What Makes a Champion?
By Deanie Humphrys-Dunne
I was born with cerebral palsy, which made walking difficult. In fact, I was nearly four-years-old when I took my first unsteady steps. A doctor said I’d never walk, but Daddy wouldn’t accept that. Instead, he chose to teach me to ride horses.
I grew up at my family’s riding school, called Sweetbrier. It was the place where my dream could come true. What did I dream about? Becoming an equestrian champion. Lots of kids can do that, right? In my case, there was an obstacle to overcome.
Daddy and I worked diligently toward our goal. After six years, I’d learned basic things— walking, trotting, and cantering. I asked Daddy if I could learn to jump.
“What if you fall off, honey?”
“Daddy, I’ll get up. I always have.”
He said he’d think about it, but my intuition said success wasn’t around the corner.
My fingers felt clammy, because I was nervous. “Daddy, you can’t refuse. You’ve always said I can do anything. You can’t change now. How can I become a champion without jumping?” I stared into his big blue eyes, holding my breath.
“Alright, we’ll give it a try.”
“Can I jump with Cocoa? She’s small and we’re already friends.”
“Sure, honey. Cocoa’s a good choice.”
The next day, Cocoa and I were cantering around the riding ring. Would this the big day? Would we take the first jump? Daddy walked into the ring and set up a cross rail. My mouth felt dry. My hands felt cold and clammy. My legs trembled.
“Okay, honey, steer Cocoa toward the jump.”
Clip, clop, Cocoa trotted toward the little jump. Her front feet landed. I slid off and stared at her.
“Are you okay, sweetie?” Daddy brushed me off. “Next time, try to press down more on your heels.” He hugged me and lifted me back into the saddle. I sniffed back the tears.
“Let’s try again. Steer her toward the jump. That’s it. Heels down.”
Again, when Cocoa’s front legs landed, I fell off. Again, Daddy brushed the dirt off, kissed me, and lifted me back on. I expected him to tell me to try again, but he looked into my eyes. “Honey, I think we need to wait until your legs are stronger before we try to jump again.”
“Daddy, isn’t that giving up?”
“No, we’re taking a break. I’ll let you know when you’re ready.”
Tears ran down my cheeks. I patted Cocoa, wondering if she felt sad too.
Nearly two years later, Daddy surprised me. “You’re ready to try jumping again.”
I steered a big, cream-colored horse named Laddie toward the cross rail. He was calm, but my heart thumped in my chest. My legs shook. I stared at the tiny jump. Laddie tilted his blue eyes down, looking for it. I held my breath. When we reached the other side, I was still in the saddle! “Daddy, I jumped!” Daddy kissed me and said we did a good job.
Things didn’t always go smoothly and it took another three years before I could jump well enough to enter competitions. Every day, I imagined becoming a champion, especially on the days when I fell off once or twice. Perseverance is the key to success, I often whispered to myself.
Daddy traveled across the country to find me a special horse, one who could compete in the big shows. Her name was Fleet Nancy, but her nickname was Peach. She was beautiful, black, and gifted at jumping. When we did well, she’d buck or crow hop to show me she was pleased. She’d press her neck against my hand when I patted her. When we entered our first competition, we won first prize! I was so nervous, I wasn’t sure whether we did well, so I asked my sister. Over the following years, Peach and I won many championships together.
Whatever your goals, stay focused and work hard. We all have challenges. Learn from your failures instead of dwelling on them. Never lose sight of your dreams. I believe that’s how champions are created. ‘I can’t recall any winners who ever quit, because they know it’s what happens after you fall that matters.’