When I think about resilience, I’d say the first time in my life I had to show it was when the youngest of my two brothers went off to boarding school. He’s less than a year-and-a-half younger than me and, as kids, we were close not just in age, but in spirit, too – basically, he was my playmate.
My mum, who’d lost her father when she was 20, role-modelled a particularly British type of “just kick on” stoicism. Whenever she dropped my brothers off at boarding school for a new term, she’d try to drive back home in such a way that she wouldn’t stop. She’d simply coast towards red lights until they changed, then rev back up again on her way through – anything to avoid coming to a halt, which could have dislodged a few tears!
On top of that influence, I had an amazing upbringing on a farm – so I turned to the distractions of the animals and nature around me to help me deal with my brother being away. I found so much to be grateful for in my surroundings, and I loved the life we had.
As a farm girl, my first love was horse riding and competed until I was 18, featuring in local competitions and ultimately British Horse Society dressage and eventing. My mum understood my competitive urge, but her attitude to my riding was very much, “Let’s have fun and make the best of it – and if you get eliminated at the first fence, well, better luck next time!”
That’s exactly the opposite of the mindset you see with pushy parents: instead of focusing on the results, mum was encouraging me to think about the joy of horse riding as a means of achieving results. Psychologically, that’s a completely different ballgame to obsessing over numbers – it’s a sustainable outlook, more compatible with resilience and, therefore, effective performance.
It was in my riding years that I had my first encounter with serious injury: at the age of 16, I fell off a horse and went into a coma for a week. When I came round, I remember thinking how amazing it was to be to be alive – I could have died, or ended up in a condition where I was no longer myself. I felt so fortunate.
Once again, nature was my rock: I became keenly aware of birdsong, especially from skylarks, which flocked around the farm and sang particularly sweetly. I discovered that trauma helps us to see what really matters, because it focuses the mind.
That lesson would prove to be extremely valuable.
Eventually, horse riding gave way to snowboarding. Before I knew it, I was in Japan, earning a salary and playing a sport that I loved. Then, in 2006, I had an accident during a snowboarding competition and was spinally injured, losing the use of my legs.
There was a huge sense of loss. My dreams of being an athlete appeared to be over – I’d never snowboard again. There was also guilt that I’d upset people close to me by doing something I knew was risky, resulting in me breaking my back.
But you have to process it somehow. I remember when I was lying in hospital, I asked another spinally injured person how long it would take to get my head around it, and they said about two years. So, when that two-year milestone came around, I was like, “Okay – you should be all right now, come on!”
Getting through that period was a case of focusing not so much on the future as the present. I’d started practising yoga the year before my injury. Spending time in hospital focusing on breathing and movement really helped me to connect with the present moment and accept it for what it was.
We have to let emotions pass through us – but it is easy when something ‘bad’ happens to overthink about what’s wrong and drag ourselves down emotionally, rather than letting the emotions wash over us and coming out the other side. I still take a moment each day to check in with myself – and I encourage my coaching clients to take time out to notice how things are right now. You can’t make changes until you first take the measure of what’s going on.
Working on values
There was a lot of learning to do: how do I manage my body? How do I make sure I don’t hurt myself while I’m trying to get around? Plus, all the other complexities of my condition, as well as how society views people with disabilities.
But then there was another, quite exciting side to that, too: “Hey – I can still slide down mountains? I wonder what skiing in this totally new way is like!” That really helped me overcome the shock of being spinally injured. My family and friends carried on treating me exactly the same way – and I realised that while some things had changed physically, I’m still the same person inside.
One beneficial decision I made was to start volunteering – and then I got a job. Working was definitely important to my sense of self-worth, and helped me move on. I think overcoming challenges is all about celebrating the small wins – for example, the first time I took a train on my own (to party with my friends in London). I tried new sports like wheelchair basketball, too, and built up my fitness and body image.
I also made new friends, such as Paralympic rower, Rachel Morris – a spinally injured, double-leg amputee. Rachel took me on a tennis camp, and I remember how efficient she was about the whole process of us getting into her car and stowing away our wheelchairs. I was inspired, and these new people smashed my preconceptions around disability. Making connections with new people and learning from them was huge, and really helped me develop my resilience as I reinvented myself as a Paralympic athlete.
It’s easy to get so hung up on trivial worries and regrets that we forget about the things that really matter to us. Work on personal values really helps, here – it gives us a clearer idea of what’s really worth focusing on. In my second Games, I was so distracted by the potential outcome of a medal that I lost focus of the performance drivers (ski clean to maintain speed, and so on). We can’t control outcomes in isolation, but focusing on performance in the moment is effective, rewarding and often brings positive outcomes.
Driven by purpose
We must also understand that resilience is linked to our purpose, our ‘Why’. It’s hard to imagine Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe getting through six years of unjust captivity and all the bureaucracy around it without a strong, driving reason for being – whether that was her love for her family, desire for justice or a combination of the two. Although it’s often lost in the fog of poor mental health, it’s important to find our Why, because it propels us forwards.
Looking back, I know where I skied well. Other top racers even commented on how well I skied, which warms my heart even now. Unfortunately, my best official result – fourth – was not my best skiing… but it all comes down to performance. If I’d finished fourth knowing that I’d skied as well – or as ‘in the moment’ – as I did in some of the races I crashed in, I’d have been pleased with that.
But as my mum taught me, it’s definitely the journey that counts. I met loads of amazing people around the world and had a wonderful time, and it was the people – my team, my husband, my supporters – who got me through the disappointments. As well as helping me deal with becoming disabled, skiing for Great Britain showed me how incredible life can be and taught me so much about myself. Now I’m running a business and parenting, the same rules apply. Every day is a school day!