Thursday, 20 March 2014

Lessons in positivity

You know how it is. Those days when dragging your body out of bed feels like a Herculean task, and raising a smile for your fellow humans feels like two cables attached to anvils are hooked to each corner of your mouth. You know you’re lucky to alive, well, free, etc., but you still have days when you’re sorely tempted to tell the world to go whistle, and retreat to your bed and curl up in a foetal ball of misery and self-pity. At least I do.

And then someone delivers an almighty and timely lesson in positivity.

Today, I got one of those lessons from a truly inspiring woman.

Hilary Lister was born in Kent in 1972 and until the age of 15 led a pretty normal life until she developed reflex sympathetic dystrophy. But that didn't stop her from studying biochemistry at Jesus College, Oxford. She started a PhD at the University of Kent but was unable to finish it as her condition deteriorated (since then, she’s been awarded an honorary doctorate by the University).

She didn't let her condition stand in the way when she was introduced to sailing in 2003, something which she says gave her life new meaning and purpose.

She wasn’t kidding. In 2005, she became the first quadriplegic to sail solo across the English Channel. In 2007, she became the first female quadriplegic to sail solo round the Isle of Wight and in 2009, she sailed solo around Britain. Undaunted by her physical limitations, Hilary uses innovative 'sip-and-puff' technology to control her boat's steering and sails.

Today, she arrived in Muscat to claim yet another record after becoming the first paralysed woman to complete the 850NM voyage from Mumbai in India to the in Oman. Her sailing partner, Omani-yachtswoman Nashwa Al Kindi (pictured here with Hilary at the press conference after their arrival), also made history as the first Arab female sailor to complete the journey.

Back on dry land, Hilary says the hardest part was getting off the boat: “I never wanted to get off!”

She adds: “We had a few challenges, but for me it's all about pushing yourself to the limit. It’s meeting those challenges that gives me so much pleasure.

We had some fun moments too. There were dolphins and whales along the way – and I even got slapped in the face by a flying fish. And at night, the sight of phosphorescence on the water and clear starry skies is absolutely beautiful.” 

I know about Hilary because she is an ambassador for GAC Pindar, a competitive yachting team and marine leisure logistics specialist associated with the company I work for. And I feel priviledged for that – but also more than a little sad and puzzled why her name is not better known.

Women like Hilary are the ones who should be hitting the headlines and setting the standard as role models, along with courageous girls like the now teen education-campaigner Malala Yousafzai. There’s something seriously wrong when young girls aspire to looking and acting like plastically-enhanced bimbos with mind-bogglingly complicated love lives who make a fortune from their bodies but insist that it’s actually a form of liberation and empowerment, rather than looking up to the real heroines of our age.

Hilary, and others like her, made me feel shallow, and humble. But they also deliver a valuable reminder of the importance of making the most of things.

She says: "When you spend 24 hours a day confined to a wheelchair, or a bed, sailing is the ultimate freedom. I have the wind in my hair and the spray in my face. I'm alive."

No nonsense, no self-pity, no pleas for special treatment. Just a clear and honest determination to grab the best from the deal life has dealt her and a flat refusal to let anyone or anything stop her.

Now it that’s not a lesson in positivity, then I don’t know what is.

(For more from Hilary, check out her website at

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I have spotted no coverage in the UK press, but then I don't take a newspaper, and I tend to rely on the BBC for my news, either on-line or on TV, and if they have ever featured Hilary Lister I didn't catch it. I am now off to Google reflex sympathetic dystrophy, as that too is a new one on me.