I was born the eldest of four girls into a strict religious family. I stuttered badly and was painfully shy—so much so that if you spoke to me I would turn beetroot red. At age 11, to my absolute horror, I was sent off to St David’s Ursuline Convent in the mountains of Wales, UK, where I was bombarded with religious rituals, traditions and an abundance of laws. This led me to believe that God was not approachable, not personal and not loving. So, I chose to ignore the religious stuff as best I could and spent my spare time absorbed in what I did well and that was sports—netball, running, horse riding at the weekend and skiing on the dry ski slope . . . and, yes, boys. I had become extremely competitive during my time in school. I had a real sense that for me to be somebody I needed to be the best—the very best.
Academically I scraped through—the nuns tried to expel me on a number of occasions, but my parents persuaded them otherwise. I think it was to do with smoking in the toilets, escaping into town to meet boys, hanging toilet paper out of the windows, sending burnt bacon in the post to show my parents how bad the food was, pretending to faint every morning in church and so on. Not surprisingly, after six years in a convent I wanted to get as far away as possible from anything that was remotely religious.
After a short stint in art college (I didn’t like being told how to paint) and free from rules, I headed for Switzerland—I was going to fulfil my dream of becoming a ski instructor. I passed my skiing qualifications, taught skiing all over Europe and then somehow accepted a challenge to try speed skiing. I was hooked—speed skiing is a bit like jumping off a block of flats, but with skis on. I loved the speed and the risk and the excitement. I seemed to have a natural flair for it and my race successes saw me compete professionally with sponsorship backing from Smirnoff and Alfa Romeo, which catapulted me into the limelight. I became British Overseas Champion and New Zealand Ladies Speed Skiing Champion. I had everything I had dreamed of—I had money and recognition; I travelled the world and had a high media profile. But this lifestyle left me feeling cold and empty. Deep down I knew life had to have a greater meaning.
While competing in the World Cup in France I fell at 160 kilometres an hour and shattered my leg in eight places. Statistically I should have died at this speed, but I was blessed that I had survived with just a mangled leg, which had now acquired one plate and 28 screws. The life I knew came to a grinding halt. Strangely enough, during this time I felt God’s presence and an overwhelming sense of peace.
The doctors told me I would never be able to do any sports again and I would also walk with a limp—so that meant the windsurfing and water skiing that I taught in the summer was also out—finished. But I had a strong sense that God had personally intervened. For the next two years, while I was recovering, I wanted to find out more about God. Spending some time recovering in Cyprus, I attended Bible studies and went on a Christian retreat. But as soon as my injuries had healed I was off again. I turned my attention back to me.
I bought a racehorse and eyed up the possibilities of being a jockey. I also made a video with Virgin on “How to ski the fast way”. This led me to working as a TV sports presenter.
All this time I was searching for some purpose and meaning to my life. I really felt that a change of scenery would provide me with these answers, so I relocated to Bahrain and then Dubai to work in public relations and pursue my love of horses, first in show jumping and then endurance racing. To cut a very long story short I married, divorced, battled with cancer, lost my mum to cancer, tried out for a ladies motor racing team, was now a member of the Irish endurance team and, in my unending quest to find a meaning behind my life, I tried out crystals, reiki, tarot cards, astrology, transcendental meditation and all the New Age stuff. Even though I had a lifestyle that some would say was perfect, for me there was no real meaning to life—something was missing. I was trying to fill this void with success in sports—I believed a world that said, When you’re the best at what you do then life is complete.
It was only when, 15 years later, I moved to France and became friends with a Swiss Christian couple that I began to get a clearer picture of who God is. He wasn’t dead and buried in a history book; He was alive and very real. My new friends taught me that faith was a living belief that penetrated every aspect of our lives and that I could have a personal relationship with God. This was a totally new experience for me—one that made me realise how wrong I had been in putting God in a box. I spent time studying Scripture and I really enjoyed learning more about God. But I was still running my life as I saw fit—God was a bit like an add-on.
But thankfully He had a plan!
I was coming into my tenth year on the Irish endurance team and was now concentrating on qualifying for my third World Equestrian Games. I had spent three years preparing for the qualifier in Portugal. The day before the race, after a short workout, my mare Bisou collapsed with a serious metabolic problem. I was mortified. Three years of my life wasted—how could God do this to me? I felt like He had abandoned me. I remember going back to the hotel room and had the biggest temper tantrum ever—got my suitcase and threw it around the room and screamed and screamed and cried. You may think this is stupid over a horse race, but this meant everything to me—it was as if my life depended on it. Thankfully, Bisou recovered, but it took me a while. On returning home, my Christian friends were waiting. They prayed and read from the Bible while I sat frozen and defiant. No, not talking any more to God—our agreement is off—finished. No more.
The next morning, feeling depressed and full of self-pity, I reluctantly opened the Bible and, without even reading a word, it suddenly dawned on me: I had it all wrong. Terribly wrong! I had been the driving force behind my life and God had been in the passenger seat—sometimes He had even ended up in the back seat! What was I doing? At that moment, I dropped to my knees in the kitchen and cried and cried. I pled for forgiveness and I told God that from now on He was in total control—He could have my life, because it was so empty without Him.
It’s hard to describe the feeling but that day totally changed me on the inside. I felt loved, I felt like I belonged and I had a freedom that I had never experienced before. I felt such a release—I no longer had to prove myself; God loved me just the way I was. From that day in September 2009, I had an overwhelming sense of God’s love and a real passion to know Him more.
My whole life turned upside down—in a good way. My obsession with racing or competing literally disappeared overnight. Now I couldn’t see the point in spending seven hours a day on horseback to finish a 160-kilometre ride—it all seemed rather meaningless. My love of horses and sport stayed, but without the obsessiveness.
I have found that living my life with God in control is not boring or full of rules or regulations. Yes, He gives you boundaries, but they are there to help us. I love watching how God works in my life and other people’s lives—how He answers my prayers and theirs. And, yes, I still do risky things—I love riding bare back and bitless, but God is my priority now. He never strips you of your personality—He adds to your personality. He gives all of us unique talents and He has a different path for each of us.
I have no idea what God has planned for me in the future, but I trust Him with my life regardless of the outcome. The world tells us that we should focus on ourselves and spend time acquiring material and worldly possessions and success. But these things are all meaningless—they all turn to dust.
Jesus said “if you cling to your life, you will lose it, but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.”
Iona Rossely released her autobiography, Racing on Empty (Sarah Grace Publishing), earlier this year. Now a lay Anglican minister, she lives with her husband Jeff and her beloved menagerie of horses, dogs and other animals in NSW’s northern rivers region.