Janine Shepherd: How Can We Redefine Ourselves After A Tragedy? Janine "the machine" Shepherd was a cross-country skier bound for Olympic greatness, when an accident left her paralyzed. She describes her struggle to redefine her identity beyond being an athlete.
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Janine Shepherd: How Can We Redefine Ourselves After A Tragedy?

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Janine Shepherd: How Can We Redefine Ourselves After A Tragedy?

Janine Shepherd: How Can We Redefine Ourselves After A Tragedy?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. If somebody came up to you and asked you what your identity was, how would you answer that question?

JANINE SHEPHERD: I would probably say, I'm not my body.

RAZ: This is Janine Shepherd. And from the time Janine was young, it was clear she was born an athlete.

SHEPHERD: So I started as a sprinter - a runner and all sorts of track-and-field events. But I really found my way when I got into cross-country skiing probably because I had an extremely high oxygen uptake. So I was the highest recorded level in Australia for a VO2 max for a female athlete. You know, my goal was to not just get to the Olympics but to really show the world that we could be the best at winter sports.

And I'd been sort of taken under the wing of the Canadian ski team and invited to train with them in the lead up to the Olympics. So In 1986, you know, everything was just - all the planets are aligned. And I thought, this is it. You know, this is everything I've worked for my entire life. And I was on top of the world.

RAZ: And when people and people who knew you then, Janine - they would identify you, they'd be like, oh, there's Janine, that great athlete. Like, when people came up to you, would they talk to you about, like, what are you doing in sport?

SHEPHERD: Well, yes, always. And, of course, my nickname was Janine the machine...

RAZ: Wow.

SHEPHERD: ...Which probably doesn't sound flattering, but I thought it was great. And it rhymed.

RAZ: Yeah. You were the machine.

SHEPHERD: I was the machine.

RAZ: So your entire identity was wrapped up in your physical prowess and your natural gifts as an athlete.

SHEPHERD: Everything - every moment of every day was about the next training session.

RAZ: But that identity and Janine's entire life were about to change forever. Here's Janine Shepherd on the TED stage.


SHEPHERD: As a cross-country skier and member of the Australian ski team headed towards the Winter Olympics, I was on a training bike ride with my fellow teammates. As we made our way up towards the spectacular Blue Mountains west of Sydney, it was the perfect autumn day. We'd been on our bikes for around five and a half hours when we got to the part of the ride that I loved, and that was the hills because I loved the hills. And I got up off the seat of my bike, and I started pumping my legs. And as I sucked in the cold mountain air, I could feel it burning my lungs. And I looked up to see the sun shining in my face.

And then everything went black. I'd been hit by a speeding utility truck with only 10 minutes to go on the bike ride. I was airlifted from the scene of the accident by a rescue helicopter to a large spinal unit in Sydney. I'd broken my neck and my back in six places. I broke five ribs on my left side. I broke my right arm. I broke my collarbone. I broke some bones in my feet.

My whole right side was ripped open and filled with gravel. My head was cut open across the front, lifted back, exposing the skull underneath. I had internal injuries. I had massive blood loss. In fact, I lost about five liter of blood, which is all someone my size would actually hold. By the time the helicopter arrived at Prince Henry Hospital in Sydney, my blood pressure was 40 over nothing. I was having a really bad day.

RAZ: What do you remember about the period afterwards - about waking up? Did you think that things were going to change? Or did you think that you were going to recover and get back to where you were?

SHEPHERD: The first thing I remember is being confused because during the 10 days, which I tell people was my death experience, I remember very clearly not wanting to return to my body. I remember thinking, that body's broken. It can no longer serve me. I also remember that it was my choice to return. And even though I knew that I was returning to a broken body, when I did wake up in hospital, there was a level of confusion and enormous pain.

RAZ: Yeah.

SHEPHERD: I had so many injuries that it was just inescapable.

RAZ: It's like your body was this vessel - Janine the machine, right? And you sort of commanded it. Your whole being oversaw this thing that was so effective. And then you found yourself in a position where you didn't have that control over this machine in quite the same way. How did you begin to start to realize that that identity that you had was inevitably going to change?

SHEPHERD: It took some time because my body was the way that I defined myself, the way that people saw me.

RAZ: Yeah.

SHEPHERD: And I'd always been able to control every aspect of my life. So this was the first time I had no control. I was lying paralyzed in an intensive care unit and people telling me that I wasn't going to walk again. And typical to me, you know, I just didn't listen. I thought, no, they're wrong. So it took a long time. I mean, I spent almost six months in the spinal ward and got out in a wheelchair. And I kept thinking, no, they're wrong. They can't be right. This is the sort of thing that happens to someone else.

