Evermore has always been more than just a product or a brand for us. It has been a vehicle for connection with people and their dogs all over the country. From day one, we have had events and meetings that felt almost magical in their synchronicity. As many of you know, Evermore began in the fall of 2009, when one of Hanna’s dog walking clients, Mary, had a stroke (it’s a long but worthwhile story, check it out if you haven’t). Unbeknownst to us, at the same time that Mary had permanently lost her ability to walk, an eleven-year-old girl named Sydney was striving to regain hers, after a massive stroke a few months earlier.
Ten years later and now a young woman, Sydney Collier reached out to Evermore. She is a 21-year-old award-winning equestrian. Her event is Para Dressage. Sydney represented the USA in the World Equestrian Games in Caen, France in 2014, as well as the Paralympics in Rio in 2016, and is hoping to make the team again for Tokyo 2020.
When not in saddle, Sydney relies on a service dog for mobility assistance and to help with certain tasks. After the sudden and tragic death of her previous dog, Journey, she is now acclimating to life with a new service dog named Logan. Unlike Journey, Logan is a very picky eater, and he began to lose a concerning amount of weight after moving to New York to become her canine partner. After doing her research, Sydney decided to reach out to Evermore to inquire about sponsorship.
We receive a LOT of requests of this nature. As a small company with limited resources, we have always had to say no. With Sydney, however, we felt an instant kinship. It also didn't hurt that she eloquently led with a compelling case for how she and Logan could introduce Evermore to both the service dog and equestrian communities. We are proud to announce that we are sponsoring Sydney and Logan, and we’re rooting for them to represent the USA at the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020.
She's very much on her way, having recently come in 5th overall in the National Championships in North Carolina in September, riding her new horse, All in One, owned by sponsor Georgina Bloomberg—they call him Alle! She’ll be heading to Florida for two qualifiers in January, and Sydney, Logan, and Alle are looking forward to escaping the New York winter for a bit! Their goal in these upcoming competitions is to come in in the top three overall. They are currently training six days a week to prepare for this challenge.
She has a fascinating story and since she is the best one to tell it, we interviewed her. Please note that answers have been slightly edited for content and clarity.
Tell me a little bit about yourself, the basic biographical information.
I am a 21-year-old Midwesterner, born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan. At the age of seven, I started riding horses and simultaneously got diagnosed with Wyburn-Mason syndrome, which is an incredibly rare congenital birth defect that affects less than 1,000 people on earth. Most of the time when people get diagnosed with it, it’s like a death sentence, and it’s mainly diagnosed after people have passed away from a massive bleed.
What exactly is Wyburn-Mason syndrome?
Wyburn-Mason Syndrome is a non-hereditary congenital brain disorder. In the formation of the brain’s vasculature, large and often multiple arteriovenous malformations (AVMs) are present. AVMs are a concentrated tangled mess of veins and arteries without capillaries. In the simplest terms, it’s as if the brain contains tumors made out of blood vessels—tumors that could rupture and hemorrhage at any time. Other neurological symptoms like vision problems and seizures often occur as well.
How did you get diagnosed?
It was totally by chance at a well-child visit that I just barely failed the vision test, and I was having problems with my vision at school. The nurse just kinda said to my mom, “Well if you have good insurance, go ahead and take her to an ophthalmologist.” Thank goodness we had good insurance! My parents took me to the ophthalmologist, and [she] looked behind my right eye and turned sheet white and said to my parents, “Oh my God, I never thought I would see a case of this in my entire life.” This whole time I’m just excited because I think I’m there getting glasses, and all I wanted was glasses, and she says, “I don’t know if I should send you to the hospital, call an ambulance, or send you home.” She’s freaking out, and I’m insisting on glasses. I’m seven years old, I have no idea what’s going on. We end up at the University of Michigan hospital, and the doctors told my parents that they couldn’t do anything there and to take me home and pray that I didn’t die of a massive bleed.
What was your family’s response to this?
Obviously that’s not something that a parent ever wants to have to hear. My mom, thank God, was not willing to take that as an answer. Throughout all of this craziness I continued riding, and it was the only place where I didn’t have to think about the medical stuff. Meanwhile, my mom searched far and wide on the internet—and this was before online search was that much of a thing—to find the best doctors that had any experience dealing with this. She ended up finding two hospitals, one in Sweden and Stanford Medical Center in California, that even had any experience treating cases similar to mine. She reached out to both hospitals, and Stanford actually responded, saying they had never treated a pediatric case but had treated adults with similar cases. They agreed to take me on as an experimental case. So at the age of eight, my family and I went down there as the first pediatric case they had ever treated.
What was your course of treatment?
They started out with CyberKnife radiation, which takes about six months to three years to actually take effect. So I went back home, continued riding, continued living my life and continuing doing all of the stuff that I did. Over the years I began noticing more and more weakness on the left side and a loss of coordination. When I went back at age 11 to check and see if the radiation had taken effect, they weren’t happy. The radiation hadn’t done as much as they wanted, and at that point, I was having a burning sensation in the bottom of my left foot, which was basically the tumor (AVM) in my brain becoming more of a problem. The doctors decided that it was time to take a more invasive and risky route with brain surgery. It was during my first brain surgery that I had a massive stroke and woke up totally unable to use my left side at all, I couldn’t feel it normally and I couldn’t walk. I spent the entire summer in inpatient rehab learning how to walk, just to be able to ride again.
Wow, what a powerful motivating force. Did you have any specific riding goals at the time?
Before my first stroke I was doing eventing, which consists of three phases, these being cross-country, show jumping, and dressage. My goal at that point, before my stroke, was to make it on the US Olympic team for eventing. After my first stroke, I got very discouraged for a little bit of time. I was able to retrain my brain how to walk, but I was not as fast or coordinated as before. I went back to Michigan and was basically a different person. I lost a lot of my friends who weren’t willing to slow down for me, and in the 7th grade, that’s a bit difficult.
But in 2010, at the age of 12, my mom took me to the world equestrian games in Kentucky, where I got to watch Para Dressage. It was jaw dropping to me, because I saw these incredible athletes in the show ring, in a five-star competition, at the peak of their game, just showing at the peak of their ability. That’s when I had a movie moment, where I realized if they can do this, then I can do this, too. It clicked to me just because I had a stroke and have my medical issues doesn’t mean that I have to give up on my huge goals of representing the USA one day. So I went home and told my mom and dad, “This is what I need to do, I need to start training for this every single day.” My family was super supportive. It (Para Dressage) taught me a lot, going from not embracing my disabilities, to meeting this entire community of people who rode horses and completely embraced themselves for who they are and what they wanted to do, no matter what. Since then, I’ve been riding and striving to make it onto the teams, and I actually represented the USA in the world equestrian games in 2014, as well as the Paralympics in 2016 in Rio. I’m very, very lucky to have so many incredible sponsors whose support is allowing me to train and compete to make it onto the team for 2020.
For people who may not be familiar with dressage, can you explain the sport?
The way I explain it, is you know how in figure skating they skate patterns and get judged on that? For dressage we ride specific patterns and get judged on how accurately we do them. It’s all about the relationship with the horse and the finessing of the movements, as well as the smoothness of transitions between movements and the horse’s overall quality of movement. A lot of people say its like dancing with the horse, and you are in the ring with your dance partner and making everything look effortless.