Iona Rossely has the need for speed. A bubbly Irishwoman now settled in far northern New South Wales, Rossely always has been in a rush to do things – and be the best. What she has done in one lifetime seems more than several people combined could manage. Without listing everything, Rossely has been a champion international speed skier and equestrian rider, Formula 1 team member, and co-ordinator of a global anti-slavery network linked with the United Nations, the Vatican and other faith groups.
But her obsession with finding meaning in competition and achievements has brought her to the brink. “God has stepped in to my life a couple of times and tried to stop me,” reveals Rossely from her property at Tyalgum, on the NSW-Queensland border.
“I just thought, ‘That’s it. I’m dead.’” – Iona Rossely
Where Rossely can see God stepping in are key moments which took everything she valued – and almost ended in death. But her life has been “amazing” ever since God totally turned it “upside down.”
As she describes in her newly released memoir Racing on Empty, Rossely grew up attending a convent school in Ireland and felt Christianity only equalled religion and routine. If God was even real, he was distant and impersonal to Rossely. So she blasted into trying to control her own life and identity, through what she did.
From being a ski instructor, Rossely graduated to speed skiing – the sport of going as fast as you can downhill in a straight line. Competing for Great Britain, she was 1986 Ladies British Overseas Champion and New Zealand Ladies Champion. During that same period, she set her sights on qualifying for the Speed Skiing World Championships.
“If you had asked me the day before what would have been the worst thing ever to happen to me, it would have been what happened,” says Rossely about what she refers to as “my big skiing accident.”
“One ski came off at the top of a gully, so it was like jumping out of a block of flats.”
“I fell for one kilometre,” she recalls the terrifying experience of careening down a mountain at around 160 kilometres an hour.
“I just thought, ‘That’s it. I’m dead.’”
Rossely did not die. After an eight-hour operation and 28 metal screws in her shattered leg, Rossely began an 18-month recovery process to learn how to walk again. She was told there would be no more sport for her.
“Everything I had was taken away from me. A bit like people today where their whole lifestyle has stopped [due to COVID-19]. And I can totally relate.”
Having sponsorship deals crumble with Alfa Romeo and Smirnoff Vodka, Iona knows what it is like to have everything change in one moment. And even as she fought against the loss, Rossely also can remember feeling “God’s hand on that whole accident” – in a good way. As if she was being told something important …
Rossely briefly listened out for God during her recovery process when a physiotherapist invited her to a Bible class. “That’s how God gets in and he knows how to point you in the right direction. But we have freedom to choose – and I chose to walk away. But he never, ever, ever lets go.
“My identity was in my sports. As soon as I was physically able, I jumped back in to trying to be a jockey.”
“… but I never, ever let go of the controls of my life.” – Iona Rossely
Having found a new obsession, Rossely trained to join the Irish equestrian team for endurance riding. She and her husband Jeff, an international property developer, moved to France. They bought 19 horses. Rossely got cracking and became the top Irish rider at the World Equestrian Games.
Around her sporting pursuits and the fame and fortune it brought, Rossely also tried Buddhism, tarot cards, crystals and other things to give her the deeper meaning she realised she needed. But nothing resolved an emptiness she always felt in between chasing the next conquest or success.
In France, Rossely met a radiant Christian couple and, again, she slowly started to listen to God’s call on her life. “I saw Jesus in them and felt Jesus in them.
“We did the Alpha [evangelistic] course together and it was finally like the penny had dropped – and I understood.
“I had two-and-a-half years in this process of learning about who Jesus is. It was just wonderful.
“I was still racing but I didn’t realise that my racing was more important than Jesus … I would study the Bible, go to church, do communion, pray about anything – but I never, ever let go of the controls of my life.”
About 12 years ago, as Rossely prepared for the World Equestrian Games, her horse became sick. Competing for another global crown was hobbled.
“I’ve never really failed in a sport, as such, and with the racing I already thought I would go … and be the No. 1 rider.
“You know, God was with me … and it was like God had abandoned me.
“I really, really lost it. Emotionally, I cracked and I couldn’t take that he could do this. I felt like someone had died in the family; I felt ripped open.
“When you are competitive and competing, your whole life is so obsessed with winning. You don’t realise that until it’s all taken away from you.”
Rossely was housebound and devastated. Christian friends wanted to pray with her. She refused: “‘God’s abandoned me and taken away what was the most important thing in my life.’”
“And they said, ‘Yes. He has.’ But that’s not what I wanted.”
“… The emptiness I felt would remain until I filled it with the truth of who Jesus is and what he did for me.” – Iona Rossely
Two days later, she walked down the stairs in the farmhouse kitchen in France. Rossely saw her Bible and she has trouble describing what happen next “but it was like Jesus walked into the kitchen.
“He put his arms around me and said, ‘I’ve never left you. I’ve always been with you. You walked away from me.’ My heart broke, in a good way. I remember kneeling and saying, ‘I don’t want to keep living my life the way I’ve been living it. I want to be able to hand everything to you. Everything.’”
Rossely always has felt a weight of expectation upon her, as if she is carrying the load of proving herself. “It was like this weight was lifted off my shoulders. I had this overwhelming sense of love and peace and freedom. In one split second, I’d say my life turned upside down.
“I came to the realisation that worldly possessions and fame bring fleeting happiness, but the emptiness I felt would remain until I filled it with the truth of who Jesus is and what he did for me.”
Since that pivotal day, Rossely has studied at a Bible College, become a lay minister with the Anglican Church in New South Wales (husband Jeff is Australian), and been involved with sport and not-for-profit pursuits. She loves preaching and being able to share the good news of what’s been done in her life, and others.
“My identity is now in Christ. My identity is not in me.”
While she is still a work in progress about sitting still in the presence of God and Jesus, she knows that the day the Holy Spirit came into her in the French farmhouse, is the day a fire of new perspective was ignited within her.
“After that day when I opened the Bible, the words really spoke into my heart,” shares Rossely.
“When I used to read the Old Testament, all I could see was wars and people being killed.
“Now, I love reading the Old Testament because [I see] God’s personality and character. You see how powerful he is and the wonders and acts he can do. And he is creator and he is the Alpha and the Omega … I didn’t see that before.
“My heart goes out to people who sit in church and who have not totally surrendered to God’s will. Because when you do, and he steps in, you go back on the rollercoaster [of life] – but it’s his rollercoaster. Which is a lot more fun, and safer. You feel so protected and you have that sense of freedom.”
Convinced that she is free to keep the personality God gifted her with, driven and passionate Rossely is committed to now live as the person God empowers her to be.
“My identity is now in Christ. My identity is not in me.”