‘I came face to face with God …’

Iona’s Story | If I wasn’t an athlete, who was I?

“As a child, I was sent to a strict Catholic boarding school in Wales. There were 40 of us in a dorm. You could hear people crying. We had church every morning, but it seemed to me that if God was real, he was distant and impersonal, so I put my ear plugs in and walked away.

The good thing about the convent, though, was sports. In my first year, I played netball, hockey, running, horse riding. I excelled at it, and it gave me confidence. People looked up to me! I soon became hooked on skiing. In 1980 I became a ski instructor in Europe. Then in 1984 I graduated to speed skiing. It’s a crazy event – you ski straight down for 1km, at 160km/hour. It’s a bit like free falling out of a plane, without a parachute. You don’t even touch the snow. You need total focus. I loved it. I ended up competing for Great Britain, and in 1986, I was Ladies British Overseas Champion.

The next year, 1987, I was competing in the World Cup qualifying race in France. I knew the track really well. I started off in the egg position, travelling at 100km/hour… and my right ski came off.

I was in shock. I put my heel down and my leg shattered in nine places. I could see the bones coming out of my suit. I was covered in first degree burns. I passed out.

At the hospital, they said I’d never play sport again. They put 28 metal screws in my shattered leg. I felt like I had died. If I couldn’t play sport, who was I? The recovery process took 18 months and I fought against the loss. But I can also remember feeling God’s hand on it. One of the physiotherapists invited me to a Bible class and I went along and listened. It was amazing. Jesus was real! The people were so loving and non-judgemental.

But afterwards I walked away from Jesus again.

My identity was in sports. As soon as I was physically able, I jumped back into competitive sports and found a new obsession. I joined the Irish equestrian team. For the next eight years I competed in all the major international events. My husband and I moved to France with 19 horses. I was chasing the next success or conquest.

In France, though, I met a radiant Christian couple who walked and breathed Jesus. They led me back to him. We did the Alpha [evangelistic] course together and in 2006 I finally understood the Gospel. It was wonderful. I realised that God had never let go of me. At the same time, though, I was still racing. I didn’t realise that my racing was more important to me than Jesus. I was studying the Bible, going to church, praying – but I never, ever let go of the controls of my life.

My identity was no longer in what I achieved or did. I was unique and loved by my Creator.

In 2010, I went to a qualifier in Portugal for the World Games in the US. I’d qualified every other time. But the day before I was due to race, my horse got really sick and I couldn’t compete. I lost it. Something inside me died. I’d never failed before, and I cracked open. It felt like God had abandoned me. My whole life had been obsessed with winning and I hadn’t even realised it.

The Christian couple brought me food. They prayed for me. The next night I cried and told God that I didn’t understand. But in the morning, I read my Bible and came face to face with God. He hadn’t left me. He loved me more than I had ever known. I needed to let go, and hand my life over to him. As I did, I experienced sudden, overwhelming peace. I cried tears of freedom and joy. I gave up the burden of being an amazing athlete and my identity was no longer in what I achieved or did. I was unique and loved by my Creator.

Afterwards, I undertook a three-year online course with a Californian Bible college. I got baptised in a paddling pool in Dubai. My husband and I moved to Northern NSW and we started an outdoor church service on the farm. It’s growing! I know I’m still competitive but I want to use it for God. Every day, I wake up and realise God is saying to me, ‘Come and follow me. Come and see what I can do.’

Iona’s story is part of Eternity’s Faith Stories series, compiled by Naomi Reed. Click here for more Faith Stories.

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