Every day on my way to work, I pass a therapeutic riding facility called “Pal-o-mine.” It’s totally quaint and right down the block from my house.
“I’m going to work there when I retire,” I told my husband.
A few weeks ago, I saw an announcement in the local paper. Pal-o-mine is hosting a dinner for Paralympic Gold medalist, Lauren Barwick. Lauren was featured on the show “Heartland,” playing herself in Season 5.
I had to go. First, I was secretly a little obsessed with Pal-o-mine, and I wanted to check it out. Second, I was really eager to hear Lauren’s story about entering the Paralympics. What was it like? What was her story?
MEETING LAUREN BARWICK
When I arrived at the dinner, I didn’t know a soul. Tables and chairs were set up in the actual riding ring, and people were scattered around, chatting with each other comfortably.
Lauren arrived a few minutes later, wheeling herself into the barn with a little girl running behind her. She had her ponytail tucked in a baseball cap and was wearing sweatpants. She looked a little stressed. She started telling everyone about her day:
“I was traveling this week for work. My nanny and daughter were supposed to meet me in NY at the airport a few hours ago. So I’m waiting at the airport. And waiting. The problem? I didn’t realize I had booked them to land at JFK. I was at LaGuardia. Oh my goodness. So here I am by myself, in a wheelchair, at the airport. Only me. When we finally worked it out and got together, we headed to the hotel to get ready for my speech and the dinner. But, of course, my room wasn’t ready.”
Lauren was very relatable. “You’ve got to laugh,” she said ruefully. “Otherwise I’d cry. I smell. I’d been traveling all day. I just wanted to shower. But I guess not!”
Then she got serious. “I was working as a movie stunt person when I was 21 years old. Part of my job was to get the hay for the horses. You’re supposed to take the hay from the top of the stack, but the stack looked like a Jenga tower. People had taken random bales out here and there. I climbed to the top to get a bale, and the tower began to sway. I jumped down and a 100-pound bale of hay fell on top of me. It broke my back at T11/12.”
HER FAMILY HISTORY
Lauren went on to explain that her older brother had been born with a heart defect, and had passed away just a year earlier. Her younger sister had Down’s syndrome. And now she was paralyzed at 21 years old.
The silence in the ring was deafening. Everyone leaned forward to hear the rest of her story. “My mom had always been determined to give all three of us a normal life. She pushed my brother and sister to be the best they could be. Their disabilities shouldn’t define them.”
“Now she was pushing me. At first, I was completely and overwhelmingly angry. How could this happen to me? Why me?”
Lauren thought she’d never ride a horse again, and she mentally closed off that part of her life. She started participating in a sailing program for disabled people. Little by little, she gained confidence. She was still dealing with a lot of emotions, anger, sadness, depression over her injury.
A TURNING POINT
Then one day, her sailing instructor asked for her help. “We need an adult to help with the kids for this sailing lesson.”
“You want ME? I’m paralyzed?! You’re gonna put me on a boat in charge of these kids? You must be kidding!”
“No, Lauren, we need your help. Please.”
Looking back Lauren realized that her instructor was giving her a job to show her how capable she still was. She ended up helping the kids, and she had a big realization. “I still have so much more to give. My life isn’t over.”
Lauren said that the first time she got back on a horse, she was completely furious. She had always ridden as a child, and now she couldn’t even sit up. “Why me!?” Then she became determined. “It is my choice. I can learn to ride again, or I can give up. I get to decide.”
Lauren started participating in adapted horseback riding. “I loved that when you’re sitting on a horse, no one can tell what your disability is. You’re just a person on a horse.”
Lauren told another story about going to Portugal for the Paralympics. Something happened with her luggage—which had all her medical supplies, etc. She couldn’t believe it. “Why me?!”
Then she had another realization. “Well, why NOT me? Other people who aren’t in a wheelchair lose their luggage at the airport. What makes me so special? If it could happen to them, it could happen to me.”
She decided that this applied to the rest of her life. “Why not me? Why can’t I get married and have a child? Why can’t I be a paralympic athlete? It’s up to me. I get to decide.”
Lauren’s story was so inspiring. She was sitting there, unshowered, after her crazy incident at the airport, giving her speech. She made us all laugh with her stories, but her determination to be happy and not to feel defeated was palpable.
“Happiness is a choice. I get to decide.”
This was truly an amazing night. Lauren’s unwavering optimism was catching. Against all the odds, she had worked hard to have a good life, to meet her goals, and to surpass them.
It made me determined to do the same. “Why not me? Why can’t I be instrumental in creating change for school OT practitioners? Why can’t I do anything I work hard at?”
Do you have a dream that seems unachievable? Why not you?
What’s stopping you from achieving your dreams?
You get to decide!