'It gives her purpose'

Kenn Oliver
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Thirteen years ago, former figure skating champion Robyn Andrews nearly died with a brain tumour, she's since rediscovered her competitive spirit as an equestrian athlete

Thirteen years ago, a doctor at the Bloorview MacMillan Children's Centre in Toronto didn't give Robyn Andrews a chance of living a full and happy life.

The young girl, once a provincial figure skating champion, was being assessed for the facility's acquired brain injury program.

Robyn Andrews on Fancy (Fancianna) after winning the 1A class at the 2009 Para-Dressage Championships in Quebec in August. Submitted photo

Thirteen years ago, a doctor at the Bloorview MacMillan Children's Centre in Toronto didn't give Robyn Andrews a chance of living a full and happy life.

The young girl, once a provincial figure skating champion, was being assessed for the facility's acquired brain injury program.

She had survived surgery to remove a brain tumour, a blood clot during recovery which caused a seizure, and a massive stroke which occurred as a result of the surgery to repair the clot - all of which began to unfold two days before her 13th birthday.

The MacMillan Centre doctor, observing her state at the time, determined Robyn wasn't eligible for their program, but parents Bob and Diana eventually ensured their only daughter would get admitted to the facility.

She would be the lowest-functioning patient ever admitted to the centre.

But if Robyn didn't prove that doctor wrong when she left the MacMillan Centre 15 months later following a rigorous rehabilitation and a steady series of surgeries, she certainly did this past August when she became an internationally classified national Para-dressage equestrian.

"The day she won ... the smile on her face was worth a million dollars," recalls Diana, mother and primary caregiver to a now 26-year-old Robyn, who won the 1A class at the 2009 Para-Dressage Championships in Quebec this August.

"This has given her back her competitive spirit. She loves this. It's a wonderful thing to be involved in."

You need not hear it from a proud parent to know it's true ... Robyn Andrews is happy atop her horse. It gives her purpose.

Couldn't ignore that competitive gene

"I still have the competitive gene in me," Robyn says, her big brown eyes focused on her mount, Fancy (her full name is Fancianna). "This gives me a chance to fill that need."

It was the late Andrea Gillies, the Rainbow Riders founder, who approached the Andrews not long after their return from Toronto. She believed the therapeutic riding association could help Robyn, who was still in a wheelchair, regain some balance and coordination.

"When we came up here, she had sidewalkers, someone leading the horse, and people holding her up because she couldn't do it by herself," says Diana, recounting her daughter's first years at Rainbow Riders.

She may still need assistance getting on her horse, but Robyn has been riding independently for three years and sits up straight in the saddle, gracefully leading Fancy through a series of movements as precise as any figure skater's routine.

"In dressage, you have to learn patterns and remember them and all the steps you do, that's challenging," Robyn explains. "But I'm used to that because skating was the same way."

Around the time she began riding solo, Robyn entered the competitive stream with Para-Equestrian Canada, performing video competitions with her coach, fellow equestrian Jessica Rhinelander.

"Since Robyn's competitive edge was sparked, it's been non-stop madness," Rhinelander says from Germany, where she is living and training this year with Dutch Olympian Ellen Bontje.

The video competitions led to an invitation to train and compete with Rhinelander on the mainland, using a leased horse. Before long, it was decided Robyn would need her own horse if she wanted to advance. So in August of last year, a trip to Germany turned up Fancianna.

A Para-dressage horse and a regular dressage mount, side by side, don't appear any different to the untrained eye. The differences are mostly psychological.

"When choosing a Para-dressage horse, the most important thing is the safety of the rider," explains Rhinelander. "It must be willing, kind, bright and brave. Para-dressage horses must want to take care of their riders, and these horses are hard to find, and in high demand."

A Para-dressage mount is also "bomb proof," which means it's unlikely Robyn will be thrown if Fancy is startled. And as a Grade 1A rider, those with the lowest functioning physical abilities, Robyn and Fancy only walk as opposed to trotting and cantering.

"She has to learn these tests and do the same movements as other para-riders and even able-bodied riders, too, but she has to do them in a walk, which in a lot of cases is much more difficult because the horse is slower," says Diana.

And as Rhinelander points out, "each test is designed to test the highest of each grade level's ability."

"For Robyn to be competing at the highest level for her classification, after only riding for a few years, shows her determination and talent," says the young coach, who has handed the reigns of Robyn's development over to Meg Gillies and Melanie Stone at Rainbow Riders in her absence.

"Robyn not only inspires me as an athlete, but also as a coach."

Robyn's showing at nationals in Quebec also earned her one of four internationally classifications - "without the stress of having to compete," adds Diana - and the opportunity attend the European Para-Equestrian Championships in Norway in late August. It offered her a first-hand look at the top European Para-equestrians she could compete against in Uxbridge, Ont., next year, that could qualify her for the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky next October.

"She's a real inspiration, and not just because she's my daughter," Diana contends.

"She's come a long way from the child who was lying in a bed with nothing moving. She couldn't blink, she couldn't swallow."

With a coach and mount of international calibre, the devotion of her parents, the dedication of the Rainbow Riders and her own "will to carry on," who knows just how much farther Robyn Andrews can go.

koliver@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Bloorview MacMillan Children, MacMillan Centre, World Equestrian Games

Geographic location: Para, Toronto, Quebec Germany Norway Uxbridge Kentucky

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