And then I got home and that's when it really hit me. All the reminders of my life, all of my friends were off skiing and racing. And there I was in a wheelchair, and my body was wrapped in a plaster body cast. I was attached to a catheter bottle. I couldn't walk. I couldn't move my legs. I had no feeling from the waist down. And that was my rock bottom. And I realized, you know, this is - they're right. My life, as I knew it, is over.

RAZ: How old were you?

SHEPHERD: I was 24. I think the thing that - to lose the thing that you think defines you is the very thing that will teach you not just who you are, but who you're not. And I also think that you don't really know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice that you have.

RAZ: Over the course of our entire lives, we don't always stay the same exact person. We're humans. We change. We shed parts of our old selves and embrace new ones. We redefine who we are and the different identities we present to the world. So on the show today, we're going to explore this idea of the person we are and the person we become. And for Janine Shepherd, that change wasn't really a choice.

SHEPHERD: The pain of holding on to who I thought I was was so great that it was untenable. And the only choice for me, I decided, was to let go and to trust life. So I let go.

RAZ: You sort of said, OK, a part of who I am, I'm leaving behind, and I'm now going to find the next version of me.

SHEPHERD: Exactly. And I thought that my strength was tied up to my body. And to now go out into the world with a body that didn't look like everybody else's, and people would stare all the time, that took an enormous amount of courage.

RAZ: Yeah.

SHEPHERD: And it gave me a lot of confidence. I mean, the life-changing moment for me, of course, was sitting outside in my wheelchair when an airplane flew over, and I decided that I would, if I couldn't walk, then I would fly.


SHEPHERD: I said, Mom, I'm going to learn how to fly. She said, that's nice, dear.


SHEPHERD: I said, pass me the Yellow Pages. She passed me the phone book. I rang up the flying school. I made a booking. Said, I'd like to make a booking to come out for a flight. They said, you know, when do you want to come out? And I said, well, I have to get a friend to drive me out 'cause I can't drive. (Laughter). Sort of can't walk, either. Is that a problem? I made a booking, and weeks later, my friend, Chris (ph), and my mom drove me out to the airport, all 80 pounds of me, covered in a plaster body cast and a baggy pair of overalls.


SHEPHERD: Finally, this guy comes out and he goes, hi, I'm Andrew, and I'm going to take you flying. I go, great. So they get me out on the tarmac, and there was this red, white and blue airplane. It was beautiful. Andrew, the instructor, got in the front, started the airplane up. And he said, would you like to have a go at taxiing? That's when you use your feet to control the rudder pedals to control the airplane on the ground. I said, no (laughter). I can't use my legs. I said, but I can use my hands. And he said, OK. And as we took off down the runway and the wheels lifted up off the tarmac and we became airborne, I had the most incredible sense of freedom. And Andrew said to me, you see that mountain over there? And I said, yeah. And he said, well, you take the controls and you fly towards that mountain. And as I looked up, I realized that he was pointing towards the Blue Mountains, where the journey had begun. And I took the controls, and I was flying.

RAZ: OK. So you didn't just become a pilot. You went on to become a commercial pilot then an aerobatics flying instructor and then the first female director of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. It's almost like the Olympic athlete version of you never really left. Like...

SHEPHERD: (Laughter).

RAZ: ...I mean, you achieve all these things but in a completely different realm.

SHEPHERD: I know. I'm still Janine the Machine.

RAZ: You're right. You are.

SHEPHERD: (Laughter).

RAZ: You really are.

SHEPHERD: But it's not with my body. I don't - the way I communicate with the world now is not through my body. I think it's through my heart. And I think that, you know, I'm a much better person post-accident than I was before.

RAZ: Do you remember a moment - and it may have been years later - where you realized that you had embodied this different identity, that you had become almost a different version of yourself?

SHEPHERD: I'm not sure when that moment would have come, but I couldn't have imagined a more different life than the one that I'd planned. And I think that for me, anyway, my takeaway is that life is about loosening our grip. You know, we suffer when we hold on to things. And we hold on to things because we're just unsure. You know, what happens if I do step off? And I know that it's in the letting go that we really experience who we can be. And life is different. I mean, life certainly is different for me after my spinal cord injury. But it's still magnificent and incredible and fascinating and curious, and it's just a different life.


RAZ: That's Janine Shepherd. After years of rehabilitation, Janine did regain some ability to walk. Today she shares her story as a public speaker and through her memoir, "Defiant." You can see her full talk at ted.com. On the show today, The Person You Become. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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