A champion skier who has shown bravery and courage in the face of incredible personal difficulty has been voted Yorkshire Woman of Achievement at a ceremony in Leeds.
Jo Willoughby’s path to success has been harrowing. She is paralysed below the chest, has had her left leg amputated and her left hand partially amputated, has limited movement in her left arm and is blind in her right eye - yet she is Britain’s finest disabled skier.
She received her Woman of Achievement award in front of hundreds of women who had travelled from all over Yorkshire to attend the event, now in its 25th year, at the Royal Armouries yesterday. Jo also received the Woman of Courage award.
Each year the Woman of Achievement awards recognises the talent, work and dedication of women across the county while at the same time raising thousands of pounds for the Sue Ryder Wheatfields Hospice in Leeds.
Jo, who now teaches skiing to both disabled and able-bodied visitors at Xscape in Castleford, was paralysed at the age of 12 by an illness which attacked her spinal cord and was unable to move anything but her eyes for three years.
She spent those years lying on her back with her mum turning the pages of a book in front of her so she could read.
Because Jo’s formal schooling had come to an abrupt end, she did not expect to manage any qualifications, but she made a spur of the moment decision to take her GCSEs and passed seven. As no college could cater for her, she then taught herself to A-level standard and applied to university.
She had to wait three years until the university was able to cope with her disability but eventually was given a place, gained a first-class degree and a doctorate in poetry and language development.
This tenacity carried over into Jo’s fight to improve her health and she reached the stage where she could sit up and use a manual wheelchair - until she suffered another setback.
An infection in her hand turned to gangrene and her hand had to be partially amputated.
Still unbowed, Jo decided to master skiing, something she had tried as an able-bodied child.
Despite being told she was too disabled, she eventually persuaded instructors to teach her to ski sitting down on a mono ski. She took to the sport instantly and within six months made it into the British Disabled Ski Team and became Britain’s best female sit skier.
Over the next two years she achieved international success, became a European champion and was highly placed in a world competition.
But then her life took another terrible turn. Jo suffered a blood clot and as a result her leg became infected.
She had months of treatment and travelled across Europe for specialist help but to no avail. On the plane back home from her last bout of treatment, she made the difficult decision that she would have her leg amputated as the only possible way to get back to the skiing she loved.
Complications after the operation meant she went into a coma and she spent six weeks in hospital, but three days after that she was back on snow learning to ski again and has now returned to top-level competition.
Mike Smith, who nominated Jo for the award, said: “Her achievement shows that spirit never dies. Jo has shown courage beyond words and a tremendous determination to succeed, which still continues.”