‘You have to make the most of what you’ve got’

World champion waterskier Janet Gray took up the sport after she went blind and has since overcome horrific injuries to reclaim her title. She tells her story to Lorraine Wylie

When her dad lost his sight, doctors believed it was a tragic but isolated incident. There was nothing to suggest the rare form of Glaucoma was hereditary.  Later, as Janet Snowdon watched her 12- year-old brother go blind, medical experts decided that the condition was confined to males within the family. By the time she was 17, Janet discovered they were wrong. To her horror, she realised that she too was destined to live in a world of perpetual darkness.

“My dad went blind when I was four, so I’d never known him any other way, but when my brother also began losing his sight, I was much more aware of the trauma involved.”

While her peers wrestled the problems of homework and exams, Janet struggled to see the blackboard. Despite her worsening vision, the teenager refused to exchange mainstream education for a school geared to meet the needs of visually impaired students. Her eyesight may have dimmed, but there was no deterioration in Janet’s sense of humour.

“I didn’t want the label of being different and soon devised a way to pass the school’s routine eye tests. Alphabetically, I was always near the end of the queue so I had time to study the chart. By the time it was my turn, I had memorised the letters and knew exactly where each one was placed. I passed every time!”

Not only did she manage to remain in the school of her choice, but went on to pass all her exams. She also picked up a number of awards for her skill as a swimmer and life saver, and landed a perfect job in a leisure centre.

Just when it seemed that life couldn’t get better, Janet’s boyfriend, Paul Gray proposed.

“Paul had been a friend of our family for ages, so falling in love seemed a natural progression.

“Like me, he adored water sports and, until he was injured, had been a successful skier.  We were really excited as we planned our wedding day in the church where I’d grown up. My church had always played an important role in my life and I loved the weekly sessions with the young Scouts where I was leader.”

However, in the weeks prior to her wedding, Janet was admitted to hospital where surgeons tried to prevent further damage and leave her with some degree of vision, regardless of how poor.  When the bride-to-be kissed her fiancé goodbye, she had no idea that she would never see him or her family again.

“I went into hospital with some sight and came out blind. It was horrific. I was plunged into total darkness. I can’t begin to describe the awful sense of vulnerability and panic that overwhelmed me. It was like being in a living nightmare.”

At one point, Janet decided to call off the wedding.

“I didn’t want Paul to feel obligated to marry me and wanted to give him the opportunity to get out of our engagement without any sense of guilt. Thankfully, he wouldn’t take no for an answer!”

Interestingly, it was the young Beaver Scouts who brought the first buds of hope that there was life after blindness.

“Without sight, I didn’t understand how it would be possible to continue my role as Scout leader and so I resigned. God decided otherwise. My friend and group leader came up with an ingenious plan. He asked me if I’d do one more week to show the new leader the ropes. I agreed but, as the evening wore on, it was obvious my replacement wasn’t coming and, not wanting to disappoint the lads, I carried on as normal. This scenario continued for another few weeks before I caught on! There was no new leader. I also learned that lack of vision didn’t affect my ability as Beaver Scout Leader and so I withdrew my resignation.”

Janet may have spent her twenties adjusting to her world of darkness but, by the time she’d celebrated her 30th birthday, life had regained some fun.

“Paul and I had been enjoying a day on the lakes. Initially when he invited me to have a go at skiing, I was unsure.  Nevertheless, I joined him behind the boat.  Next thing I know, he’d hauled me up by the life jacket and insisted I stand on the skis. It was exhilarating and I was hooked! I did three laps of the lake. It was a major turning point in my life”

From that moment, Janet sought every opportunity to develop her skill. With Paul’s encouragement, she spent every moment of their spare time on the water. Before long, she was proficient enough to enter competitions and with a few years had won her first title of ‘World Disabled Water-ski champion’. A couple of years later, she added the second to her list.

“It was absolutely fantastic! I got an immense thrill out of competing and winning. Life was great”

Just when it seemed that the balance of happiness had tipped in her favour, tragedy struck.

“In 2004, I went to take part in a training programme in Florida. It was an ordinary day, nothing difficult or special about the routine. As I wasn’t going to be jumping, I didn’t bother with the heavy protection suit. I was merely going to ski round the lake and enjoy the sun. But just after leaving the dock, things went horribly wrong and I ended up colliding with a metal ski ramp at 50kph.”

Janet’s memories are fragmented. Although she does recall the incessant whine of a helicopter as medics arrived to air lift her to hospital. Back home in Belfast, Paul, expecting her nightly call, was shocked when her coach rang telling him to pack a suitcase and book a flight immediately.

On three occasions she suffered coronary failure, not to mention a horrendous category of broken bones. Comatose, she was unaware of the vigil a local Christian woman kept at her bedside while waiting for Paul to arrive. Neither did she know about the prayers of school children across the world.

“Much of my memories of the trauma unit are vague. But when Paul told me that school children across the world were texting each other with the simple message: ”pray for Janet” I was so touched and humbled. There is no doubt their prayers were answered. I am a living miracle.”

Over the months, surgeries outweighed awards

“It was an agonising process. Apart from the pain, one of the worst things was being confined to a wheelchair. Suddenly, I’d lost any independence I’d managed to gain.”

Nevertheless, the spirit of faith and determination that helped her to cope with blindness ensured that Janet would not be defeated. To her family’s amazement, she battled her way back through painful operations and physiotherapy. Eventually, while still in the recovery stage, she swapped crutches for skis and set about reclaiming her title.

“The first time I tried out the skies was a bit hairy, but it also felt great! Slowly, I gained in confidence and, by the time the 2007 Water-ski competitions were held in Australia, I was ready to take part.”

Janet not only reclaimed her title, she got her life back.  Since then she has become an inspiration to thousands both in Northern Ireland and abroad. When asked for advice about facing some life-changing event, she has this to say.

“Set an ultimate goal, but try to achieve it with bite sized pieces.  If circumstances can’t be changed, then make the best of what’s available and just go for it! Most of all, never underestimate the power of prayer.”