Lincoln graduate climbs back


University of Lincoln graduate, Gilly Mara, will be joining top sport stars and Sky Sports Ambassadors David Beckham and Jessica Ennis-Hill this year as an athlete mentor for Sky Academy in her specialist sport, canoeing.

Gilly began canoeing at 15-years-old, and competed in her first national competition when she was 17. Three years later, she was selected to represent Great Britain at the Student World Championships in Canoeing in her first international competition.

However, on 28th August 2002, just two weeks before she was due to compete, Gilly fell 60 metres down a cliff in a near-fatal accident whilst hiking the Sandia Mountain Range with a friend in Albuquerque, USA. She was warned by surgeons that even with operations on her broken neck and dislocated spinal cord, she could be paralysed from the neck down


Luckily, the surgery was a success, and she escaped paralysis. Furthermore, a combination of treatment and Gilly’s steely determination meant she defied medical odds and was able to fly home after just twelve days.

“This proved the start of an incredible emotional journey that would take me through the most incredible lows and require every ounce of grit, determination and focus to inch me closer to the highs I feared were now forever outside my reach,” said Gilly.

Three years after her accident, Gilly competed internationally at last – and later went on to reach the podium.

She also began writing a book, “Climbing Back” which was published earlier this year. In the book, Gilly describes the emotional journey from the mountain accident to how she overcame physical as well as mental hurdles to finally achieve her childhood dream of representing her country in two sports.   

“As I continued writing and telling my story, I found that my motivation for writing changed,” said Gilly.

“With time I realised that my experience could help inspire others to realise that they too can achieve their dreams.

“I am looking forward to inspiring and motivating pupils to take up sport. I believe sport will give them confidence to go and achieve their dreams no matter what obstacles are in their way. I hope they can share the support I have had and grow in confidence as I did.”

Besides her mentoring for Sky Academy, Gilly still competes nationally and successfully balances her training with management of the injury to her neck. She is also regularly engaged as a motivational speaker by companies keen to help their employees look at life from a different perspective.  

“I now live my life with the mantra that if you reach for the stars, you can get to the moon.” 

‘Climbing Back’ is available in e-book and printed versions on Amazon and Apple iBooks. For more information, visit






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Story credits: Isabel Laycock

October 2014

The Alumni Network

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