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Dr Janet Gray MBE: 'I lost my sight at 21 and thought my life was over, but water skiing gave me freedom... I let people know things are possible after blindness'

The Big Ask

Prized possessions: Janet Gray at home with her two dogs, Hollie and Harvey
Prized possessions: Janet Gray at home with her two dogs, Hollie and Harvey
Riding the waves: Janet took up water skiing after losing her sight
The Queen
Michael Palin
Royal visit: Janet meets Princess Anne at the UUJ Sports Centre in 2004
Janet and Paul’s wedding
Janet and Paul at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards
Janet (centre) with her brother Ian, granny Snowdon, and her mother Maureen and father John on the Isle of Man in 1972
Janet as a young girl
Rachel Dean

By Rachel Dean

In this week's interview Rachel Dean talks to Dr Janet Gray MBE (57), who lives in Ravernet, Co Down, with husband Paul and their two dogs, Hollie and Harvey.

Q: Tell us about your childhood

A: I had a very happy childhood. I grew up in Belfast. My mother and father, Maureen and John Snowdon, were both in business. I have one brother, Ian, and we were very close growing up because there were just the two of us.

We were always very outgoing as a family, and we all enjoyed music.

I was very much into swimming and lifesaving. I was never out of the pool, basically.

I would have gone horse-riding too, which I loved. I was even in the Beaver Scouts as a young girl, and I went on to be a Beaver Scouts leader.

Everything was very outdoorsy and activity-orientated.

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Janet (centre) with her brother Ian, granny Snowdon, and her mother Maureen and father John on the Isle of Man in 1972

As a family, we swam an awful lot in the Grove (Leisure Centre) in Belfast. As a wider family, with my uncle, aunt and cousins, we would sometimes go swimming on a Sunday. Usually we would go to Antrim Forum and we'd go for a picnic after. That was lovely - that lovely, quality family time.

Sadly, I lost my sight when I was 21. We didn't find out it was hereditary until my father and Ian were both affected.

I was quite young when my father lost his sight and Ian was just 12 when he lost his.

Q: What are you most proud of?

A: When I went with Team GB NI to the 2007 World Disabled Water Ski Championships in Australia.

I know it was fabulous to be the world blind water ski champion in 1999, 2001 and 2003, but in 2004 I had a massive trauma when I collided with a jump ramp at high speed while training in Florida.

I was resuscitated four times. I was told that with the injuries I sustained, it was possible that I'd never walk again.

For three years, my only fight was to get back on my feet, and I did. I knew that if I could just get on my feet, I might have a chance of getting back on my skis.

The 2007 World Championship was supposed to be my ease-back tournament with no pressure.

However, Team GB were the reigning world champions, and when we arrived in Australia, the pressure was on because our biggest rivals, Australia and America, had full teams of 14 people each. We could only afford to bring seven.

The pressure was on because each of us had to produce winning scores to hold on.

We did it and, against all odds, I regained all my titles, bringing home five gold medals to Northern Ireland. I think that would be my proudest moment.

Q: The one regret you wish you could amend?

A: I wish I had learned to use a white cane sooner to give me that little bit of independence a little earlier on, but after sight loss, I was very ill. You're so vulnerable and you lose all your confidence. It took me a while to come to terms with having to pick up a white cane and learn how to use it.

I just wish I had tried it a little bit sooner because once I did the mobility training, the freedom and independence it gave me back was super.

Q: And what about phobias? Do you have any?

A: The thing I dislike the most are snakes, but I wouldn't call it a phobia because, if it was a phobia, I wouldn't have got into many lakes around the world with snakes in them. I don't think that I have any phobias. I first got on water skis after I lost my sight and that didn't scare me.

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Riding the waves: Janet took up water skiing after losing her sight

Q: The temptation you cannot resist?

A: A new challenge, or a chocolate truffle!

Q: Your number one prized possession?

A: It's actually plural: my 12-year-old twin toy poodles, Hollie and Harvey. They have to be my most precious treasures.

Q: The book that's most impacted your life?

A: It would have to be the Bible. Its doctrines and teachings really are a good guide to how we should live our lives.

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Janet as a young girl

Q: If you had the power or the authority, what would you do?

A: I would like to inject a lot of funds and resources into our health service.

