Janine Shepherd always loved the hills. In fact, the Australian Olympics-bound cross-country skier had earned the nickname “Janine the Machine” for the way she attacked even the biggest hills during training exercises.
But one warm, autumn day, 5 ½ miles into a 6-mile bike ride with her teammates, Shepherd’s Olympic dreams were dashed in an instant when she was struck by a speeding utility truck, suffering extensive, life-threatening injuries that left doctors saying she would never walk again.
“I had broken my neck and my back in six places,” she told legislative staffers at a session titled “Bounce Forward: Strategies for Cultivating Resilience” during the 2021 Legislative Summit in Tampa, Fla. “I broke five ribs on my left side. I broke my right arm, I broke my collar bone, 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 head injuries, I had internal injuries, in fact, I had extensive blood loss, I lost about 5 liters of blood. By the time the helicopter arrived … my blood pressure was 40 over nothing. I was having a really bad day.”
We all had the same fears, we all had the same hopes. We all had the same dreams that we would go on and do something with our lives despite our injuries. —Janine Shepherd
Paralyzed from the waist down, Shepherd underwent spinal surgery, spending six months flat on her back in a recovery unit, where doctors told her it was time to rethink her life.
It was devastating news, said Shepherd, who was in her final year of college. But during her time in the spinal ward with five other people with similar injuries whom she never would have interacted with otherwise, she discovered that while we might think we’re all different, essentially we all want the same things.
“We all wanted a life after we left the spinal clinic,” Shepherd said. “We all had the same fears, we all had the same hopes. We all had the same dreams that we would go on and do something with our lives despite our injuries. So even though there were painful periods in the spinal ward, there were also moments that were rich and meaningful.”
One important lesson she learned during that time was that, although she couldn’t control what was happening outside of her, she could control what was happening inside. But once she was able to return home, covered in a plaster body cast, depression set in.
“I wanted my life back,” she said. “I so was angry at the driver who ran me over, who was charged with negligent driving and got an $80 fine, and never came to see me in the hospital. I was so angry at life, at God. I didn’t want to be there anymore and there were days when I didn’t get out of bed. … I’d lost everything.”
But Shepherd said, she eventually realized this was just another hill. She decided to let go of the life she had been leading, and, with that, her life soon changed in ways that she couldn’t even have imagined.
“I was sitting outside one day in a wheelchair in my plaster cast and an airplane flew overhead,” Shepherd said. “I looked up and I said, ‘That’s it! If I can’t walk, then maybe I could fly!’”
She called a local flying school and, inspired, turned her focus to strengthening her body and relearning how to walk. Eventually, she earned private and commercial pilot licenses, as well as instructor and aerobatic ratings among others, and soon began teaching others to fly.
“I wasn’t meant to live, I wasn’t meant to walk, I wasn’t meant to fly,” Shepherd said. “And then they said you’ll never be able to have children because of your internal injuries. Well, I got married and I have three beautiful children.”
She also dove into the fields of neuroscience, neuroplasticity and positive psychology, creating a 12-step course in resilience. In addition to giving a popular TEDx talk, Shepherd has also written several books, including “Defiant: A Broken Body Is Not a Broken Person.”
“When I teach people to fly, we teach a formula: Attitude plus power equals performance,” she said. “This formula works in our lives as well. The way that we see our lives will determine where we go in life. It can keep us grounded or it can help us to literally soar.”
Attitude, she said, is built from our beliefs, habits, opinions and judgments, which help create our life story. “If we really want to tap into our resilience and live to our very fullest potential, we have to be willing to let go of that story. … The greatest gift for me was when I had to let go of all of that and had a blank canvas and had to start again.”
Returning to her theme of loving the hills, Shepherd said when facing a hill—or a challenge—in life, don’t only run toward it, but lean in.
“Then ask yourself, ‘What is one thing, just one thing no matter how small, that I can do today?’ And then do that one thing,” she said. “And then get up tomorrow and ask yourself the same question. ‘What is one small thing I can do today, no matter how small?’ And then do that one small thing. And then get up and do that same thing again. And then do that every single day and before you know it, you’ll be over that hill and doing things that you thought were impossible.
“You don’t just take on the hills, you love them because when you love the hills anything is possible.”
A Resilience Checklist
Shepherd shared the following 12 steps she took to rebuild her life, all based on positive psychology.
- Acceptance: It is as it is.
- Forgiveness: Things happen for me, not to me.
- Compassion: Be kind. Everyone is facing a challenge.
- Optimism: What are my 10 good things?
- Values: What do I stand for?
- Strengths: What do I do best?
- Hope: Goals, pathways, agency.
- Meaning: What is my why?
- Humor: Laughter is the best medicine
- Connection: There is a oneness to all life.
- Mindfulness: Mind, body, spirit: Be still.
- Gratitude: The more grateful I am, the more life gives me to be grateful for.
Lesley Kennedy is a director in NCSL’s Communications Division.