She thought she would never walk again. When Jill Hamill broke her neck in a car accident in 2004, the Newtownards teacher was told her dreams of sporting success were over.
Left with a fractured skull and severe spinal injuries, Jill (29) spent six painstaking months in recovery learning how to use her legs again.
This week the Co Down athlete defied the odds by coming seventh in the women’s race of the Belfast Marathon.
After months of gruelling training, Jill crossed the finish line in an incredible time of three hours and 13 minutes, smashing her personal best by 37 minutes.
Just seven years after her devastating car crash, she said she was “ecstatic” to have come so far.
“When I had the accident I was in a full body cast for four months and then in a neck collar,” Jill said. “I wasn’t a runner before but I had been involved in sport and it was a major blow to learn that I might not be able to walk again.
“My parents were told that the prognosis was not good but it gave me a completely new perspective on life. “Because I had to learn to walk again, running became my little personal challenge.”
Jill, a former religious studies teacher at Down High School in Downpatrick, started training with colleagues as she began to regain the feeling in her legs.
“I remember being in pieces at the end of my first run,” she admitted.
“I would run for three or four minutes at a time and I would come back in a lot of pain.
“Looking back, every time I ran it was a personal achievement — it was part of going the full distance to completing my recovery.”
After competing in the Belfast Marathon in 2010, Jill vowed never to put herself through the 26.2-mile course again.
But her work with children’s charity Care for Cambodia inspired her to pound the streets again this year, and once she signed up, Jill never looked back.
“There’s an orphanage just outside the capital Phnom Penh that needed a school bus and I wanted to raise some money,” she said.
“I really enjoyed the run — the weather was hot but it seemed to bring people out onto the streets. I had no idea how fast I was going, although I was conscious of people shouting ‘there’s a girl’ when they saw me towards the end.
“I knew I was doing well because I stayed ahead of the pacemaker, but crossing the finish line in that time was absolutely crazy.”
Jill said husband Jonny (32) had been her biggest supporter in her extraordinary journey since the car accident. On Monday the couple plan to fly out to Cambodia in order to start a new life as volunteers in the orphanage set up by Care for Cambodia.
“Jonny and I have been over there a number of times and we felt very at home in that part of the world,” she said.
“Life in Asia is going to be very hot so I imagine it will be hard to keep up running — but I can’t just stop after all this.
“Maybe what I’ve been through will help inspire some of the children out there in Cambodia.
“I was struck by the extent of suffering among people so young, and I hope we can do something to help.”
Jill and Jonny are going to work for Care for Cambodia, a charity that provides education for orphans and abandoned children. Based just outside the capital Phnom Penh, volunteers work in remote rural areas. Donations go towards school uniforms, school buses and teaching equipment. The charity also provides employment for widows and their families through craft workshops. To support the charity and follow their journey, visit jillandjonny.firstards.org.uk