From UK ski champion to Anglican lay minister
By Stephen Cauchi
Iona Rossely found God on a journey which has taken her from champion UK skier and equestrian to Australian Anglican lay minister, and her new autobiography Racing on Empty tells the story.
Like many others, Ms Rossely found that success in itself wasn’t fulfilling, but it took a skiing accident at 160 km/h for her to think seriously about spiritual matters.
“What was hindering my relationship with Jesus was my stuff and my possessions, my horses, my winning, my obsession with competing. And I dropped that,” she told TMA.
“As soon as you drop your idols, then God can actually really get into your life.”
Born in Britain in 1961 into a strict Catholic family, her passion for speed skiing had led to her win some major professional titles, including the Ladies British Overseas Champion and New Zealand Ladies Champion in 1986.
But while competing in the World Cup in France in 1987, her right ski accidentally came off and she began tumbling down the track at 160 km/h.
This sort of accident had caused death before and Ms Rossely thought she was “finished”. “The only thing I thought of was who’s going to look after my dog,” she said.
But she felt God’s presence throughout: “I had this amazing feeling … I felt God was holding me on the way down, like there was a divine presence.” She broke her leg in eight places and it took more than a year before she could walk again.
While recuperating in Cyprus she had her first experience with Christianity since her Catholic upbringing and education at St David’s Ursuline Convent in Wales.
She felt alienated from God while growing up, in part due to her experiences at the convent, but this time was different.
“My physiotherapist was a Christian and she invited me to a Bible group,” Ms Rossely said. “So I was very reluctant but I went with her and I was overwhelmed by just the love that I was shown by these people. Loved reading the Bible and we went on Christian retreats into the mountains.
“Unfortunately, I still had this obsession with my identity and who I was – which was all wrapped up in sport.”
Iona in her skiing heyday
Her application to study at a UK Bible College was rejected, which didn’t help. “That threw me a little bit, I don’t do very well when God says no. I just walked away from Jesus very easily.”
Although her skiing career was now over, she became a champion equestrian competitor instead – show jumping, playing polo and, later, endurance racing.
With her equestrian career blooming, she moved in the 1990s to Bahrain and then Dubai, married her first husband, and began working in public relations for the Rothmans/Williams/Renault Formula One racing team.
She also competed in the equestrian world championships representing Ireland (her mother was Irish), separated from her first husband and met her current husband Jeff.
In the 1990s, Ms Rossely was a “fairly wild party animal”. “I worked hard and I played hard. But by the time I met Jeff, I’d actually calmed right down. I was like, this is not working,” she said.
“We lived in the most amazing place, we had the horses, the cars, we had everything, but I kept saying to Jeff there’s got to be more.
“You can win and win and win and have great success but it didn’t actually make me feel any different.”
Her spiritual life had moved away from her Christian experience on Cyprus to beliefs that included Buddhism, New Age philosophies and tarot cards.
But after moving to France in the early 2000s, she met a Christian Brethren couple who became close friends. They were “so compassionate, so loving”, she said. “I was fascinated with how they lived and breathed Jesus. They prayed into everything, they prayed before breakfast, lunch, dinner. We did the Alpha Course together because they wanted to help me on this journey.”
Ms Rossely said that at that stage she considered herself a Christian but “was struggling with hearing God’s voice”.
But while qualifying for her third World Equestrian Games in 2009, disaster struck again. The day before the race, her horse had an epileptic fit.
“I was really quite distraught because I couldn’t understand why God would allow that to happen when it was important to me.”
Shortly after, she walked into her kitchen and saw her open Bible on the table. “It was like Jesus walked into the kitchen. I just had this overwhelming sense of love. In that moment I realised that I didn’t want to carry on running my own life, I just really needed to let go of my obsession with my identity and my sport.
“I had this overwhelming sense of peace and an overwhelming sense of freedom that I’d never really felt before. It was just amazing. The only way He could get my attention was to take away from me what was actually hindering our relationship.”
Her spiritual life had now settled for good on Christianity. She began an online Bible studies course with Masters College in the US. And, desiring to be part of a Christian community, she and her husband moved to the UK in 2010 so they would have a greater choice of worship options.
After living in Devon for three years and attending a Congregational church, she and Jeff began to tire of the British weather. They moved to Australia in 2013.
“I’d retired from endurance racing. I knew I just wanted to compete for God. I just wanted to do whatever He wanted to.”
She originally wanted to attend a more “charismatic” denomination than Anglicanism but a visit to All Saints in Murwillumbah, NSW, changed her mind. “The people were so lovely,” she said.
She was thought highly enough of that she was approached to be a lay minister. She agreed, but admitted that she struggled with doing that.
“Then we found out there was a little church just down the road from us that no-one was really interested in. I think there were three people all over 90 who were going to Tyalgum.
“They only had a small service once every month. And we walked in there and immediately knew that this was our church, and this was where God wanted us.
“We built it up from three people to 40, 50. It’s a bit lighter on the liturgy and a bit more charismatic.
“Because it was the only church standing in Tyalgum, we had Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics, Pentecostals – we had just the most amazing group of people.”
Juggling church duties and a full working farm with cattle and horses was difficult enough, but then Jeff was offered a job in Dubai and she found herself spending a lot of time there as well.
But this led to her becoming involved, in 2015, in the Global Sustainability Network (GSN), an interfaith-led organisation relating to anti-slavery and United Nations Sustainability Development Goal 8, and involving leading clergy and entrepreneurs including Archbishop Justin Welby and Richard Branson. Her role as co-ordinator involved organising high-profile events at Lambeth Palace, the Vatican, Westminster Abbey and the United Nations New York, and working to get philanthropists and entrepreneurs from around the world involved in tackling the problem of human trafficking.
“I was working on this 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and I really burnt out big time. I was doing a lot of travelling. I managed to do 15 months and then I felt it was time to move on.”
The network is still very strong, said Ms Rossely, and she remains actively involved where she can be.
For the past three years, Ms Rossely has been busy writing her book, travelling and doing lay ministry work with her church at Tyalgum.
“Everything I want to do I can do as a lay minister. This is the right place. I’m loving Australia,” she said.
Currently, amid COVID-19, she is planning outdoor worship services while conducting Zoom prayer meetings every Sunday. “We’re just growing and growing and growing,” she said.
Racing on Empty is available now from booksellers.
See http://gsngoal8.com/ for more on the Global Sustainability Network.