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Active Champions

Overcoming mountains of adversity

The Active Champions Series is a monthly showcase of inspiring stories highlighting the importance of physical activity and sport in our everyday lives.

Adversity comes in many forms, often when we least expect it. As someone who had an accident that left her with profound challenges, athlete Jill Wheatley is well aware of what it’s like to overcome adversity.

In 2014, while teaching a physical education class in Germany, a baseball hit Jill in the side of her head, leaving her with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that took 70% of her vision and nearly her life. Before the accident, she was an athlete, teacher and coach who ran on trails, cycled and competed in duathlons.

“After 26 months in hospitals, I felt lost,” Jill told ParticipACTION. “I emerged from the hospital a completely different person from how I arrived. I lost my eyesight, autonomy, car, apartment, work and residency permit. But one aspect of my life that remained the same was my passion and desire to be outside with Mother Nature.”

Jill Wheatley standing on Mera Peak (6,476 metres) in Nepal with Everest in the background while carrying skis and ski poles

Jill would not allow the accident to define her and managed to surmount the adversity. “Most often, adversity happens out of our control, but we choose how we respond to it. I’ve learned to embrace impermanence and keep an open mind.”

Jill now runs, climbs and skis on mountains around the world, including the Pyrenees, Swiss and French Alps, Italian Dolomites, Karakoram and Himalayas. “I navigated away from the overwhelming nature of modern society toward the shelter and serenity of mountains. I connected my past passions with new places, hopeful I’d find a trail that would spark inspiration for life ahead. The mountains help keep life in perspective, and I choose to challenge myself physically by running, climbing and skiing on them.”

Jill says that each of these activities benefits her as much physically as they do mentally. “I’m at my best when I’m moving in nature. Through movement, endorphins surface, providing me with a sense of calm and heightening my ability to manage anxiety and daily life. When I feel fit physically and mentally, I find myself in a headspace that allows for creative thought, specifically writing.”

Jill Wheatley climbing a wall of ice in the Khumbu region of Nepal

To help break down the stigma surrounding TBI and vision loss, Jill is climbing all the world’s 14 peaks with altitudes above 8,000 metres by fall 2023. In 2022 alone, she climbed six of these peaks.

“Over time, society has built up beliefs and assumptions of what a person with a disability looks like and what they’re capable of. By being an example and choosing to make the most of life with what we have, we can help break down the stigma. Through climbing, I aim to shine a light on the power of perspective and possibility.”

As a person with a disability, Jill still unfortunately faces barriers to getting active, especially here in Canada. “The difficulty of getting around without a driver’s license is far more prevalent in North America. There’s an assumption that everyone can drive to a trailhead or ski hill. Having to rely on a bus and its schedule fuels my frustration. Even though it’s out of my control, and I work to let that go, it’s part of my every day whenever I come back to Canada.”

Jill Wheatley climbing up a cliff face in Nepal

For those who are considering taking up a new sport or physical activity, here’s Jill’s advice: “Find something you enjoy and that inspires you to continue. New activities are often tough at the beginning, so it’s important to start small, focus on yourself and enjoy moving towards achievable goals at a pace that works for you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or for help. Your courage will make connections that have the potential to move mountains.”

To learn more about Jill and her inspiring story, visit her website and follow her on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or Twitter.

Know an Active Champion you’d like to see profiled? Email us at info@participaction.com.

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