SCI Superstar: Hilary Lister


On paper, Hilary Lister could very well be one of the most interesting women in the world. From being an accomplished clarinet player and biochemist in her early years to becoming a world-renowned sailor, this woman is no average lady at the coffee shop. Hillary is in fact quite extraordinary.

But her journey into these exciting areas of life were all because of one thing and one of the only – her disability – and not some able-bodied dream she had before becoming paralyzed from the neck down. Hilary has done more in her life than most able-bodied people, and she has no intention of stopping anytime soon.

Read on for Hillary’s rockin’ story, as well as her most recent sailing accomplishment (she really has no intention of stopping) – crossing the Indian Ocean.

Why she’s fearless

Growing up in Hampshire, the young, able-bodied Hillary was a tomboy x 100. She went to boarding school where she fell in love with sports and loved to play hockey, rugby, horse riding, and swimming. This girl was all about physical activity.

But by the age of 11 she started to notice muscle weakness and pain in her legs during a hockey pitch. After going to the doctor several times, Hillary was eventually diagnosed with a degenerative disease, Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, which meant it would get worse as the years went on. A very scary form of paralysis.

By the age of 17, Hilary could longer walk, so when she went off to university and decided to study biochemistry; something she could still do and was a dream she had of accomplishing since she was a little girl. She studied at Jesus College, Oxford and went on the University of Kent to receive her PhD.

However, her disease kept getting worse and her arms were taking the brunt of the weakness, so she decided to step away from the biochemistry field since she could no longer safely handle the vials (she dropped $12,000 of vials one day, and that was that). This was a huge blow for Hilary.

And by 2003, Hilary was not in a good place. She was in fact preparing to end her life, not thinking the spot she was taking up “on the couch” was worth it. But thankfully her for outlook changed when she was introduced to adapted sailing with a Sip ‘n Puff set-up by the Westere Sailing Opportunities adapted sailing club.

A miracle, sailing gave Hillary the intense feeling of freedom; a feeling she never thought she could have again, which is why it’s helped heal her soul so incredibly. In 2005, two years after being introduced to adapted sailing, she became the first female quadriplegic to cross the English Channel, which she did in 6 hours, 13 minutes.

Three years later, Hilary next attempted to sail round the entire island of Britain, but she had to delay it due to weather issues. She tried again in 2009 and finally broke that record too, becoming the first woman with a disability to sail around Britain (which she did in roughly three months).

What’s next?

Since five years have passed since her last big sailing event, Hilary planned another record breaking sailing adventure which just concluded – an 800 mile trek from Mumbai, India to Omar in the Middle East. She and a female sailor from that part of the world who was able-bodied made history by calling the first disabled woman and an Arabian woman duo to cross the Indian Ocean by sailing completely independently.

She may be 41, but the energy Hillary exudes into everything she does is infectious.  To have the energy to sail the way she does for hours on end in conditions that are not very comfortable, and using a Sip ‘n Puff while she’s at it, now that is some amazing stuff.

– Visit her official site:

Would you be brave enough to sail the high seas using only your mouth?

Watch the videos!

Hilary sailing around Britain using 3 straws

Hilary Lister, honorary doctor of Staffordshire University

Hilary Lister’s Dream TV interview

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