Sydney Collier has an infectious smile and a personality larger than life. It masquerades an ethic of hard work and dedication that could have the 17-year-old riding to Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
The young equestrienne works tirelessly in the gym five days a week for core strength, balance and cardio. But when it comes to competition, an equestrienne and her horse must have the synchronicity of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Collier has that with Wentworth, her 12-year-old black Hanoverian horse.
“He’s a great dance partner, and you need that in this sport,” said Collier, who’s competing in the Grade 1b para-dressage discipline at the North American Young Rider Championships this week in Lexington, Kentucky.
Collier is ranked No. 3 in her classification and hopes to land one of four spots on Team USA for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio.
“We’re third in the country, and we’ll do a lot of competing as hard as we can this summer,” Collier said. “We have to get our certification of capability, and we’ll need to get a lot of competition and ring time and working to earn spot on the team.”
That means, for Collier, six days of riding and five days in the gym. Those days in the gym include stationary bike to get up the cardio, a stomach-scorching circuit of planks to help strengthen her core, and playing catch with her trainer while standing on a wobbly board to work on her balance. The planks, she says, are what she feels the most.
“My abdominals are burning after we do those three 1-minute planks,” Collier says with a cheery smile that clearly shows she does what she loves.
She loves the sport so much that she completed her final two years of high school by taking online classes. She loves it so much that she and her mother, Anna, left their home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, leaving behind her father, brothers and grandmother, to train full-time in Millbrook, New York.
It’s a sport that’s led her to giving inspirational speeches and working with special needs kids. It’s a sport that helped save Collier herself when she could have gotten down on her luck.
Collier said she was the “first pediatric” to get diagnosed with, and treated for, Wyburn-Mason Syndrome, an exceptionally rare congenital birth defect that can cause brain hemorrhaging, stroke and paralysis. The condition is so rare that she’s one of only 400 or so people in the world to have it.
Collier didn’t particularly have a sport she loved as kid until she came across horses when she was 7, before any diagnosis.
“I kind of got into this sport by chance. I had always loved horses. I thought they were majestic, amazing animals,” Collier said. “At age 7, I told my mom that I’d like a riding lesson. My mom rode horses when she was younger. When I first rode a horse it just clicked. This is what I’m supposed to do.”
Collier suffered a stroke when she was 11 and lost the use of her left side. She relied on a wheelchair and had to learn the basics of walking again — something as simple as putting one foot in front of another while trying to maintain her balance.
She put her trust back into horses. She said the horses still need to be fed and groomed despite her own personal physical condition, so she made it her mission to get back on her feet and get back in the saddle.
Collier must qualify for Grade 1b through a battery of tests. Once she qualifies for the grade, then she must compete against other, much older equestrians. Collier was the youngest at the World Equestrian Games last summer, and she’s the youngest in para-dressage this week in Lexington.
She doesn’t stop at just riding in competitions. Collier, who also has lost all her sight in her right eye and three-fourths of the vision in her left eye, volunteers twice a week for kids with behavioral and cognitive disabilities. She tries to give back to the horse community by giving inspirational talks, saying, “If I can do this, then anybody can do this. That’s the message I give by my riding, too.”
She aspires to get a degree in special education and become a special education teacher.
Collier began her young career as an eventer at age 7. That meant she rode cross-country, did stadium jumping and dressage.
“It’s an adrenaline junkie sport, and I fell in love with it,” she said.
After her stroke she only did stadium jumping for a year.
“I had goals to compete in this sport in real life,” Collier said. “But after my stroke I was a little bit discouraged. The physical restrictions made me unable to reach my goals.”
She adapted and set new goals.
In 2010 she attended the World Equestrian Games and met the late Jonathan Wentz, who almost immediately became a mentor for Collier. Wentz, who died just weeks after competing in the London 2012 Paralympic Games, introduced Collier to the president of the United States Para-Equestrian Association, and Collier got graded as a 2 at those games. That lasted three years, but more strokes and an increased level of impairment led to a 1b grade.
Still, Collier has more drive than ever as she keeps pushing the envelope of competition and keeps fighting the odds, setting her sights on possibly two Paralympic Games and the 2018 World Equestrian Games.
“I know I’m still young, but every competition I get super excited about,” Collier said. “I don’t get nervous, but excited. I just need to learn how to channel that excitement into good energy for me and my horse. My horse knows when I’m excited.”
Collier now works out in Millbrook, New York, with her trainer, Wes Dunham. Collier said she aims to continue her push to Rio in part to satisfy the never-ending family support, but also for her and her horse, who ultimately helps make this all happen.
“I feel everything happens for a reason,” she said. “I think I’m natural at having a relationship with my horses that lend me their legs and give me my freedom. It’s difficult to find the right horse, and once you do, it all clicks together and makes all the hard work worth it.”
Scott McDonald is a Houston-based freelance writer who has 17 years experience in sports reporting and feature writing. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.