Jeff Short chats to Iona Rossely about her new book Racing On Empty

Racing On Empty

Jeff: I read your book yesterday in two sittings and I'm absolutely shattered. I've come down every mountain with you, I've ridden every endurance race, I've stood by the side of Formula 1 and then I've gone through the battles of faith. Is that a fair summary of your life so far?

Iona: I would say so, yes. A roller coaster.

Jeff: That's an overused phrase in some ways because it doesn't do any justice when I pick up a book like yours. What's prompted you to write the book?

Iona: About 4 or 5 years ago I had so many people coming up to me and asking me would I write a book and I'm not the kind of person that can actually sit down very long and do things like that. So I was struggling with the concept of putting a book together. Every time I gave my testimony at a conference - I do quite a bit of Christian motivational speaking - people would come up and say would I write a book. That's the way it started. A very good friend of mine said it's very easy to start writing a book. You just allocate half an hour every day and you start from there. It was on his advice that I did half and hour at the same time every day and after two and a half years I had the book and then I had a lot of help publishing it.

Jeff: You sort of had a religious upbringing but you were just a tad rebellious. I've seen films that were less enthralling than this. You get yourself into professional speed skiing, you teach here and there and then you have the most horrendous crash. Would you like to tell us a little bit about that?

Iona: I got into speed skiing totally from a prank, actually, with a group of ski instructors who wanted to try speed skiing and I didn't because I thought going down in a straight line was pretty meaningless. But when I tried it I was totally hooked. I loved the speed, the adrenaline and it became an absolute obsession. I was quite fearful but when you go to the other side of that it is an amazing feeling. You keep pushing yourself and pushing yourself. I'd already been British champion and New Zealand champion. The accident that I had, it was a fairly small race, 200 competitors. I'd done my first run and it went well. On the second run they move you up into a very small gully so it's a bit like jumping out of a block of flats; it's an amazing feeling. You don't actually touch the surface, you hydrofoil so it's probably nearer flying than anything else. On this occasion I'd also lost my voice, which was a bit strange and on the second run I remember starting off and within a couple of seconds - and you can build up a lot of speed in a couple of seconds - I was skiing on one ski. We don't know what happened, it looked like it was an equipment failure. And I did the wrong thing. You are supposed to just fall and go with the flow which is quite difficult when you're skiing at a hundred miles an hour to just fall and go with the flow. I put my right heel down, because it was my right ski that came off, and as I put my right heel down the leg shattered from the heel all the way up. It shattered from below the knee, above the knee and I fell for a kilometre. I went through the speed trap at 160 kilometres an hour. I still think I'm probably the fastest lady on my bottom. I'm not sure that's a title anyone wants to take. On the way down it all goes in slow motion so you don't really understand what's going on.

Jeff: We're talking now about surgery to save your leg and save your life. And although the outcome is recovery you're given the diagnosis you're never going to compete at anything again, sports wise. Is that correct?

Iona: Yes, it's just too dangerous.

Jeff: It's a brave person, I figure, who says to Iona you can't.

Iona: Yes, my Dad struggled with that one.

Jeff: I can say it safely because you're thousands of miles away. You then get into the world of horses. You've always had a love of horses.

Iona: Yes, I think I was first sat on a pony when I was two. And that was it. Like every little girl you want a pony but I really did want a pony and my Dad really wasn't going to buy me one. I used to beg and borrow everyone else's pony. Horses have always been part of who I am.

Jeff: You had this deal with your Dad that if you passed all your exams he'd buy you a horse and you got 7 out of 8 and some years later you go back cos you've seen a horse you fancy and you remind him of the deal and he laughs. I find this wonderful. Some people would say isn't it wonderful; I've come through this surgery and now I can ride a horse. But that's not enough for Iona, is it?

Iona: No. It took me about a year and a half to be able to walk properly again and I limped quite badly. While I was on crutches I was horse riding, which didn't help my leg on the recovery. I would hop to the stables, get on the horse and then get back on my crutches. I was always wanting to be active, I wanted to ride horses and I don't take no, really.

Jeff: There's this incredible competitor within you that if I fast-forward subsequently you're a competitor for the Irish equestrian scene.

Iona: Yes, and that was endurance racing, long distance horse racing which is amazing. You're doing 160 kilometres per race. It was brilliant; I loved it. And I loved the bond between the horse and yourself. That was very special.

