The face of next year’s Paralympics could be a poodle.
Five-year-old Journey is an unusual service dog, but then Sydney Collier is an unusual owner.
Collier, 17, has just been crowned the leading young para-dressage rider in North America – despite partial blindness, paralysis, and a series of brain surgeries.
Last year, Collier was the youngest rider to reach the prestigious World Equestrian Games, though it was her standard poodle that stole the show.
“When I first heard I was getting a service dog, my dad and I jokingly said: ‘just as long as it’s not a standard poodle,’” recalls Collier.
“How weird would that be? You think of standard poodles and you think of the Eiffel Tower.
“But Journey is amazing. The list of things he can do is probably longer than the list of things I can do.”
Kai Handt, the man in charge of the U.S. para-dressage team, tells CNN the dog was “more famous than the rider” at the World Equestrian Games in spite of his young owner’s prowess.
“They even gave the dog official credentials. He got plastered all over the press,” remembers Handt.
“It was different – but it gets people to read about it and have a laugh. It doesn’t have to be all that serious when you have a teenage rider out there competing, you can have some fun.”
‘Take her home and pray’
Not that Collier is taking anything lightly. She finished ninth of 25 riders at the World Equestrian Games and is tipped to star for the United States at the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
To reach international level, she has overcome Wyburn-Mason syndrome – a rare condition also known as Bonnet-Dechaume-Blanc syndrome.
“Less than 100 people on earth have this,” says Collier. “It’s a birth defect where the veins and arteries deep in my brain didn’t separate with capillaries. It leads to this tumor-like area deep in my brain that has a huge risk of bleeding.
“I also have a tumor behind my right eye. That’s caused me to go completely blind in my right eye and half-blind in my left eye.
“It’s mostly diagnosed after people pass away from a massive bleed. We were really lucky we caught it.”
Sydney’s mother Anna Collier remembers the day of that diagnosis. Her daughter, then seven years old, went for an eye test. Anna was told Sydney needed glasses.
“For whatever reason – whatever path you get put on – I ended up taking her to not just a glasses shop but an ophthalmologist. That pretty-much changed our life,” recalls Anna.
“The ophthalmologist looked into her eye, dropped her stuff, looked at me like Sydney had grown two heads, and walked out.
“She came back in about 20 minutes later, looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know if I should call an ambulance but something is very wrong behind her eye.’”
Anna remembers the days of urgent medical attention that followed, culminating in doctors telling her to “take Sydney home and pray.” Instead, she scoured the globe for someone prepared to help – and found a doctor in California offering experimental treatment.
“That has defined our life since then, traveling back and forth to California,” says Anna. She and Sydney live in New York state, a 10-hour drive from the rest of the family (Sydney’s dad and her two younger brothers), in order to be close to coach Wes Dunham.
Young Sydney persisted with riding despite her newly discovered condition. In 2009 she suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed on her left side but, a year later, she went to Kentucky to watch the U.S. host the World Equestrian Games.
“When Sydney watched those riders,” says Anna, “that was when she threw down everything and said, ‘Hey, I can still do everything I want to do.’
“We had no idea how to make it happen, but we pulled together and said we could make it work.”
By 2012, the Colliers had acquired the use of a horse named Wentworth. Sydney calls him “every girl’s dream horse – big, black and beautiful.”
Journey the service dog appeared soon after Wentworth. When Sydney fell and broke her collarbone leaving a cinema, the family decided a service dog could help.
“Over time, we’ve kind-of melded together into one. I forget I have him sometimes. It’s an amazing partnership,” says Sydney.
“He helps me walk – he walks alongside me and acts like my cane. If I’m about to fall, he’ll brace all his muscles and keep me from falling. He picks up things that I drop, he can open and close doors for me, turn on and off lights, open and close cabinets … and if I fall he’ll find my mom.”
That’s the most important part for Anna.
“It’s surprising that when people fall, they often aren’t aided,” she says. “But if Syd falls and Journey can’t help her get up, he won’t let people ignore the fact that she’s there.
“As a parent, that makes me so much more comfortable if she wants to go to the mall with her friends. Before, I felt I needed to be there. Now, he watches her like an eagle. He is always watching to make sure she’s OK.”
Even Wentworth is, apparently, a Journey fan.
“They have a bromance going on,” says Sydney.
“When I get off Wentworth, Journey runs right up to him and licks out his nostrils. It’s a little bit personal – but Wentworth obviously likes it.”
The dog is aptly named. In a sport where riders can continue for decades, Sydney is just starting her journey.
Last year, when she competed at the World Equestrian Games in Caen, France, her mother cried from the stands.
“I was like a starry-eyed little teenager. Watching her go down that center line [of the arena] the first time was incredible,” says Anna.
“It was watching her defeat every struggle she had ever had. To watch her live her dream was awesome.”
Sydney adds: “The moment that stands out was the opening ceremony. It was at that moment I realized I had beaten my Wyburn-Mason syndrome, I had overcome all of these huge obstacles I’d been faced with.”
To go to the Rio Paralympics, she must impress selectors at U.S. nationals later this year, then two team qualifiers in Florida in January.
“It’s going to be quite competitive and she’s going to have to step it up a bit,” warns Handt, “but she is a tough competitor and she has the right focus and attitude.”
“Rio would be the next stepping stone,” says Sydney. “I hope I can use it to inspire other people through my journey.”
Wait – journey, or Journey?
“Actually, that’s a funny story,” she laughs. “Three months into our training, the people who raised him as a puppy told us they couldn’t decide what to name him.
“They had two names to choose from: Journey … and Sydney.
“It’s a good thing they didn’t name him Sydney. Sydney and Sydney? That would have been confusing.”