For Debbie Rosen, completing the Rolex Kentucky CCI this year had special meaning.
Early last summer she was diagnosed with breast cancer, had multiple surgeries and started chemotherapy last November. She continued to ride throughout her treatment and returned to competition in January at Galway Downs (Calif.), all with the goal of getting back to Kentucky this year.
“The doctors didn’t discourage me,” she said. “Initially, they placated me quite a bit. They sort of let it go on with the idea that you do whatever you can do. One doctor jokingly said he’d never take another equestrian on as a patient because we never follow instructions.
“When all was said and done, they’re the reason I was able to come,” she added. “They extended my break period between chemo and radiation so I could go. I was supposed to begin radiation a couple of weeks ago, but they got on board with it and provided the opportunity for me.”
Rosen, Calabasas, Calif., believes the setback may have resulted in her being more fit than ever this year, as she upped her workouts to make up for lost time.
“I was so behind the eight ball at the top of the year,” she said. “Chemo drastically increases your working heart rate. I couldn’t even start my cardio work for regular conditioning until almost the middle or end of February, so I had to really double and triple my efforts. When I was able to push, I probably ended up fitter this year than last year.”
The Alchemyst seemed to bear with Rosen while she went through her treatments.
“He didn’t understand in the beginning, but he got it,” she said. “He can be a bit snarky, as anyone who saw us warm-up for dressage knows, but through the whole treatment he was so kind and generous. When he started to get his old behavior back it was when I was feeling better. I think he knew.”
At Rolex, Rosen incurred 20 cross-country penalties on her way to 10C, after The Alchemyst tripped a bit, but she was still thrilled with her performance, especially with her beautiful double-clear show jumping round that left her in 36th place.
Rosen has had The Alchemyst, an 11-year-old Canadian Sport Horse by Espiritu, for four years. “He was purchased for me as a gift by very dear friends,” she said. “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me, for sure.
“I don’t have a string of horses,” she added. “He’s just an incredible gift. It was very important to me not to waste a year of his time, and the bond that we have wasn’t easily shared with another rider. I just wasn’t going to give up quite that easily.”
Rosen hopes to be back to Rolex Kentucky next year and maybe even take her horse to Europe some day.
“So many people, especially women, are staying in the game longer,” she said. “Jane Sleeper is my idol. I would love to be her. And there’s Karen O’Connor and Kristi Nunnink. We’re able to stay in it longer and stay healthy and strong, and I think
it’s awesome. I look forward to many more years at this level.”
This summer Rosen hopes to compete at The Event At Rebecca Farm (Mont.) and contest the new CCI*** at Galway Downs (Calif.) in the fall. In the meantime, she’s working to develop an organization for athletes with cancer.
“Not necessarily professional athletes, but people who are dedicated to a sport, to help others get through the treatments,” she said. “They say if cancer doesn’t get you the treatments will, and I got through the treatments in the same way I train for my sport. I’d like to share that with others. It’s really about not letting the treatment completely take over your life, trying to keep some semblance of normalcy in some small way.”
She encouraged any riders or anyone else facing cancer to e-mail her at: email@example.com
“I took a few days off [of training] for treatments every three weeks,” she said. “There were a few days where it hurt to blink. There are different side effects, but the one thing about chemo is that it’s fairly predictable. What you do in the first few cycles is your
path. You can schedule around it to a certain extent. There were a few days where I vegged out and just existed, but day after day it got better until the next time.”
At age 49, Rosen still has plenty of plans for her eventing career.
“I got into the four-star game pretty late in life. I’ve been doing this a long time, but I finally got here in ’05. It didn’t go the way I wanted, and I really never thought I’d get there. To get back and be successful is monumental to me, current condition not withstanding. I’m absolutely thrilled. A lot of my friends say I’m living the dream, and they are absolutely correct. I’m living the dream.”