Row, row, row your boat, gently across the Atlantic… Meet Sky Sports’ Julia Immonen, the ‘ordinary girl’ who set out to cross an ocean for the sake of freedom
After more than a month at sea, Julia Immonen stepped back onto dry land and into the record books. She had just spent 45 days at sea sharing a sevenmetre boat with four other girls – and had put the issue of human trafficking on the map.
This was back before it was the political hot potato it has become today, and they raised over £100,000 for charities working in that sector. But that was far from the end of the story.
“Since the row, it’s been an incredible journey,” Julia explains. “I guess the first year was really when the adventure began because we began to share what had happened on the crossing.
“We’ve been able to share with a vast range of people. We got to go into schools – inspiring and educating – and it’s just been an incredible opportunity to share the adventure and the lessons from it and, of course, the reason why. I must have spoken at nearly 100 events last year.”
And you can see why she’s in demand. Bright, bubbly, well-spoken and never shy of an opinion, Julia is also a rather unique person. Having never rowed before, she became one of the five quickest women to row across the Atlantic (by a huge five days) and was a part of the first all-female crew to achieve the crossing. Incredibly, less people have rowed the oceans than have gone into space.
In some ways, though, the ‘finnish’ line is Julia’s natural habitat.
“I grew up in Finland in my early childhood and we moved to the UK when I was six. My dad was actually a youth pastor in Finland, but struggled to get work in the UK. We always struggled with money and there were outbursts of violence from my father. The hypocrisy of that put me off God.
“I went to Soul Survivor and all the rest of it until I was 15, but because of that tough relationship with my dad, I looked for those kind of boys. I had two longterm relationships and wasn’t living a Christian life at all.”
It took a bit of a jolt to turn Julia’s life around, but that came in the form of a break-up.
“When my second relationship ended, I moved home and my sister invited me to a Sunday service at Holy Trintity Brompton. I went because I had nothing better to do. I remember Nicky Gumbel saying, ‘If you feel like giving up, come to the front and someone will pray for you.’
“That was exactly how I felt. I didn’t know who I was without these relationships which had defined me for 11 years. That was me returning as a prodigal daughter. I did Alpha and it absolutely changed my life. I really started exploring Christianity for myself and all the things I knew in my head as a child dropped into my heart.”
As well as finding her beliefs restored and renewed, Julia found her faith affecting her relationship with her father. “God worked on me and really restored my relationship with my dad and forgiveness came with that process. It’s still ongoing, but we have a much better relationship now.”
Into the midst of the excitement of fresh faith, God brought a challenge to Julia. “I heard about human trafficking and God just broke my heart for it,” she remembers.
The shock of hearing about such a huge injustice moved Julia to action. “Now we hear about modern day slavery quite a lot, but five years ago I had never heard of it. An initial half marathon turned into rowing the Atlantic, but the moment I decided to step out for God, my mum had a huge mental breakdown. God really saw me through that.
“That’s why I’ve written my book, ‘Row for Freedom’, which comes out in September. I want people to know that even when you’re in your darkest hour, God will absolutely see you through it. It’s the most blessed journey when we step out and do things.”
And Julia has kept on stepping out since she got out of the boat, too.
“We’ve now founded Sport for Freedom. That’s our own charity which we’ve launched off the back of Row for Freedom, and we’ve just been building the foundations of that. If you build big and firm foundations, you can build big, and that’s what we’ve been doing.
“We’ve started using sport and fitness as tools to help with the reintegration of the girls rescued by Unseen – a UK charity providing safe accommodation for survivors of slavery. That’s been amazing, and we’ve been piloting that to see what works. We’re also using sport as an educational tool to work with vulnerable kids. Sport is a great hook to raise awareness and create a response to such an overwhelming injustice.”
It just wouldn’t be a Julia Immonen project without an enormous physical challenge, though. This time there will be no rowing of oceans, however: she’s swapping paddles for pedals and conducting a tour of Britain.
“We’re really excited to launch Cycle for Freedom,” she enthuses. “This will be a big tour of the UK starting in Liverpool through five cities – Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Oxford and London – in five days, with the finale in London for Antislavery Day on the October 18.
“That route has been carefully picked because those cities are significant trafficking hot spots today.
“We’ll be joined by some of my work colleagues – Sky Sports presenters and journalists – with celebrities and supporters all coming with us for part of the route. Then we have an opportunity for the public to get involved on the last day in London.
“We have 300 spaces and we’ll be cycling the women’s Olympic road cycling route, starting and finishing at the Houses of Parliament. It will be such a statement for freedom; such a positive response to a hidden crime. We need to support those on the ground making a difference by using what’s in our hand.”