I was born into a strict, religious family, the oldest of four girls. I stuttered badly and was painfully shy—so much so that if you spoke to me, I would turn beet red. At the age of 11, to my absolute horror, I was sent off to Saint David’s Ursuline Convent in the mountains of Wales, United Kingdom, where I was bombarded with religious rituals, traditions, and a plethora of laws.
This experience led me to believe that God was unapproachable, impersonal, and unloving—especially for me. So I chose to ignore the religious stuff as best I could and spent my spare time absorbed in what I did well, which was sports—netball, running, horseback riding on the weekend, skiing on the ski slopes—and, yes, boys.
I became extremely competitive during my time in school. I had a real sense that to be somebody, I had to be the best—the very best.
Academically, I scraped through. The nuns tried to expel me on several occasions, but my parents persuaded them to keep me on. I think it had to do with my history of smoking in the public restrooms, escaping into town to meet boys, hanging toilet paper out of the windows, sending burnt bacon in the mail to show my parents how bad the food was, pretending to faint every Sunday morning in church, and so on. Not surprisingly, after six years in the convent, I wanted to get as far away as possible from anything 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, where I would fulfill my dream of becoming a ski instructor. I passed my skiing qualifications, taught skiing all over Europe, and then accepted a challenge to try speed skiing. I was hooked—speed skiing is a bit like jumping off an apartment block, 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 a corporate entity, which catapulted me into the limelight. I became a British Overseas Champion and New Zealand Ladies Champion in speed skiing. I had everything I had dreamed of—money and recognition, world travel, and a high media profile.
Yet this lifestyle left me feeling cold and empty. Deep down, I knew that life had to have a greater meaning.
While competing in the World Cup skiing championship in France, I fell while speeding downhill at 100 miles an hour and shattered my leg in eight places. Statistically, I should have died at this speed, but I was blessed that I survived with just a mangled leg, which had now acquired one plate and 28 screws. The life I knew came to a grinding halt. Yet, strangely, 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 waterskiing that I taught during the summer months were also things of the past. But I had a strong sense that God had personally intervened, and for the next two years, while I was recovering, I felt a great desire to find out more about Him. While 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 considered the possibility of being a jockey. I also made a video with a high-profile media company on how to ski the fast way. This led to work 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 mom to cancer, and tried out for a ladies’ motor racing team. I was now a member of the Irish endurance team, and in my unending quest to find meaning in 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, my life seemed meaningless. Something was missing, and I was trying to fill the void with success in sports. I believed in a world that said, “When you’re the best at what you do, then life is complete.”
Fifteen years later, I moved to France and became friends with a Swiss Christian couple, and that’s when 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 is a strong belief that penetrates 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 realize how wrong I had been putting God in a box. I spent time studying the Bible, and I really enjoyed learning more about God. But I was still running my life as I saw fit. God was just an add-on.
But thankfully, He had a plan!
I was coming into my tenth year on the Irish endurance riding team and concentrating on qualifying for my third World Equestrian Games. I had spent three years preparing for the qualifier in Portugal, but 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 were wasted! How could God do this to me? I felt as if He had abandoned me. I remember going back to the hotel room and having the biggest temper tantrum ever! I picked up my suitcase and threw it around the room and screamed and screamed and cried. You may think this is stupid—it was just a horse race—but it meant everything to me. It was as if my life depended on it!
Thankfully, Bisou recovered, but it took me a while to get back on my feet. On returning home, my Christian friends were waiting. They prayed and read from the Bible while I sat frozen and defiant. No, I’m not talking to God anymore. 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—me—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 pleaded 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 sense of freedom that I had never experienced before. I felt such a release! I no longer had to prove myself to God. He 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 for knowing 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 100-mile ride. It all seemed so meaningless! My love of horses and sports stayed, but without the obsessiveness.
I’ve found that living my life with God in control is not boring or full of rules or regulations. Yes, He gives me boundaries, but they are there to help me. 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 bareback and bitless—but God is my priority now. He never strips me of my personality—He adds to my 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 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” (Matthew 10:39).*
* Bible verse quoted in this article is from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
Iona Rossely released her autobiography, Racing on Empty (Sarah Grace Publishing), last year. Now a lay Anglican minister, she lives with her husband, Jeff, and her beloved menagerie of horses, dogs, and other animals on a ranch south of Brisbane, Australia.