Blind water skier settles massive lawsuit over horrific training accident
A blind water skier from Northern Ireland has settled a multi-million dollar lawsuit following a near-fatal training accident in the United States.
Former world champion Janet Gray suffered horrific injuries when she collided with a jump ramp at high speed in Florida eight years ago.
Her heart stopped four times while she was in intensive care in a US hospital and her husband Paul — who was home in Co Down at the time — was even told to arrange her funeral.
Throughout her long and painful recovery, Janet — who was awarded an MBE in 2002 for her work with sport for the disabled — has been embroiled in a bitter legal battle as she sought compensation for the life-threatening incident.
But that particular nightmare has now come to an end for the Ravernet woman, who cannot reveal the exact details of the out-of-court settlement because of a non-disclosure agreement.
“You’ll hear of a $3.5m (£2.18m) judgment being mentioned, but I only received a mere fraction of that,” she said.
“My costs were horrendous.
“Although I’d paid for my insurance, I had to pay back all my medical expenses, the legal cover and everything so there was very little left.
“It’s something we’re not happy with but it’s something we’ll have to live with.
“It turned out to be such a horrible can of worms, but the main thing for me is that I survived.
“They had told me with the extent of the injuries that I could never walk again and I fought harder than I’ve fought for anything in my life and I did get on my feet. For me it was about getting my life back.”
In the run-up to the accident, Janet, who is also an author and motivational speaker, was at the pinnacle of her sport after winning three consecutive world disabled titles. She also set a host of still unbeaten world and European records and she became the first blind woman in history to jump beyond 50 feet.
But then her life took a horrific turn for the worse.
“That day — March 29, 2004 — still lives with me,” Janet said.
“Life was really good and at that point I felt for the first time in my career that everything was coming together ... I felt like I was really in the groove.
“I was just going on a routine training exercise to try out a new set of jump skis around the lake and suddenly there was this massive impact as I was whipped at very high speed into the back end of the big metal ski ramp. I wasn’t jumping and I shouldn’t have been anywhere near it but things went wrong.
“They reckon I hit it with the velocity it takes to rip a seatbelt in two and so it wasn’t good. I got airlifted to Tampa General Hospital. I was on my own, fighting for life,” she says.
Janet, then aged 42, broke her jaw in three places and lost a piece of her skull, some teeth and a lot of blood. She also broke her nose, cheekbones, a femur and an elbow as well as fracturing ribs.
The three weeks she spent in intensive care in America — before being transferred by air ambulance to Belfast where she remained in hospital for several months — were traumatic. “I was on my own over there,” she said.
“The ski school abandoned me because of the legal implications ... I think that hurt me more than anything, to feel that my coach and the people that I trusted had abandoned me when the chips were down.”
But Janet, who only started water skiing when she lost her sight at 21, is no stranger to challenges. The 49-year-old athlete suffers from a hereditary condition which blinded her father and her brother.
“When I lost my sight life ended; I just assumed life was over,” she said.
“Then I realised that water skiing was a sport I could do as a blind person and that’s when life began again for me.”
After the accident, Janet went through a rehabilitation programme overseen by specialists at the Sports Institute for Northern Ireland at the University of Ulster, Jordanstown.
She was back on her skis within three years and is hoping to get onto the water again this season.
“I went through sight loss and not a lot of people do come out the other end,” she said.
Her condition has meant making sacrifices, not least the decision not to have children, which she made after losing her sight.
“I could never put a child through what I've had to live through,” she said.
She also initially broke off her engagement to Paul. “I wanted him to walk away. Life had changed so dramatically and I didn’t want him to feel that he was trapped or to marry me out of pity ... so I broke it all off — but he just wouldn’t go away.”
Swimming against tide all the way to top
1988 Janet loses her sight due to a rare form of glaucoma
1995 She starts water skiing
1999 She is 1999, 2001, 2003 World Blind Water Skiing Champion
2002 Awarded an MBE (right) for services to sport
2004 Near-fatal accident in Florida