Who Am I?

Feb 9, 2015 - 11:03 AM
Sydney Collier and Wentworth.

The Chronicle‘s newest blogger is Sydney Collier, a member of the U.S. Para-Dressage Team at the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in France, and the recipient of the 2014 Junior Equestrian of the Year Award from the U.S. Equestrian Federation. She and her service dog, Journey, hit the spotlight at the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Get to know Sydney by reading her blogs, and follow her journey on the road to the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Hi! My name is Sydney Collier, and I am an aspiring equestrian from Ann Arbor, Mich. I am really excited to share my special journey with you. I am currently 17 years old, a high school senior, and like many of you, I’m a passionate horseback rider. As a matter of fact, we probably have a lot of similarities, despite some major differences, and that is something I hope to highlight by writing this blog. 

Now for some basics about me…well let’s face it—I live and breathe horses. When I am not physically at the barn, I am constantly reading, watching videos, and talking about horses to improve riding! Shoot, in 2013 I even moved away from my hometown, leaving behind friends and family, to pursue my training and goals with my trainer Wes Dunham at Woodstock Stables in Millbrook, N.Y!

So maybe now you are thinking, “Yup, another traditional horse crazy teenager,” but wait, wait—bear with me, and keep reading. There are a few unique things about me that allow for some special opportunities to make a difference, and spread some important messages with my riding goals. 

At the age of 8—ironically six months after I finally convinced my mom that riding the penny horse at the grocery store does not count as a lesson—I was diagnosed with a rare and life-threatening syndrome called Wyburn-Mason. Yea, I know…Wyburn-what?!? Well Wyburn-Mason involves AVMs (or arteriovenous malformations—phew, a mouthful! Right?!) deep in one side of the brain and along the optic nerve area.  My little “time bombs” live very secretly deep inside the right side of my head (some people have AVMs in other areas of their body) causing me all sorts of issues. 

Unfortunately deleting important parts from anywhere is never a good idea, especially since the capillaries are what help reduce the pressure of the blood as it flows between the two. As if this unfortunate plumbing faux pas was not enough fun and games, AVMs like to grow out of control when they form. Then they turn into what are called in layman’s terms, “bags of worms” (nice visual isn’t it…), causing all sorts of havoc within the healthy parts of the brain. 

When I was diagnosed there were no treatment options (and still aren’t unfortunately), so my parents were told to take me home and pray. My parents apparently found this option out of the question. My AVMs were really aggressive—stealing my movement and my vision totally in my right eye and partially my left. My parents searched high and low around the world to find the best doctors to try to help me. Eventually they found a doctor at Stanford Medical Center willing to try to help us. Major side bonus: treatments in Palo Alto, Calif., not too shabby a place to have to be a patient I must say!

Unfortunately a first attempt at experimental Cyber-Knife radiation failed. Physically things were getting way worse for me, so risky brain surgery became necessary. When I was 11, I had my first surgery. I suffered a massive stroke that took away the minimal control I did have on my left side. I spent three months in rehabilitation, relearning to walk and use my arm so that I could groom and ride my horse once again (yea, and all the other stuff like dressing, feeding myself, and going to school, but the horses were really all I cared about!). I still had two more brain surgeries and more radiation to face before I turned 12, but I was overjoyed to be home to see my horse and start to ride again! I returned to 7th grade a different person physically, but I still had the same horse-crazy passion in my heart and soul.

OK—enough medical mumbo jumbo; it takes up WAY too much of my time and now yours too. Let’s get on to the good stuff…the RIDING!!! I would much rather share with you the impact one incredible event had on my life, the motions it set into action, and where I hope to go and what I hope to do with my dreams.

A year after my stroke, I was honored to attend the [2010 Alltech FEI] World Equestrian Games in Kentucky to watch para-dressage, something I had seen on video, but honestly didn’t know much about. Well, let me tell you—that day, over the course of eight hours—my life changed forever.  Like something out of a movie, I had a life-altering moment right there in the grandstands surrounded by people who didn’t even know they were all taking part in such a huge event.  

Standing there among so many people (OK, OK, I was sitting but details, details) with my cane, my leg brace, my wrist brace, hoping no one was noticing my limp, my slur, my swollen cheeks from weeks of taking steroids to deal with swelling in my brain—I silently watched the most amazing riding of my life. From hoof beat to hoof beat, like a brick wall tumbling down with each stride, I realized just how wrong I was in all my thinking, my insecurities, my concerns of never being “normal” again.

Sure, I had all these crazy orthopedic pieces strapped to me, I walked differently then most, I looked different—heck, I use my teeth as a second hand—but I was and still am just like many of you…a HORSE FANATIC! I realized I could, and can, be whomever I want regardless of my medical diagnosis. I am more than my AVMs…I am an EQUESTRIAN.

I suddenly felt so free of the baggage my AVMs had placed upon me for years. I stood up from my seat, and I wasn’t hiding anymore! I had to meet these riders, and nothing was going to stand in my way! And yes, I asked every one of them for a picture and autograph like a crazed teenybopper rock fan. 

Among these truly awe-inspiring riders was one remarkable rider named Jonathan Wentz who truly put my current life into motion. Right when we met, despite being a competing member of the U.S. team, he said, “We should get you classified while you are here!” And he took me over to begin the process. I have been doing para-dressage ever since then, and I have a special message behind each and every one of my rides. By facing your challenges, no matter how big or small, you can continue to reach for your dreams and goals!

So you see, you and I are not so different in the end. We carry the same goals, the same passion, and the same love of the horse. I may have to do things a bit differentl—wear bits and pieces that make my body work when my brain has other ideas—but I am more like you than not.

If you look into my heart where the true spirit lives, 100 percent untouched by the physical hurdles outside, that is where you will see the truth. I hope you will read my blogs and follow my journey as I work towards my goals of representing the U.S. in para-dressage at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. I hope that my riding can help other individuals—horse crazy or not—to see that through drive, determination, and adaptability anything you set your mind to CAN become your reality! 


Until next time,
Sydney Collier



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