Since she was a young girl Janet Gray lived with the knowledge that she may lose her sight. But when the reality hit, it plunged her into a pit of despair that she struggled to escape.
However, with the help of her loved ones, she rediscovered her self-confidence and independence, becoming a world champion water-skier, achieving more than she could ever have dreamt of. But from the heights of becoming the first blind female water-skier to win four titles, Janet faced the toughest fight she would ever face - the struggle for her very survival.
“Just before I started school, when I was about four, we moved from Dundonald when my father went blind and had to change his job,” explained Janet.
“He had a very, very rare eye disease and they thought it was just a fluke as his sight went quite quickly. I have a younger brother and when he started school he seemed to be having a bit of difficulty with his sight. Then they noticed he had developed the same condition as our father. My brother lost his sight when he was 12.
“They thought because I was older it would only hit the male side of the family as I was ok. I was in the middle of my O Levels and then I developed problems with my sight as well.
“I had various operations and finally completely lost my sight just before I was 21.”
When Janet lost her sight, she also lost her self-confidence, and gave up hopes of a life she had planned.
“Even though my father and brother were blind, it was a taboo subject in the house and nothing on earth can prepare you for total sight loss,” continued Janet.
“When I was at school I met Paul Gray and when I lost my sight we were engaged. But I broke the engagement off. I didn’t want him to feel pity for me. I didn’t want to trap him, or make him feel that he had to fulfil his obligations. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“I went from being outgoing, confident, and sporty to being a very vulnerable person. There is total isolation and vulnerability. Your self-confidence goes. Those were very dark days.
“Paul and I talked about having children and, although I deeply wanted children, I was petrified of putting them through what I had lived through. That was another reason for breaking off the engagement. I wanted Paul to be free.
“But he came back and said he didn’t care. He said as long as we have each other that’s all that matters.
“All my friends had vanished; they didn’t stand by me. Paul and I knew that as long as we had each other we were very blessed.”
The trauma of losing her sight impacted Janet’s health and her weight plummeted. When she married Paul she weighed just 5st 10lb.
Little by little Janet began rebuilding her confidence and self esteem. One fateful day she went out on a boat trip with Paul and his uncle and that twist of fate began a whole new life for Janet.
“My background was in swimming and life saving so the water held no fear for me,” explained Janet. “Paul used to waterski and we went out with his Uncle Jimmy, who drove the boat. Paul went out on skis on the other side of me and I stood up on the first time.
“We did three laps of the lake and it was amazing.
“I felt a sense of freedom that I didn’t have on land.
“That was a big turning point for me.
“I thought sport for me was over. To have the opportunity to try this extreme sport gave me self confidence and a bit of independence.”
Once Janet was up on the skis there was no stopping her.
“I realised that here was a sport I could really get into,” continued Janet. “The second time I went out on my own. It was as simple as that.”
The couple joined Meteor Waterskiing Club in Boardmills in 1994 and just two years later Janet competed in her first National Championship.
“It started to build my confidence,” she said. “It was very daunting the first session because I was the first blind person they had had at the club. People were afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing but I told them to treat me like everyone else.”
Janet took part in the European, African and Middle Eastern Championships in Denmark bringing home silver in slalom, and bronze in tricks. Following that success, she got a phone call from the Irish Waterski Federation telling her that she had qualified for the World Championships and told her to be in Florida in two weeks’ time.
“In 1997 I went to the Worlds and qualified for slalom,” Janet explained. “I got a bronze and I just could not believe it. In 1998 I went to Jordan and in 1999 I went to the Worlds in London. There are three disciplines - slalom, tricks and jump. I did all three. Blind people often will do one event but if you do all three it gives you a chance at the overall title. My husband always maintained it was crazy for blind people to jump and he wouldn’t let me jump but I went on a course in London and while I was at the national Waterski Centre I went for it and qualified. I had to jump and land three out of three. It was so exciting. At the ‘99 Worlds I had nothing to lose because I was new. I just went along hoping to make it through to the finals. I made it with three golds and became the world champion. After that I had to work twice as hard.”
Janet became a founder member of Disability Sports NI, who fought hard to get her into the Elite Athlete Programme, who had no disabled athletes at the time.
In 2000 Janet’s hobby became her full-time career thanks to funding from Sport NI. “It gave me a purpose in life,” she said. “My confidence had built, I was crawling out of the deep hole I had been in for so long.”
At the 2001 World Championships Janet took all four titles in Australia, and in 2003 she joined the Sports Institute, an elite training facility at the University of Ulster Jordanstown. “We had a proper development and performance plan worked out and life was very routine,”
Janet also began training for three months of the year in Florida and in 2003 she returned to the World Championships to defend her title.
“The ‘03 Worlds were amazing,” she continued. “It was a hard fight but I broke the world record in all three disciplines. The slalom was scary because I was tied for first place and had to do a ski off. It’s the thing you hope doesn’t happen. I went through so many emotions, including fear and anxiety but I was determined. I call it a determined calm. I told myself it was my title. It was all the sweeter when I won because I had fought so hard for it.”
Janet was on top of the world after retaining her titles and life was good. “I had picked my life up again and I was so lucky to be able to ski for queen and country, That all changed in a split second when I had a horrific accident.”
Janet was training in Florida and went out on a training exercise. As she was waiting for the signal to start, she felt a sudden impact as she smashed into the metal jump ramp at high speed. “I remember the impact but that was it. The lights went out,” recalls Janet.
And everyone feared that for Janet, the lights would never come back on again.
Janet was airlifted to the trauma unit at Tampa General Hospital. She has so many injuries and had lost so much blood that doctors believed she would not survive. Back home in Northern Ireland her husband Paul got a phone call telling him to make contact with his local funeral director because he would be coming out to Tampa to collect Janet’s body. However, Janet defied the odds and survived. But she was told that she would never walk again.
“I was determined that I would not be blind and in a wheelchair,” Janet went on to say. “It took me almost three years of blood, sweat and tears but it was worth it. I owe a lot to Phil Glasgow and the guys at the Sport Institute.”
Janet also harboured another secret desire. “I knew if I could get on my feet again, there was a chance I could get back onto skis too.”
Her accident was on March 29, 2004 and in 2007, just a few months after she got back on the water, Janet competed once again in Australia and, against the odds, she retained all of her titles.
Janet, who received an MBE from Prince Charles in 2002, and Honorary Doctorate from Queens University in 2004, and became a Freeman of Lisburn in 2009, decided to retire in 2012. However, she continues to be a strong advocate for disabled rights and works with a number of charities, including Concern Worldwide. And now her life has taken yet another turn - into the world of politics.