Janet Gray is Making Waves

Northern Ireland's blind water ski world champion

Northern Ireland can’t boast too many world champions, but the city of Lisburn is home to a multiple world title winner. Janet Gray is a world blind water ski champion, having travelled the globe competing—and winning—for Northern Ireland, for women and for blind people everywhere.

Gray has been awarded an MBE for her services to sport and named Northern Ireland Woman of the Year in 2002, overcoming serious adversity in her inspirational rise to the top.

Gray was not born blind, but a hereditary condition that robbed her father and younger brother of sight saw her too lose her vision at the age of 21. An initial diagnosis of problems with her eyesight had been made when Gray was just 14 years old, but she pushed on with life, unsure as to how long her sight would last. This attitude saw her through her active teenage years, and through school, where her interest in sports was really awakened.

When Gray did eventually lose her sight, it was at a rapid pace. Following an accident in which she broke an eye socket, deterioration was swift, and the terrifying knowledge that she was going blind rapidly became reality.

It might be expected that a journey into depression, anger and self-pity would follow but Gray, with the support of her family, was determined to make something positive out of her new life. With her teenage love of sport enduring, Gray turned to water skiing as an outlet for her energy and enthusiasm.

For many people the prospect of being towed across a lake by a speedboat and then jumping from a ramp is daunting in itself, but to attempt this blindfolded is genuinely frightening. Yet this is what Janet Gray consciously decided to do in taking up water skiing.

It soon became clear that water skiing was to be more than just a hobby for Gray, and the call to compete was too strong to resist. Gray’s talent and dedication was such that she was soon competing at an international level in blind water skiing events.

In 1999 Gray claimed her first world title, which she defended successfully for the next three years, scooping a number of world, European, British and Irish records along the way.

Inevitably, these performances soon propelled Gray into a prominent role in Northern Irish society, as an ambassador for both women and the disabled in sport. As well as her MBE, Janet Gray’s courage and skill has been recognised by The Belfast Telegraph, the Ulster Tatler, Lisburn City Council and the Belfast Festival at Queen’s.

2004 has seen a slight downturn in fortunes for Janet Gray. A serious accident on the water left her with serious facial injuries and concussion, and sidelined her racing for this season. However, in typical fashion, Gray has resolved to return to competitive water skiing, putting Northern Ireland back on the world stage, as soon as she can.

By John Peto