operate.

  • They went in, they put me on a bean bag,

  • they cut me, literally cut me in half.

  • I have a scar that wraps around my entire body.

  • They picked as much broken bone as they could

  • that had lodged in my spinal cord.

  • They took out two of my broken ribs, and they rebuilt my back, L1. They rebuilt it.

  • They took out another broken rib.

  • They fused T12, L1, and L2 together, then they stitched me up.

  • They took an entire hour to stitch me up.

  • I woke up in intensive care

  • and the doctors were really excited that the operation had been a success

  • because at that stage, I had a little bit of movement in one of my big toes

  • and I thought, "Great! 'Coz I'm going to the Olympics!"

  • (Laughter)

  • I had no idea. That's the sort of thing that happens to someone else! Not me, surely.

  • But then the doctor came over to me and she said

  • "Janine, the operation was a success,

  • and we've picked as much bone out of your spinal cord as we could,

  • but the damage is permanent."

  • The central nervous system nerves, there is no cure.

  • You're what we call a partial paraplegic

  • and you'll have all of the injuries that go along with that.

  • You have no feeling from the waist down

  • and at most you might get 10 or 20% return.

  • You'll have internal injures for the rest of your life.

  • You'll have to use a catheter for the rest of your life

  • and if you walk again, it will be with calipers and a walking frame."

  • And then she said, "Janine, you'll have to rethink everything you do in your life

  • because you're never going to be able to do the things you did before."

  • I tried to grasp what she was saying.

  • I was an athlete. That's all I knew, that's all I'd done,

  • if I couldn't do that, then what could I do?

  • And the question I asked myself is: if I couldn't do that, then who was I?

  • They moved me from intensive care to acute spinal.

  • I was lying on a thin, hard spinal bed. I had no movement in my legs.

  • I had tight stocking on to protect from blood clots.

  • I had one arm in plaster, one arm tied down by drips.

  • I had a neck brace and sand bags on either side of my head,

  • and I saw my world through a mirror

  • that was suspended above my head.

  • I shared the ward with five other people

  • and the amazing thing is that because we were all lying paralyzed in the spinal ward

  • we didn't know what each other looked like.

  • How amazing is that?

  • How often in life do you get to make friendships judgement free,

  • purely based on spirit?

  • And there no superficial conversations,

  • as we shared our innermost thoughts, our fears,

  • and our hopes for life after the spinal ward.

  • I remember one night, one of the nurses came in, Jonathan,

  • with a whole lot of plastic straws.

  • He put a pile on top of each of us, and he said,

  • "Start threading them together."

  • Well, there wasn't much else to do in the spinal ward, so we did.

  • And when we'd finished, he went around silently

  • and he joined all of the straws up

  • till it looped around the whole ward

  • and then he said, "Okay everybody, hold on to your straws."

  • And we did.

  • And he said, "Right. Now we are all connected."

  • And as we held on and we breathed as one,

  • we knew we weren't on this journey alone.

  • And even lying paralyzed in the spinal ward,

  • there were moments of incredible depth

  • and richness, of authenticity and connection,

  • that I had never experienced before.

  • And each of us knew that when we left the spinal ward,

  • we would never be the same.

  • After six months, it was time to go home.

  • I remember dad pushing me outside in my wheelchair

  • wrapped in a plaster body cast

  • and feeling the sun on my face for the first time.

  • I soaked it up and I thought, "How could I ever have taken this for granted?"

  • I felt so incredibly grateful for my life.

  • But before I left hospital, the head nurse had said to me,

  • "Janine, I want you to be ready because when you get home something is going to happen."

  • And I said, "What?"

  • She said, "You're going to get depressed."

  • And I said, "Not me, not 'Janine the machine'"

  • which was my nickname.

  • She said "You are. Because, see, it happens to everyone.

  • In the spinal ward, that's normal.

  • You're in a wheelchair, that's normal.

  • But you're going to get home and realize how different life is."

  • And I got home, and something happened.

  • I realized Sister Sam was right.

  • I did get depressed.

  • I was in my wheelchair, I had no feeling from the waist down,

  • attached to a catheter bottle, I couldn't walk.

  • I'd lost so much weight in hospital, I now weighed about 80 pounds.

  • And I wanted to give up.

  • All I wanted to do was put my running shoes on and run out the door.