Jeff: In this time you go to Dubai, Devon, Australia. There are all these things and you go into PR with Rothmans Williams Renault, encounters with Damon Hill which includes the time when you were speed skiing on top of his car driving through London.

Iona: That was great. I didn't think I'd ever see him again and I did and I was quite embarrassed. I was hoping he wouldn't recognise me.

Jeff: Along the way there seems to be an underlying searching for something else. You try crystals; you try a lot of New Age stuff, which doesn't fill the void.

Iona: My identity was in my sport. I found that very early on when I was in convent school. I realised when you're doing well and you've won a race the next morning I'd wake up and I wouldn't feel any different. And if you've spent a year to two years preparing for that race and the next morning you've done well and you've won and you think I should feel different, I shouldn't feel the way I feel. So for me success was beyond fleeting. Maybe for five minutes you think Wow, wow, wow. Then in a way you seem to get a bigger hole in your heart. I think it's because you've spent every second of your day trying to fill it. I really struggled knowing that there must be more than what I was doing. I had the money; I was sponsored by Smirnov, Alfa Romeo. Even with the horses we had the money, the lifestyle. But it was like there was a big part of me missing. It was like a puzzle with the centre bit not quite there. I believed there was a divine presence but I didn't know how to connect. I tried everything else bar the right way.

Jeff: Every now and then you are put into contact with Christians. It's almost like Jesus is stalking you, you can see him pop up here and there in the book. There seems to be a point where, I guess, you make the transition from being a religious spectator to being a competitor and there comes a point when you have to look and say that you're going to give this over to Jesus, you're not going to keep doing it all in your own strength. You have a dream where you come last in a race and that seems to be pivotal.

Iona: It was a very real dream and I know it was a God dream. I was in a race and I was running and everyone was overtaking me. My legs were getting heavier, I was getting really frustrated. I could see the finish line, I could see everyone crossing in front of me and I knew when I crossed the line that I'd come last. I saw this little guy and he was so joyful and so happy and he had a wreath in his hands and he was jumping up and down and smiling and shouting you won, you won! And I just said listen mate, I think you've been watching the wrong race. I've come in last. He ignored me and put this round my neck and said you won. And I woke up. Then I woke up my husband, who's also called Jeff, and he said not another dream. And I said but this is real. I was in a race and this man said I won. He said go back to sleep. The next morning I was praying into asking for clarification on the dream and he said we are all individually in our own race and we must not look at the other competitors or focus on them at all. What they do is their journey. And God was saying I must keep my eyes focused just on him, solely on him and then I will win the race. Sometimes he will put me in a lay-by to mould me, chip me, make me into the person I need to be to carry on in the race. But I mustn't be focused on other people and what they're doing, and their journey and their ministry. That was so powerful and it really helped me to understand that we are all unique.

Jeff: I think there are a couple of golden threads running through the book. There is excitement but there is also a lot of pain like when you have to leave a place you're settled where you have some animal friends and when you lose members of the family altogether. One would be quite often in the book people would say to you God has a plan. Do you believe that?

Iona: Yes, totally. Is it Jeremiah 29.11? For I know the plans I have for you. I live and breathe that. Every single part of my journey when I started writing the book how many times God had stepped in and helped me and I hadn't seen it. And how many times I had walked away from him. It's like a dot-to-dot painting. We're on a dot and we want to go to the next dot and he says no, that's not the dot I had planned for you. So he has a plan for every single one of us.

Jeff: At the end of the book you're a lay minister having done your training in the Anglican Church. It didn't seem an easy fit but part of God's plan was taking you there and into that leadership and then pushing against barriers in fellowships which said they wouldn't have women in leadership. I did have a sense of that old song If They Could See Me Now, what would they think of this rebellious little girl. When you do step out and you're sharing in a school and the battle that you have faced, which you would say is a spiritual battle, that we have an enemy that you are now competing against who doesn't want you to succeed.

Iona: That was really scary for me. That was about 7 years ago. I was really astounded that the devil stepped in and targeted my animals. We don't have children; we have our dogs, our cats and our horses. When I started giving my testimony week after week every time I came back to the farm one of my animals was either dying or there was a horse seriously injured. It went on and on and I suddenly realised we are not up against flesh and blood we're fighting against an invisible force which is very, very real. I learnt a lot from that. CR

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