From sports stardom to faith and a heart for South Africa — Iona Rossely shares her story

Iona Rossely as she is today

Gateway News recently interviewed Iona Rossely, a champion athlete turned TV presenter, artist, author and coordinator of an anti-slavery organisation. A powerful testimonial book, Racing on Empty, about her life was recently published. It’s about Iona’s journey to faith and how South Africa, especially Cape Town and the Sozo Foundation, plays an important role in that journey.

Iona, who now lives in Australia, was a British international ski champion until a serious high-speed ski accident forced her to change her perspective of what is important in life. It was during her journey to recover from the accident that she found Jesus, but still, years later, only when she hit rock bottom as a member of the Irish equestrian endurance racing team, did she commit her life completely to what He planned for her.

She is donating royalties from her book to the Sozo Foundation, a youth development project in Vrygrond, Cape Town.

What was your motivation behind writing a book about your journey?

“Most people in their lifetime think about writing a book, but I wasn’t one of them. Why? I find it very difficult to sit still in one place for too long. The only time I keep still is in my daily meditation with Jesus where I just sit in His presence and listen. But after many years of people telling me that I should tell my story and having very direct prophetic words that this was what God wanted, I knew it was time to stop running away and put pen to paper.

“The strange thing was that once I started, I was drawn into another world – a world where I had to go back in time and look at my life under a microscope. It wasn’t an easy process. I learned a great deal about myself as I wrote, but more importantly I was able to see how God stepped in on so many occasions to help me – I never saw it then but as I wrote it down I realised how blind I’d been to His continued involvement in my journey. So, the motivation came from God’s guidance and a realisation that my story could help the lost, the broken and those who thought they had everything but still felt empty inside.”

What did you learn about yourself during those years of being a skiing champion?

Iona in her skiing heyday

“The first lesson was that you can win races, be the best, be wealthy, have buckets of media coverage and still wake up in the morning feeling like something is missing. I realised there had to be more than what I was experiencing, so I went on a quest to find out.

“Secondly, I learned a really important skill through my sports mind/mental training, incorporating visualisation, meditation and relaxation techniques. I was able to focus, be more alert and aware of the present moment. Having this knowledge has really helped me in my quiet time with Jesus – it helped me experience a deeper relationship with Jesus as my mind is not cluttered with thoughts. He is able to connect with us when we live in the present moment. He tells us to stop looking back at the past or forward to the future because we miss out on spending quality time with Him in the NOW. Many times, we complain that we cannot hear from God – but it’s very difficult for Him to connect with us when we are buried in our mind and thoughts.”

What were the truths you had to face about your life after the ski-accident?

“The biggest truth I had to face was that I wasn’t in control. I didn’t like that! I thought I was in control of my destiny and had my whole life mapped out. Nope!”

Why was the encounter with Jesus during the accident not enough to surrender completely to Jesus?

“My identity was grounded in sports and it was hard finding my identity in something else. I believed at the time that I would be a nobody without competitive sports. I was also not convinced that Jesus had my best interests at heart, and I didn’t want to be turned into a Christian clone. If only I knew at the time, how wrong I was.”

Do you think you have a better relationship with Jesus after you experienced rock bottom?

“Yes – it was the only way of getting my attention. He stepped in and took away what I was obsessed with, which was competing. On so many occasions God had guided me away from MYSELF and towards HIM, but I chose not to go His route. When I did hit rock bottom, my world was turned upside down in a split second – in a positive way. Light does come out of darkness.”

What is one of the most valuable lessons you learned on your journey of faith?

“To surrender everything to God. Letting go of your life on a daily basis by handing everything over to Him. When you relinquish the controls of your life it brings total freedom and peace that allows us to be who God created us to be. Like it says in Matthew 10:39: ‘For if you want to save your own life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it.’ 

What advice would you give people who are exploring different religions or spiritual practices, seeking an answer to life’s questions? (knowing what you know now)

“I have tried many different religions and spiritual practices on my journey of seeking to fill the void I carried and found out that I ended up falling down a number of bottomless pits. I always started a new spiritual adventure with great enthusiasm but after a while realised that all of them were man-made creations that fizzled into nothing. When Jesus steps into your life you know — you just know. He is the only one who can save you. He is the only one who can give you hope, love and eternal life.”

We love that you want to invest in the people of South Africa. Tell us more why the Sozo foundation is so dear to your heart.

Children at the Sozo Foundation centre in Vrygrond, Cape Town

“I absolutely love South Africa and its people. I met the most amazing South African couple, Sheldon and Kathleen Kidwell, at a Christian Leadership Conference in India. Immediately, I felt like they were family and it was from that connection that my husband Jeff and I started visiting Cape Town where Sheldon runs the Bay City Community Church. On our first visit we were invited to look around at the Sozo Foundation in Vrygrond, which Bay City Church had helped in its initial stages. I was blown away by the stark difference between the world outside its high protective gates in relation to the one inside its perimeter. Outside the community battled with crime, violence, addiction, abuse and gangsterism. Inside it was happiness, laughter and young smiling faces learning new skills, having the opportunity of an education and a chance of making a life for themselves.

“Anton and Elana Cuyler, founders of the Sozo Foundation, showed Jeff and I around the facilities. We met a group of youngsters learning to be baristas and their joy and passion for what they were doing was infectious. Next, we walked around the many classrooms filled with computers, books and more. The quietest room was the digital design room, with about 20 students all so focused they barely looked up from their screens.

“That day we also watched groups learn carpentry and another group get to grips with the skills of baking. What struck me the most was the passion each child had to learn, whether it was a helping hand with homework or studying for a diploma or learning a new skill. Anton explained to us that many of these youngsters would become the breadwinners for their families. These young people were going out from Sozo and changing their community. A community that had no high school, no police station and no medical centre. The hope and love we felt within the Sozo walls just seemed to stay with us.

“When I was halfway through writing my book, I knew that the Sozo Foundation was the only candidate for the book royalties – there was no other – I knew the money would go to children who would make a difference within their community. I feel blessed to be able to help such an awesome organisation.”


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