Women Defying Stereotypes: Hilary Lister

When the doctor tells you that you'll never walk again and are legally classified a disabled quadriplegic, how would you react? Disbelief, an overwhelming sense of loss and depression are some of the general responses after receiving such distressing news. Yet for one young woman named Hilary Lister, the impairment of function to her legs and other parts of her body would only push her to strive beyond the disability and not use it as a crutch, but as a ladder. It would lead her to become the first and only disabled woman to sail solo around Britain.

As a child, Lister had full mobility and an enduring ambition to become a biochemist. She was aware of the grades required and the courses to take to achieve this feat. Raised in Hampshire as the only girl among three brothers, Lister was accustomed to participating in sports and became her school team captain for swimming, hockey, and netball. At age 11, the pain and strain on her legs began and by age 15, she was no longer able to walk.

The transition from two legs to four wheels was strenuous. Lister shifted focus from sports to music where she diligently trained on the clarinet with the Oxford County Youth Orchestra. By 23, she had toured Europe and won the only music scholarship for sixth form entrants to Canterbury; giving her the opportunity to return to her studies.

Lister continued to pursue her dream of becoming a biochemist, but her condition had plans of progression as well. She was diagnosed with a neurological disorder called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, eventually causing increased pain and the loss of use of most of her body. Gradually, Lister was forced to give up her music, studies and freedom.

Hopeless and homebound, it wasn't until her friend introduced her to sailing that Lister began to find purpose and hope. As a full quadriplegic with only the use of her head, eyes and mouth, Lister embarked on a quest to sail the English Channel with no experience save the few times she had been out with friends.

In 2004 she voiced her daring ambition. In speaking with the Royal Yachting Association, they offered programs for autonomy on a sailboat for someone in her condition. As luck or fate would have it, Emma Sanderson who sailed in the “Around Alone Race” in 2002 was signing autographs at a venue she attended. After hearing Lister’s story, Sanderson involved her sponsor, Pindar, who supplied the keelboat named Malin which was converted for use by Lister.

From moment of conception to realization, only a year had passed, but the momentum behind Lister was unmatched. Her voyage made records at six hours and 13 minutes and was the longest trek by a quadriplegic sailor ever. Lister continues to break down barriers and has been the recipient of numerous inspirational awards. Through her charity, Hilary’s Dream Trust, she allows others with disabilities to reap the benefits of sailing.Images courtesy of Thesun.co.uk, Kentonline.co.uk

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