Just before I was sent away to convent school, my father sat myself and three younger sisters down on the sofa. He paced up and down in front of us, staring at the floor, "You have two arms, two legs and a brain. If you want to succeed in life, then it's totally up to you. Never rely on anyone else except yourself. I will pay for your education and after that you are on your own." He paused and looked directly at us, "Remember you're in control of your own destiny."
These words became embedded in my DNA - throughout school, even though I failed miserably in the classroom, it was in sports that my father's words drove me to new heights. I latched on to the fact that my identity lay in my sporting abilities. I went from a very shy timid girl to a very competitive, overly confident teenager whose sole purpose was to win in every sport. When I left the convent, to the relief and cheers from the nuns, I was eager to run away from anything that looked remotely religious. I stepped out into freedom and went full throttle into taking control of my life - with the belief that wealth and happiness wasn't far away.
Seven years later, even though I had many failures, I obtained everything that I had dreamed off. I had a high media profile, money and sporting victories. I was sponsored by Alfa Romeo and Smirnoff Vodka; I was British Ladies Speed Skiing Champion and New Zealand Champion. But even with all this I couldn't help but think there had to be more to life. Why did I wake up the morning after winning a race and feel sad? I wanted to feel different, but I didn't. Regardless of how many times this happened, I would just push the thoughts aside and get back on the tread mill of preparing for the next race.
If you'd asked me what was the worst thing that could happen to me, it was what happened next. I fell in a race at 100mph – I should have died where I fell, but miraculously survived. After an eight-hour operation and acquiring a metal plate and 28 screws in my right leg, I was told that my sporting days were over. My world as I knew it came to a grinding halt. Everything that I held as important had been taken away from me in a split second.
Whilst recovering and learning to walk again, I did get a glimpse of who Jesus really was and also for the first time had this deep sense of belonging that I had never experienced before. But I couldn't let go of my belief that who I was only came from my sporting achievements. Plus, I wasn't comfortable letting God take control of my life – He might turn me into a Christian clone with no personality and that's not where I wanted to go.
Thirteen years later, after more ups and downs including a cancer scare, losing all my money and getting divorced, I was now competing for the Irish Team in long distance endurance racing. It was like I had gone full circle and I was back on the roller coaster of winning and racing. Now married to an amazing man, Jeff, living in France, owning 19 horses and just living the dream, I met a Christian couple who changed my life. I reconnected with my faith and for two years I studied the Bible, prayed and immersed myself in Christian fellowship. Jesus was an important part of my life.
As one of the top endurance riders in Ireland, I was now competing in the World Equestrian Games, World Championships and the Europeans – life was good, but I had a sense that something wasn't quite right.
Sometimes God has to step in and take away what's important in your life. Sometimes He will stop our world so that we can get off and refocus. I truly believed that I had a deep relationship with Jesus, but God stepped in to show me otherwise. He took away what I treasured the most. I was gutted. I felt like someone had died in the family - it was like having your whole identity removed. I was no longer me!
But out of darkness comes light. I realized that I no longer wanted to direct my own life. I could see that at every step of my journey, at every major decision I took, it was me who led the way. God was with me, but I was calling the shots. It was time to let go and let Jesus take the reins. From that very moment I felt changed from the inside out. I felt different. It was as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt a freedom that I'd never felt before. It was freedom that allowed me to be me - it was a freedom not to try and be somebody I wasn't. In the twinkling of an eye, my life turned upside down.
It's this freedom that I share more about in my new book, Racing on Empty, and which I want every person to experience. Life can take some unexpected turns but it's when we learn to let go and trust it all to God that we realise we never had total control over our lives and that's a good thing, because it means God can work, turning us into who He made us to be - and that's so much more than we could ever be on our own.
Racing on Empty is published by Malcolm Down, priced £9.99.