TALES FROM THE TRAILS
On Sunday, Sept. 13, approximately 200 friends, family members, fellow equestrians and supporters gathered under the covered arena at the Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center in Loxahatchee Groves to celebrate the accomplishments of Christina Cooney. At a place where special events happen frequently, this gathering was a bit more special than most.
Despite being legally blind, hearing-impaired and mentally challenged, Christina, 37, was one of only eight U.S. equestrians, and the only one from Florida, to compete at the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles, which ran from July 25 through Aug. 2.
Christina, who doesn’t speak and has trouble with complicated concepts, began riding at Vinceremos when she was 11. She competed in local, regional and state shows to qualify for the World Games, one of 16 athletes representing Florida among nearly 7,000 athletes from 177 nations. She earned a silver medal in English Equitation, a bronze medal in Level A Dressage, and placed fourth in Trail.
At the victory party, there were refreshments, balloons and a cake featuring a rainbow with a horse and rider. Beaming well-wishers mingled and chatted. Mark Elie helped raise money so Christina’s parents and coaches could attend the World Games.
“I got involved through my wife, Kim, who’s one of Christina’s coaches,” Mark said. “The GoFundMe account we started raised more than $15,000, including the fundraiser we held at Lindburgers Restaurant in Wellington on July 16. Everyone’s hard work came to fruition. Today we’re here to show our appreciation.”
Ruth Menor, founder of Vinceremos, was all smiles. This is only the second time that she has sent a rider to the World Games. “Having Christina chosen was pretty amazing,” she said. “And then coming home with a silver and bronze was even more amazing.”
Christina had some issues with the translators in L.A., and she couldn’t understand their coaches, since they didn’t sign.
“But she was thoroughly prepared and had done all her work here, so she managed very well,” Menor said. “She has been riding with us for 23 years, and she also works here. She cares for the horses, volunteers to help other riders, and is fully involved in every aspect of our program. She really rose to the challenge of riding new horses in a different venue without her usual interpreter. We’re all so proud of her.”
Her achievement even drew attention in Congress, where Florida U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings read a letter into the Congressional Record recognizing her performances at the World Games and praising her as being uniquely “able to communicate with the horses she rides and cares for in a way few individuals are able.”
Kim Elie, Christina’s main coach for the event, started working with her in April.
“I used to volunteer at Vinceremos some years ago, then I had to step away,” Kim said. “I came back just for this. Because of Christina’s communication challenges, we created special signs for walk, trot, canter, halt, circle and reverse. We also used a vibrating bracelet. Because of her visual and hearing impairments, it’s hard to get her attention, especially if she’s not facing us. So she learned to look for us if the bracelet buzzed.”
Her team also created 3D models of the dressage test and trail class, along with a sand tray so she could trace the tests and practice. “That really helped her learn and retain the information. It has been a rewarding, fun and interesting journey for all of us,” Kim said. “Christina is one of the hardest-working riders I’ve ever seen. She’s truly dedicated.”
Christina’s parents, Mike and Madeline, were bowled over by the love and support. “I’m overwhelmed; this is so over the top,” Madeline said, reading a congratulatory letter she had received from U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. “We’re proud of Christina and how far she has come. She is not a big talker, more of a go-with-the-flow type, but I can that tell she is happy. She loves the attention, but it’ll never go to her head. We’ll go home later, and she’ll be the same, as if nothing special happened. Her goal is to make everyone around her happy. I’m not sure if she is aware of exactly what happened, but she knows the World Games were a very special competition. It has been a great journey for all of us.”
The official ceremony got under way at 5 p.m. Ruth spoke first. “It took a community to make this happen,” she said, and described Christina’s hard work and preparation.
Dan Liftman, a staff assistant to Hastings, added a personal note of congratulations from him. “Christina is a Hastings Hero, and her accomplishments have been entered into the Congressional Record,” he said, reading a copy of the citation, engraved on a plaque, which he then handed to Madeline.
“Everyone who helped deserves medals, too,” said Madeline, looking down at the plaque. “This makes me want to cry even more.”
For more information about Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center, call (561) 792-9900, or visit www.vinceremos.org.