At 23 Alicia Daugherty was unstoppable.
A talented athlete, she played soccer obsessively, dreaming of turning pro. And her idea of cycling, another passion, was to hop on her bike in the morning and ride to the point of exhaustion.
On May 22, 2011 at 12:53 p.m., Daugherty was beginning a 70-mile ride, in preparation for the 127-mile Pedal to the Point charity race in Ohio, when a hit-and-run driver ran a red light, and obliterated the young athlete’s dreams, but never her spirit.
For 10 months, Daugherty battled fainting spells, dizziness, migraines and a long list of other symptoms that neurologists initially suspected were the side effects of a skull fracture she sustained in the accident, along with other injuries.
But at last, when rounds of physical therapy and bimonthly epidural injections failed to quell her symptoms, an MRI was performed on Daugherty’s brain, leading unsuspectingly to a diagnosis of Chiari Malformation, a condition in which part of the cerebellum of the brain descends through an opening at the base of the skull.
“After the MRI, I got back this report, which was really long. I was reading through it and was
Race name: Officers’ Club
Dam: Party On Deck, by Relaunch
Foal date: May 17, 2007shocked when I saw a notation that said my cerebellum was descending six millimeters out of my skull,” she says. “My brain was literally coming out of my head, and I’d been walking around like that!”
Her physician surmised that Daugherty was probably born with the malformation defect, and that together with the trauma and whiplash from the accident her long list of debilitating symptoms were brought on; once a strong, fit young woman, she was now a struggling convalescent unable to walk a straight line, or stand without swaying on her feet.
Upon hearing the diagnosis, her doctor ticked off two lists, on long, one short.
The lengthy one included all those pleasures in life that were now off limits— soccer, cycling, even rollercoaster rides.
“I used to play soccer from sunup to sundown. I was dead set on becoming fit enough to play professionally,” she says. “I had to give everything up. I can’t even ride a roller coaster. And, if I want to take a flight, I have to change my medication two weeks in advance.”
On the short list however, there was one item that her doctor grudgingly allowed: her passion for riding horses.
A month prior to her accident, Daugherty had acquired an ex-racehorse Thoroughbred from Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center.
The strapping, large roan-gray mare stood in a nearby barn, and shone like a beacon as the young lady endured physical therapy, needles, and even a surgery to rebuild her sinuses to accommodate the change in her brain.
After Daugherty left a neurologist appointment, she would settle at the barn. When she recovered from a migraine or got a shot, she would find herself there. And when she endured the hours of painful physical therapy, she planted herself near the warm, breathing embodiment of towering strength, her horse, Officers’ Club.
“That mare became a big, positive focus for me,” she says. “She’s a blessing for me.”
Along with all her other athletic pursuits, Daugherty always had a special place for Thoroughbreds in her life.
She rode hunter/jumpers and had just decided to start eventing when she purchased Officers’ Club, whom she renamed Lily.
“I went to Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center because that’s where I had gotten horses before, and I chose Lily because she was very quiet. I was always a nervous rider, and going over big, solid jumps, I wanted something quiet,” she says.
When she couldn’t ride, Daugherty visited Lily just to spend time with her. It wasn’t long before her mind sharpened, focusing on new goals for herself and for her horse.
Although still too unstable to get into the saddle, she poured all her focus and available energy into the lunge line, connecting her trembling hands to the head of her giant equine athlete.
“I made a point to do everything I could think to do with her from the ground,” she says. “I taught her to Spanish Walk better than any Warmblood, and we practiced lateral work we’d need in dressage.”
Finally, about five months ago, the petite fighter who stands just 4-foot 11-inches tall in her stocking feet, felt ready to ride.
Donning a doctor-approved helmet that offers extra protection to the back of her head, Dougherty mounted her 16.1 hand mare, and began training as a Para-dressage rider.
Feeling the surefooted rhythm of her mare’s gait, her hopes soared with every step.
And, after recently qualifying as an FEI approved Para-dressage rider, Dougherty’s goals have shifted. She now aims to compete in dressage at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio!
Alicia Dougherty: Once, an aspiring young athlete is now, once again, an aspiring young athlete.
“Chiari has taken so much away from me,” she says. “But what Lily does for me is give me a sense of normalcy, it’s one part of my life that still makes me feel like the athlete I once was.”