At just 18 years old, the USA’s Sydney Collier is the youngest dressage competitor at the Paralympic Games in Rio.
You’d think she’d be feeling overwhelmed and nervous about performing in the huge Olympic stadium against far more experienced riders. But for Sydney, there is a bright side to her condition:
“I had a stroke aged 11 which knocked out my ability to feel nervous or anxious or scared — it’s the silver lining. When people say they’re really nervous before competing I say, ‘just have a stroke — it takes care of all that,” laughs Sydney, a grade Ib rider. “You’ve got to look on the bright side; I can’t use my left side at all, but at least I don’t get nervous at shows!”
Sydney’s positive attitude started early — she was just seven when she was diagnosed with the extremely rare Wyburn-Mason syndrome, which can lead to brain haemorrhaging, stroke and paralysis. The condition has also left her blind in her right eye, and with just 50% vision in her left.
“The diagnosis at seven was really rough but when I got on a horse everything just faded away,” says Sydney. “I never really found my place until I started riding. I was always the girl out on the soccer field picking dandelions, but when I got on a horse I thought, ‘wow, this is what I’m meant to do’.”
As a child, eventing was Sydney’s main goal, until the stroke — which occurred during brain surgery — set her down a different path.
“At first it was so hard — I thought I’d never be able to accomplish big things with my riding. Then I went to watch the World Equestrian Games in 2010 and discovered dressage. Until then I had only thought of it as the phase in eventing you had to get through to reach the jumping, but I realised it was beautiful. You’re always working towards something — it’s addictive. Once you get into it you never want to stop.”
In Rio, Sydney is riding her trainer Wes Dunham’s 13-year-old mare Western Rose. The Wendelin III daughter is showing Sydney the Paralympic ropes, having competed at London 2012 with USA rider Donna Ponessa.
“We really click and she looks out for me. Every day I get to ride her it is a good day,” smiles Sydney. “She’s a typical mare and her personality depends on the day, but she’s been fantastic for me here. She’s been there and done that, and is just saying to me ‘hold on, we’re going to have some fun with this’.”