We're very lucky to have a health service. Many countries don't. I know things aren't great at the moment and it's a bit of a struggle, but we still have a fantastic service and I can only commend the doctors and nurses who looked after me, especially when I needed an air ambulance home from Florida. I was so well looked after and, even more recently, the care that my father received, both in hospital and in the community, honestly has been excellent.

I would really like to save our health service.

Q: What makes your blood boil every time without fail?

A: Irresponsible dog owners who do not pick up their dogs' mess. As a blind person, it drives me insane. I can't see it, so, if I walk in it or my cane goes in it, it's just disgusting.

What irks me even more is that some people who do pick up the mess and bag it think it's quite okay to hang it on the first available branch of a tree that they come across, just like a Christmas bauble.

Who do they expect to come along and take it off and bin it? It beggars belief.

Q: Who has most influenced you in life?

A: I think it has to be my grandmother, Martha Brown. She was a very wise and wonderful lady. She had high morals and values and she always gave me good advice.

Q: Your top three dinner party guests, dead or alive and why?

A: First, I'd invite Her Majesty The Queen. She's such a great character and she has tremendous grace and presence.

She has reigned for many years with great fortitude, and I assume she has met and probably influenced so many influential world leaders and witnessed so much change over the years. She would be very interesting to talk to.

I would have Monty Python's Michael Palin over because he's such a humorous guy, but he's also so well travelled and I think he would entertain everyone with his wit and anecdotes.

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Michael Palin

Then, I would invite Eddie the Eagle (Michael Edwards) because, for me, he's everything a true sportsman should be. He embraced his sport and was the man of the Olympics in 1988. He's had a very interesting life, so I think he would be fascinating to talk to.

Q: The best piece of advice you ever received?

A: If it doesn't feel right, don't do it. Always follow your gut instincts.

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Royal visit: Janet meets Princess Anne at the UUJ Sports Centre in 2004

Q: The unlikely interest or hobby that you love?

A: I love music. I love to relax and play music as a way of just losing yourself in the music.

I learned how to play the piano and the clarinet after I lost my sight.

I played the violin and the viola when I was young, so I know music and didn't find it difficult after losing my sight.

Since then, I have been learning how to play by ear.

Q: The poem that touches your heart?

A: Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen, the war poet.

He's such a graphic writer and so profound, the way he portrays the horrors and futilities of war.

It's a poem that really strikes a chord and makes you think.

Q: The happiest moments of your life?

A: Getting married to Paul in 1984. He's my best friend and soulmate, as well as my hubby.

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Janet and Paul’s wedding

He's the one who introduced me to water skiing and, well, what more can I say?

Q: And the saddest moment of your life?

A: The saddest moment was losing my father earlier this year. He fell ill a few years ago with heart failure and other complications. It's been one of those years where we've lost an awful lot of family members and friends. Everybody gets a bad run of it now and again, and this year has been pretty horrendous for our family. I'm just glad to see the back of 2019.

Q: The one event that made a difference in your life?

A: Learning to water ski. Whenever I lost my sight, I was only 21 and I thought my life was over. I thought sport was totally out the window, that I'd never be able to take part in sports again.

My hubby - he had been injured when I met him - had been out of the sport, but his uncle called one day to say, "Why don't you come back down to the lake because you haven't skied for a while?".

We went to the lake and I got in the boat while Paul went out on the water to ski.

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Janet and Paul at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards

I thought it was very exciting because I love being in water, although I was just sitting in the boat. They asked if I would like a go, and that's how it all started.

The first time I went out, Paul went out beside me and we skied along the lake together.

That was a wonderful experience, which I thought was so exhilarating.

It was out on the water where I found the freedom that I didn't have on land.

I was back in the water and I was doing something fabulous and exciting. That's what turned my whole life around.

Q: What's the ambition that keeps driving you onwards?

A: It has to be the ambition to succeed.

As a blind person, you always have to work twice as hard to prove yourself. People assume you can't do things, at least until they see you do it.

A blind person can do the same things as everyone else, but just in a different way. I always try to promote the ability, not the disability.

I like people to see me for who I am, not my disability.

That's what I strive to do: to fly the flag for the visually impaired and blind community.

Things are possible after sight loss.

Q: What's the philosophy you live by?

A: Live every day to the full and grasp every opportunity that comes your way because if you don't try, you'll never know.

Q: How do you want to be remembered?

A: Just as Janet, the world champion water skier.

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