WHEN Dr Janet Gray first took to her water skis, honing her skill and becoming world champion in 1999, she felt like she was “the luckiest girl on earth.”
And indeed it seemed that she was. For just a few years earlier, her world had been plunged into darkness, after she lost her sight, due to a rare form of glaucoma, that had also affected her father and her brother.
At the age of 21, just weeks before her wedding to partner Paul, the MBE recipient went for an eye operation and woke up completely blind. As she struggled to cope with the new, terrifying world she was now destined to live in, struggling with the emotions and feelings that came along with that, she cancelled her wedding, much to husband Paul’s distress.
However, after he made her realise that he wanted to be with her, whether she had her sight or not, Janet agreed to allow the wedding to go ahead, and in later years it was Paul who introduced her to water skiing, something he also enjoyed.
His wife’s prowess on the water went from strength to strength, and she reached the pinnacle of her disabled water skiing career in the late 90s when she won the World Disabled Water Ski Championships in the three disciplines (slalom, tricks and jumps) and became the overall World Champion and World Record holder in all three disciplines. She was World Champion in 1999, 2001 and 2003.
Little did the couple - who live in Ravarnet,outside Lisburn - know that tragedy was to strike a second time in Janet’s life.
But that tragedy was one which the remarkable 51-year-old overcame thanks to her deep belief in and relationship with God. Although she does not describe herself as religious, and admits that she is not a regular church-goer, “I do have my faith.”
Much of that stems from the fact that Janet had a fairly ‘Christian’ centred upbringing.
The former attendee of Sinclair Seamen’s Presbyterian Church in Belfast - she still describes it as her home church - says of her childhood: “We were brought up very much in the church, and I was involved in church organisations, so I had a really good grounding. It was very much about Sunday School, Girls’ Brigade, the church youth club - everything revolved around church. It was good and I really enjoyed it. Then when I reached my teens I got involved in Scouting.”
Janet says she was around 12 when she got saved, after a meeting she attended along with friends.
I ask how her life changed after that, and she replies: “To be honest I suppose I just felt that I was trying to live my life as best I could.”
But Janet’s relationship with God began to change when she lost her sight. When her father had lost his, doctors initially believed that it was an isolated incident. Then Janet had to watch her 12-year-old brother go through the same thing, and medics believed that the condition was unique to the male lineage. When Janet’s own vision began to get blurred when she 17, everyone had to face the terrifying reality that she was now also destined to lose this vital sense as well.
But the plucky young Janet Snowdon got on with life, and got engaged to Paul, who, like herself, adored water sports and had previously enjoyed a career as a successful ski instructor.
However coming to terms with her blindness was something that - as anyone would expect - rocked the foundation that was her faith.
“When I lost my sight, that was when my relationship started to break down with God,” she admits.
“My dad had lost his sight, then my brother, and then it struck me. I was asking (God), ‘why our family?’, and you go through the natural grieving processes of total disbelief and shock and trauma, and then later... ‘why could this have happened?’
“It was a horrendous time in my life and I think I felt so isolated, as you do when you are plunged into a world of total darkness. You feel that everyone has abandoned you, even God. And I think that’s where my relationship then changed.”
Yet she adds: “But deep down, you can’t shake off that upbringing and that faith that you do have.”
And she reveals that whilst she tried to push God away, “He wasn’t for going.”
She adds: “It was a natural grieving process that I was going through, and thankfully I came out the other end, which a lot of people don’t, and I was then able to rebuild my life.”
As Janet’s love for and skill in water skiing went from strength to strength, she seemed to have a new lease of life.
“I was so passionate about my sport, I trained hard, I loved it,” she recalls, adding that she felt too that what she was doing now was what God had meant her to be.
Then in March 2004, it seemed that both Janet and Paul were set to face another hurdle - one that was almost fatal.
“I had been training in Tampa in Florida and was on what was supposed to be a very routine training exercise around the lake.
“Suddenly and without warning, there was this massive impact and I was swept at high speed into the back a metal jump ramp. I wasn’t jumping at the time. Unfortunately it wasn’t good, and I was airlifted to Tampa General Hospital where I lay alone and fighting for life.”
She had been skiing at 40 miles per hour and the force of the impact was so great that it was feared - and indeed, believed - that she wouldn’t survive her multiple injuries. She lay fighting for life on a life support machine, whilst Paul jumped on the first flight he could to be with his seriously ill wife.
“There were members of Dr Paisley’s church in Tampa who actually came and sat by my bedside so that I wouldn’t die on my own, because they were sure I wouldn’t survive,” Janet also reveals.
“They were so lovely and yet they were strangers and they came and gave their time, and I wasn’t even aware that they were there.
“And the amount of prayers that went up from churches around the world - I do believe in the power of prayer, I really do, because I do believe now that the Lord had other plans and that was why I survived.”
I ask Janet if she felt the same anger that she encountered after her blindness, but shockingly, she says she didn’t. She reveals that her way of coping with what she had come through was by thinking of it “in the third party”.
She adds: “It was such a massive trauma that I talk about it like it happened to someone else and didn’t happen to me.
“I was sent to a top trauma officer and it didn’t work - I was sort of a nut he couldn’t crack. I didn’t want to open a whole can of worms by looking back, because the past is history and we can’t change it. For some people working through it helps them. Not for me. It happened, I can’t deny it happened, I pay the price, but thankfully I’ve come through it.”
Nor does Janet feel anger towards those at the training camp where her accident happened.
“It was an accident. Yes, they dropped the ball for a second, that’s all it took, and it happened, but that’s why accidents happen. It was a pure and utter accident which shouldn’t have happened but it did, so you cope with the consequences and you pick yourself up. Anger just chews you up inside, it doesn’t achieve anything or change the situation.”
It is now nearly 10 years since that fateful day in Florida, and Janet is still going through surgery. She had to have her entire face reconstructed, saying with a laugh: “It’s only in the last 10 months that the symmetry is starting to come back and I suppose as we would say in Northern Ireland, I look more like myself.
“I always believed that I was going to walk again even though the doctor said it was impossible - but I clung to that inner belief. And maybe because I had the coping mechanism from coming through sight loss that helped me with my determination.”
Today Janet does a lot of motivational speaking; as living proof that with God, nothing is impossible, and the power of prayer can literally, work, miracles, she wonders if perhaps this was God’s purpose for her life - that she would inspire others in theirs.
“I take great comfort from my faith - to think that yes, I survived it (the accident) and came through it all, thank the Lord and I do thank Him because I’ve had multiple injuries and my goodness, I was such a mess.
“But I do believe that we are here for a reason and that your life is mapped out, and you won’t go until your time is up. I think you have to grab life with both hands and really embrace opportunities, because life is so precious and so short, and one thing I have learned is that every day is so precious because you just do now know the second.”