An inspiring woman who plunged 200 feet down a mountain in a freak skiing accident leaving her wheelchair-bound for much of her life is taking to social media to share her message that “life is about what you can do, rather than what you can’t.”
Gina Gardiner, now 69, became “like Quasimodo” and unable to move the right side of her body a few weeks after a ski bump, or mogul, gave way beneath her in Austria – and her injured body rapidly deteriorated until she could no longer walk.
Yet Gina, from Ardleigh, Essex, remained focused on her teaching job to become head of a large junior school, decided to see her disability as a “huge gift” and is soon launching herself on TikTok – as well as campaigning on LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, Medium and Gumroad to share with people how to live positively.
“My story is not just about the accident and it isn’t about my disability, it’s about resilience,” she said.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel and I want people to recognise that being resilient is not about grand gestures, but about getting up and doing the best you can each day.
“I could have died on that mountain. And in fact, if you look at it statistically, it’s amazing that I am here. So that’s a gift and I’ve got to make most of it.”
For Gina, who is single, her life changed forever when she was 28 and had her fateful accident while skiing with friends in St Anton, Austria.
At the time, she seemed to walk away with a serious concussion and a trapped nerve in her neck, but her lasting injuries led to her having to use a wheelchair around the school and for long distances from 1987, when she was 34.
After rupturing a disc in her back in 1996 and needing surgery to remove it, Gina had to learn to walk again, only to suffer a second ruptured disc and operation to remove that in 1998, leaving her wheelchair bound again.
Being fitted with an internal spinal stimulator – a device which sends low levels of electricity into the spinal cord to relieve pain – in autumn 2004, at the age of 51, allowed her to walk a few steps again two years later.
Remembering her accident, that happened in February 1983 when she was deputy head at Parklands Junior School in Romford, she said: “My friends and I accidentally found ourselves at the top of a black diamond run after turning the wrong corner.
“It is the hardest level in skiing and I’d never seen moguls like this. They were six feet tall.
“We were all sitting on one each, just talking and enjoying the sunshine, when my mogul gave way.
“The last thing I remember was hearing a scream and it all going black.
“Because there was nowhere to land, I just kept bouncing and fell between 150 and 200 feet, I was told.”
With characteristic understatement, she added: “By the time I came to, I was a lot further down the slope.”
Travelling back to England a day later, Gina was told in A&E that she had a significant concussion and a trapped nerve in her neck.
She said: “It took me about three weeks to get back to school. I wasn’t right, but I was a lot better.”
Soon afterwards, Gina felt fit enough to be the deputy leader for a school skiing trip – but things rapidly went wrong.
“On a skiing trip to Morgins in Switzerland, with 150 pupils aged between 10 and 11 six weeks later, I became more and more like Quasimodo as the week went on.
“I was in the top bunk bed in our hotel when I realised that I couldn’t move the right side of my body at all,” she remembered.
Though frightened, she didn’t want to shout out as there were children in the corridor.
She said: “I waited for someone to come and as soon as that happened, all hell broke loose and I was carted off to the hospital in Geneva, before being flown back home after a week.”
Working on, Gina became acting head of Parklands Junior School in the summer holidays in 1983, after the former head passed away, and was made permanent head in 1984 aged 29.
Her mobility continued to deteriorate, until she started to use a wheelchair for long distances at school in 1987.
Gina decided to take the positives from her situation.
“There was a huge gift in my disability,” she said.
“I couldn’t physically get into the classrooms, so I had to find a way of empowering my staff to take radical responsibility for their own performance and a shared responsibility for the team.
“It was highly successful approach.”
In 2004, aged 51, she decided to retire early after an ultimatum by her doctor – either stop working long days for her demanding job that left her with no energy or she would end up housebound.
Shortly afterwards, she got her internal spine stimulator fitted and focused on trying to walk again.
She said: “Daytime television doesn’t do it for me, but I made the difficult decision to leave and retire.
“Not working 14 to 16-hour days allowed me to spend my time and energy working on my mobility.”
But Gina needed to find new purpose for herself.
“I was back to being a teenager again, thinking really, who am I? What am I going to do?
“So I created a research project looking at challenges businesses face around leadership and if these are the same as in education – which they were.
“Having done that, I wrote my first two books and set up my first business and started to work with corporates doing leadership training.”
Over the years after the stimulator was fitted, her mobility slowly improved.
By 2010, Gina could walk around her house without needing her wheelchair. Today, she can roam around her small garden and, on a good day, can walk from the car park to a pub or restaurant.
Her determination to walk again translated to her work as an empowerment and transformational leadership coach and trainer for business leaders.
She said: “I’ve got a mission, and my mission is to positively impact on at least a million people in the next three years.
“I’m the host of a syndicated radio show in America, have now written almost 30 books and I do motivational speaking.
“All of my work is about personal empowerment and spiritual enlightened leadership.”
And Gina is not sure she will ever retire after finding her calling, saying: “I love what I do.
“For me, it’s always been about what can I do, rather than what I can’t do.”
And the hurdles of technology won’t hold her back either – she has already taught herself to do Facebook live streams as well as video editing skills for YouTube and is currently setting up her own TikTok channel.
She said: “There are lots of challenges that we meet in life that actually we can’t do anything about.
“However, what we can do is we can change the way in which we approach them and the way in which we react to them.”
To follow Gina’s journey, visit: www.linktr.ee/ginagardiner