Written by Lucy Reynolds

Health

This Girl Bloody Can

Paralympian Jo Willoughby talks to Lucy Reynolds about her achievements, ambitions and determination never to give up. Prepare to be inspired and in awe.

Empty wheelchair on the ski slopeJo Willoughby was paralysed at the age of 12, with Transverse Myelitis. She has a partial amputation of the left hand, a Gritti-Stokes amputation of the left leg, through the knee, and is blind in her right eye. Despite this, Jo has competed as a Team GB Paralympic skier for eight years, achieving over 30 titles, and becoming European Champion in Giant Slalom.

A keen traveller, Wakefield-born Jo has a PhD, a first class honours degree in English Literature, is fascinated with literature from Afghanistan and is passionate about the plight of women worldwide.

She has taught university classes, gives motivational speeches, educates primary children on sport and disability, and is a qualified ski instructor.

Jo also has a female cat named Bob, who is her constant companion.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

Competing at international level year after year, and continuing to give 100% both in training and racing. Although I hold over 30 titles, my greatest achievement is having the courage and heart to train despite my physical limitations.

How did you get into your sport?

I was playing wheelchair basketball at club level, and was looking for another challenge, as I had just had the fingers on my left hand amputated, which meant my basketball career was cut short.

“Motivation comes from within. No one can give it to you or implant it in your soul. I was paralysed in a bed for three years, and that gave me a lot of time to think.”

I had skied as an able bodied 10-year-old, but had only had three half days’ instruction. The fact I had not mastered skiing had always annoyed me, so I decided to take it up again.

Jo skiiingI didn’t know if disabled people could ski, but I knew there had to be a way. I found a dry ski slope in Rossendale, Lancashire, that offered tuition. I attended a session, was assessed and told that it would take me two years to learn to ski from halfway, with my disability.

I wanted to ski, independently, so I found another group, The Uphill Ski club, who assessed me and taught me to ski a bi-ski (ski with two skis underneath). It was my dream to ski in the Paralympics, and I knew I couldn’t compete in a bi-ski. I needed to ski a mono ski, yet I was told repeatedly that this was beyond my physical ability. But after annoying the ski instructor for three months, I was finally allowed to try out a monoski.

From that moment, I was determined to succeed at my sport, and despite being one of the most disabled people on the ski tour, I knew I could achieve my goals. I spent every spare moment on that ski, and I entered competitive skiing one year later.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

Life is changeable, transient and constantly in flux. Live every day to your full potential and enjoy all there is to life.

What advice would you give a woman who wanted to take part in your sport?

Ignore all of the macho machismo that is involved in elite sport. Just focus on your goals, find a local coach who is willing to support you, and is as driven as you are. Without that close support, you will not achieve all that you dream of. Be strong in both mind and body and cling to the knowledge that you are as able as your male counterparts.

What can’t you live without?

Literature, Yorkshire Tea and my cat, Bob.

Is there anything else you wish to achieve in your sport/life?

I would like to go back onto the elite tour as a coach, and support female athletes performing at international level. On a personal level, that Paralympic gold medal will always elude me. It was my dream for so long and having that dream taken away from you, due to ill health, was very hard to come back from. Physically, after amputation, you heal but the mental scars remain. It will always be something that haunts me, but I am not a person who will live with regret.

It sounds rather clichéd, but it is how you react to things that shows the true measure of a person. I will not let this define me. I moved on and set new goals.

Who has been your biggest inspiration?

My mum. She is a true warrior in both body and spirit. Every day, her resilience to life and her enthusiasm for her daughters to do well shines out of her. She is constantly giving everything in mind, body and spirit. She is the modern version of Boudicca.

Jo on a boatWhen you are not training and competing, what else do you enjoy doing?

Reading, writing, motivational speaking, taking part in performance poetry and travelling. Last year I took part in the She Festival in Leeds, a collaboration between English and Israeli writers and performers.

We then took the show to Tel Aviv, Israel, which was well received. In this festival, I wrote and performed a monologue.

I am also a regular writer for Meow Kacha, Gems of Mazal, an English/Israeli writing forum.

How often do you train?

I did train every day when I was on the circuit. Now I am retired, I continue to train twice a week, but a lot of my time is taken up with ski instruction for disabled skiers. I now train other people.

Have you always been sporty?

Yes, as an able bodied child, I used to run. Cycling was a passion but I mainly focused on running, which is rather ironic now.

“Physically, after amputation, you heal but the mental scars remain. It will always be something that haunts me, but I am not a person who will live with regret.”

Currently, I take part in many sports: basketball, kayaking, handbiking, off-road wheelchairing and I am learning to paraglide. Paragliding is my new passion and goal for the coming year. I jumped off a mountain in Austria, and I fell in love with natural flying.

What motivates you in your life/sport?

Motivation comes from within. No one can give it to you or implant it in your soul.

I was paralysed in a bed for three years, and that gave me a lot of time to think. I was paralysed from my neck down and was unable to do anything but move my head. Reading became a huge thing in my life, and my mum sat and turned the pages for me. She said that my disability was not an excuse to be lazy. I could use my eyes to read, so I did. This action gave me a huge passion for literature, which led to a first class honours degree and a PhD. It is amazing how one small act can blossom into a whole career.

The memory of being totally unable to move constantly fires my imagination and acts as a motivational pivot. I know what it is like to be confined, so I celebrate every day that I am able to move and participate in life, let alone play sport. Sport is the bonus, the cherry on top, and I know that I am immensely lucky to be able to do this.

Which song would you choose as the soundtrack to your life?

Gym Class Heroes – The Fighter.

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Written by Lucy Reynolds

Lucy is a teacher whose dream as a child was to be WWE Wrestling Champion. That dream is still alive.