Tuesday, December 23, 2008

  2008 proved to be a year of tremendous victories accompanied with tumultuous struggles for both my mother and myself.  At the end of 2007, all we could do was think about the excitement 2008 would bring with the Olympics around the corner and my being placed on the Short list aboard my trusted partner, Frodo Baggins.  The year began extremely well as once again, my mother and father allowed my horses and I to train and compete in Ocala, Florida.  The ribbons piled high as the season came to a close, in addition to the confidence I had in actually being placed on the US Olympic Senior Squad for the Beijing Games (the equestrian venue was located in Hong Kong due to importation restrictions).  In anticipation for one of the final Olympic outings, formally called Rolex Kentucky CCI**** held in Lexington, KY, I had every reason to believe that my dreams would shortly materialize:  after all, I had three of the top ten horses in the USA (Frodo Baggins, Anthony Patch, and Mazetto), all my horses were in pristine condition, my health and fitness were at peak performance, and most importantly, my confidence in all these aspects was unparalleled.  The week before Rolex, both mom and I participated in the Florida CCI* and 1/2* with our more inexperienced horses.  I rode the first of our homebreds, Seajack in the CCI*, and mom rode her off-the-track Thoroughbred Solar Express who I like to refer to as “Sucky Solar” for obvious reasons (much to mom’s dismay).  The show was a great success with both Seajack placing in the top ten at his first three day event and Solar finishing twelfth with only one rail down in the show jumping.  Both mom and I were poised for what lay before us in the rolling hills of Lexington, KY.  

     The days leading up to my horrific accident certainly didn't foreshadow the huge brunt that would be bestowed upon the Ashker/Stephenson families.  Since I was one of four riders who had two horses at Rolex, there was little free time to spend with my family and friends.  However, even with my hectic schedule of autograph signings and course walks, my horses stepped up to the plate by putting in their personal bests in the dressage tests.  I can vividly remember seeing my adoring grandfather, all smiles of course, as Frodo and I exited the arena to the thunderous cheer of over 30,000 fans and seeing the score board notify us of our top fifteen placing.  I truly believe that was one of my proudest moments thus far in life, and feeling that I have truly accomplished my dreams, as was portrayed in my grandfather’s joyous and teary eyes.

     April 26 will be a date that I seldom forget, along with the rest of my family.  My first ride on cross country was atop a new yet experienced mount, Mazetto, who was previously owned by my dear friend Eleanor Brennan, who passed away at a show in November 2007.  Because her whole family was in attendance, an increasing pressure towered over both Eric (Mazetto’s barn name) and my head as we galloped out of the start box.  However, after over forty five jumping efforts and deafening applause from the 50,000 plus spectators, the finish flags appeared too soon!  Eric and I meandered our way into the finish with ample time to spare and a very proud and jumpy mother!  I was so proud to have lived one of Eleanor’s dreams of riding at Rolex, and I truly believe that she was the reason for both the brilliant ride I attained on Eric, and for my survival of what lay ahead.  

     As I mounted Frodo later in the afternoon I believed that the stars had aligned for our successful cross country round.  I was in a top placing, had a double clear on my previous mount who I only had ridden for four months, and this was both Frodo’s and my best phase.  A higher power must have had different plans for us.  As Frodo and I jumped the fifth element on the course, we must have taken off wrong as we fell to both of our demise.  Frodo was immediately transported to a nearby veterinary clinic where they tried to save his life but were unsuccessful.  Although I have never seen the video of my fall and only a few agonizing pictures, I want to make clear to everyone that I take full responsibility for what occurred.  Whether the accident was a freak one or a rider error (which I think was a bit of both), nothing will ever fill the void that April 26 left in my heart and on a daily basis I think about the ramifications of such a small error and desperately regret it.  

     Meanwhile, I was airlifted to the University of Kentucky, where I would stay for three weeks in the ICU.  My mother and father, along with my grandparents, and gentleman friend of mine and many fans visited my bedside while I lay unconscious in an induced coma for the first week in the hospital.  It truly felt like a horrible dream, and I can only imagine the pain my family went through seeing my fight for my life.  I admire my mother’s uncanny ability to handle the ceaseless media in such a abominable time.  She gave TV and newspaper interviews, all with the positive attitude of “upward and onward,” a motto that she has ingrained in me since day one.

     And thus the perennial process of healing began.  After three weeks in the hospital it was time for the long road home to VA.  Granny headed our squadron driving my sports car and mom and I brought up the rear in the more spacious rental car.  After ten long and painful hours we made it home safely.  The physical pain held little resonance compared to the amount of emotional pain I underwent as I ran down to the barn only to experience Frodo’s absence.  Granny and mom continued to nurse me to health, take me to countless doctor appointments, go on hour long walks as I slowly rebuild my strength, and sat by my side as the horror of reality slowly started to set in my mind.  I tell you, without those two women and their tireless care, my progression forward would have never occurred.  

     After granny went home to CA, mom and I were forced to try and go back to as normal as a life we could.  I started riding and teaching, and mom was finally able to pack away the blender, which she did eagerly.  We finished up the year with having completed three horse shows and have attained the normalcy in which Crow’s Ear Farm operates.  Both of us are relatively happy, certainly healthy, and we both are a lot stronger than what we were a year prior.  It is true what they say, you never know what you’ve got inside until it’s tested...I have to say, we passed with flying colors.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all!  Here’s to looking “upward and onward” to a fresh start in 2009!

*** On a side note, I want to thank my sponsors...Thinline, Heritage Gloves, FITS, Ulcergard(Merial), Flair Strips, and County Saddlery for being patient and understanding with me and sticking by my side in such a troublesome time.  This year has brought me a lot of pain and turmoil but has also forced me to grow up, in every sense of the term.  Thank you all for your support and see you out in the galloping lane in 2009!