26 year old Cambry Kaylor is the daughter that everyone
dreams of having. She's intelligent, kind-hearted, beautiful, and an
accomplished athlete, as well.
But it is her amazing strength and fortitude in the face of daunting challenges that stops you in your tracks; that makes you realize that you are in the presence of someone truly remarkable.
In her teens, Cambry was busy pursuing her dreams. The most compelling - to become an international competitor in the beautiful sport called Equestrian Vaulting. Technically speaking, vaulting is a combination of dance and gymnastics performed on the back of a cantering horse. Artistically, it is the union of music, horse, and athlete to create an emotionally moving story for an audience.
At the age of seven, Cambry fell in love with horses. It was an article in the magazine, American Girl that sparked her interest in Equestrian Vaulting. Fortunately, there was a club near her home and she used her skills as a dancer and a gymnast to quickly become an accomplished competitor in the sport. During her ten year career, she competed for vaulting clubs in Washington, California, and Utah, earning a silver medal and competed on two "A" teams, and a national championship "C" team.
And then tragedy struck.
During a practice session, Cambry took a bad fall, flipping over and landing hard on her back. Recalls Cambry, "I felt like my back was arched too much, and that my legs were twisted underneath my body. I was in terrible pain and kept asking my coach to please straighten out my legs." But her legs weren't bent. She just couldn't feel them.
Her back was broken, her spinal cord severed and at only eighteen years of age, unbeknownst to her, she had walked for the last time.
"I didn't know how badly I was hurt." In the hospital, as tests were conducted and anxious family and friends were gathered around her, she still kept thinking that somehow she would be okay. "I thought it was the end of that season of competition. I didn't think it was the end of all of my seasons." But when the doctor delivered the news that she would never walk again, she turned and looked at her nurse. The woman was sobbing.
"Then my grandfather walked in the room. He is such a strong man and I had never seen him cry before. Tears were streaming down his face. That's when I knew this was real."
The days and weeks that followed were difficult. Cambry was transferred to a rehab unit and began the long road to adjustment. "In those first days I lived in a haze of pain medications. I had terrible nightmares and every time I awoke I hoped that someone would tell me that I wasn't really paralyzed." But gradually, with the help of a dedicated team, she learned the new skills she would need to live her life in a wheelchair. In record time, she was released from rehab and began her freshman year of college on time. A student at the University of Utah, she is now completing her master's degree in occupational therapy. Her plan is to help others with spinal cord injuries live full lives, return to what they love, and to passionately follow their dreams.
She also took up coaching, helping young riders to learn the art of vaulting. She recently was accepted into the American Vaulting Association Judge's program and will be a certified judge in 2016. But she dearly missed being the one on the horse.
"I'm a competitor by nature. I like working hard and I like winning. I desperately wanted my old life back."
All of the things she used to do so well were now out of her reach. Dancing, vaulting, cheerleading, gymnastics and diving all required the use of her legs. One day, however, her mother suggested that she take a class in dressage. Dressage is a competitive equestrian sport, defined by the International Equestrian Federation as "the highest expression of horse training", where "horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of predetermined movements." It is occasionally referred to as "Horse Ballet". Para-dressage is currently the only equestrian discipline in the Para-Olympic Games. It was introduced in 1996 and it became a part of the World Equestrian games in 2010.
But Cambry wasn't sure. Dressage intimidated her. "I thought it was out of my reach, a sport for wealthy people. My mother is a teacher and my father is a small business owner, plus I have three other siblings. How could I ever afford to compete in such a fancy sport?"
Fortunately one of her past vaulting coaches and mentor, Julie Young, encouraged Cambry to join her business partner, Brian Hafner, at an International Dressage Competition.
"I met the most wonderful people there. No one was snobby at all."
After that experience she saw the sport in a whole new light and found that she actually loved her lessons. "My balance began to improve and I felt so connected to the horse. I felt like I had legs again!" True to her spirit, she began to excel at dressage. "I told my coach that I wanted to go all the way. I wanted to represent my country at the Para-Olympics!"
Soon a team formed to help her succeed. David Macmillan, USDF gold medalist, a distinguished dressage trainer and rider from South Africa who was short-listed for the London Olympics trains Cambry while she is at home in Utah. Brian Hafner, 2009 Young Riders team gold medalist, USDF gold medalist, and rising star in the dressage world trains her when she is in California. Her mentor, Julie Young, is a successful jumping trainer and owner of horses that competed at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky. Each recognized in Cambry an outstanding rider; her disability all but invisible when she was on a horse. She had everything she needed to win "“ great form, posture and the drive to succeed.
All she needed was the right horse.
Danish Warmbloods have long been recognized as one of the finest breeds of dressage horses. Unfortunately, a trained Warmblood would cost up to $100,000 in the United States. And Cambry needed a very specially trained horse. Most dressage horses respond to very subtle movements of the rider's legs to change gaits. Cambry could not convey her commands that way. She needed a horse that was trained to respond to her hands. Again, her mentor, Ms. Young stepped in with help. She had connections in Denmark and thought she could attain a horse for Cambry there at a fraction of the cost.
After an intense search, they found the perfect horse. Donnewind is a fifteen year old Danish Warmblood with a history of fulfilling dreams. He was owned by a young woman named Malene who had been born with a condition that rendered her lower legs useless. With a calm disposition and a desire to please his rider, Donny quickly took to the training needed to become a Para-dressage horse. He even performed a miracle of sorts. With the muscles that Malene learned to use as she rode Donny, her legs became stronger. Eventually she was able to walk with the use of canes. Unfortunately, however, she developed leg spasms that made competing on Donny impossible. She no longer could ride her beloved horse.
But Donny's magic was needed across the ocean. He was the perfect horse to help another girl's dream come true.
Scrapping together all of her savings, and with the help of her extended family, Cambry was able to purchase Donny and bring him home to America. They have begun their training together and the bond between them is already unbreakable.
But it will take much more to get her to Normandy, France for the World Equestrian Games in 2014 and the Para-Olympics in Brazil in 2016. "Team Cambry" has been formed to help raise the funds needed for training, transportation, equipment, and entry fees. A website has been set up at www.cambry.org to encourage donations and supporters are planning numerous fundraising events.
It won't be easy, but Cambry has never shied away from a challenge. And Donnewind is a horse who knows all about young women of determination.
It is a partnership that is poised for greatness.
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