  • I wanted my old life back. I wanted my body back.

  • And I could remember Mum sitting on the end of my

  • bed and saying, "I wonder if life will ever be good again?"

  • And I thought, "How could it? Because I've lost everything that I valued,

  • everything that I'd worked towards... gone."

  • And the question I asked was: Why me? Why me?

  • And then I remembered my friends that were still

  • in the spinal ward. Particularly Maria.

  • Maria was in a car accident and she woke up

  • on her 16th birthday to the news that she was

  • a complete quadriplegic, had no movement from

  • the neck down, had damage to her vocal cords

  • and she couldn't talk.

  • They told me, "We are going to move you next to her because we think it will be good to her."

  • I was worried. I didn't know how I'd react being next to her.

  • I knew it would be challenging, but it was actually

  • a blessing because Maria always smiled.

  • She was always happy, and even when she began to talk again,

  • albeit difficult to understand,

  • she never complained. Not once.

  • And I wondered how had she ever found that level of acceptance?

  • And I realized that this wasn't just my life.

  • It was life itself.

  • I realized that this wasn't just my pain, it was everybody's pain.

  • And then I knew, just like before, that I had a choice.

  • I could keep fighting this or I could let go and accept

  • not only my body, but the circumstances of my life.

  • And then I stopped asking "Why me?"

  • and I started to ask "Why not me?"

  • And then I thought to myself maybe being at

  • rock bottom is actually the perfect place to start.

  • I had never before thought of myself as a creative person.

  • I was an athlete, my body was a machine.

  • But now, I was about to embark on the most creative

  • project any of us could ever do.

  • That of rebuilding a life.

  • And even though I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do,

  • in that uncertainty, came a sense of freedom.

  • I was no longer tied to a set path.

  • I was free to explore life's infinite possibilities.

  • And that realization was about to change my life.

  • Sitting at home, in my wheelchair and my plaster body cast,

  • an airplane flew overhead

  • and I looked up and I thought to myself:

  • "That's it! If I can't walk, then I might as well fly."

  • I said, "Mum, I'm going to learn how to fly!"

  • She said, "That's nice, dear."

  • (Laughter)

  • I said, "Pass me the yellow pages." She passed me

  • the phone book, I rang up the flying school,

  • I made a booking, said "I'd like to make a booking to come out for a flight."

  • They said, "When do you want to come out?"

  • I said, "Well I have to get a friend to drive me out

  • cus I can't drive, haha, sort of can't walk either, ha.

  • Is that a problem?"

  • I made a booking, and weeks later my friend Chris

  • and my mom drove me out to the airport.

  • All 80 pounds of me, covered

  • in a plaster body cast and a baggy pair of overalls.

  • I can tell you I did not look like the ideal candidate

  • to get a pilot's license.

  • (Laughter)

  • I'm holding onto the counter 'cause I can't stand.

  • I said, "Hi! I'm here for a flying lesson."

  • And they took one look and ran out the back to draw short straws.

  • "You get her!"

  • "No, no! You take her!"

  • Finally this guy comes out, "Hi! I'm Andrew and I'm going to take you flying."

  • I go, "Great!"

  • So they drive me down. They get me out on the tarmac,

  • and there was this red, white, and blue airplane.

  • It was beautiful!

  • They lifted me into the cockpit.

  • They had to slide me up on the wing, put me in

  • the cockpit. They sat me down.

  • There were buttons and dials everywhere.

  • I'm going, "Wow! How do you ever know what all these buttons and dials do?"

  • Andrew the instructor got in the front; started the airplane up,

  • he said, "Would you like to have a go at taxiing?"

  • That's when you use your feet to control the rudder pedals

  • to control the airplane on the ground.

  • I said, "No. Ha ha, I can't use my legs."

  • He went, "Oh." I said, "But I can use my hands."

  • And he said, "Okay."

  • So he got over to the runway, and he applied the power.

  • And as we took off down the runway,

  • and the wheels lifted up off the tarmac, and we became airborne

  • I had the most incredible sense of freedom.

  • And Andrew said to me, as we got over the training area,

  • "You see that mountain over there?"

  • And I said, "Yeah?"

  • And he said, "Well you take the controls, and you fly towards that mountain."

  • And as I looked up, I realized that he was pointing