Anake Wolmerans tensed as she entered the arena at the Phoenix show grounds. She was the last competitor in the jump-off round at the Open Show-Jumping Grand Prix. They were down to a field of five, two of whom had jumped penalty-free over the short, difficult course.
Her spectacular performance at Calgary´s Spruce Meadows Eventing competition the week before had suddenly made her favored to win in Show Jumping as well. It bolstered her hope of being selected for the United States Olympic Show Jumping team.
She was the only rider on a homegrown horse, which she bred by crossing her Polish Arab with a magnificent Friesian stallion. The rest of the field was dominated by professionally raised and trained European Warm bloods. At that moment, she felt certain that riding Élan gave her an emotional edge. To win, she had to jump clean in a course time of less than eighty nine point three seconds.
There had been complaints about the NATO fighter squadrons,training out of nearby Luke Air Force Base, making disturbing noises.Now, all was silent as Anake began her round, talking encouragingly to Élan. She knew him down to every muscle, and immediately sensed his high level of energy. She held him back, carefully steadying him before entering the course and then released him as they triggered the timing system. He accelerated instantly and easily cleared the first five-foot triple fence. As he landed, she turned him tightly to enter the second gate in four rather than five paces. For a moment, it seemed too tight as they approached the next double-fence, which was only three feet wide, set five feet apart. But Élan seemed at ease and took off, handsomely clearing both fences to an audible sigh of relief from the audience. A sharp, right turn took them to a gold and white wall of balustrade pillars, topped with viaduct-like cutouts, set close to the five-foot mark. Élan stepped slightly short and cleared the jump uncomfortably close with his rear hoofs almost touching. The crowd sat in suspended silence as Anake steered Élan through a long turn to enter a row of three jumps.
She steadied him slightly before spurring him on to clear the first, single, five-foot fence, suspended between two Budweiser bottle standards. In the next twenty-four foot space, she positioned him again and they sailed majestically over the five-foot, candy-striped, square oxer. They rapidly covered the thirty-seven feet to the last five-foot oxer and gracefully cleared it. Elated, she spurred him on to the final daunting six-foot wall. As the time display clicked off the eightieth second, the audience fell breathlessly silent. Élan was perfectly positioned, gathering a full blast of energy for the high leap racing towards them.
Suddenly, a thunderous boom shook the ground. In spite of his momentum, Élan instinctively tried to rear, and twisting into the air,they came crashing into the wall. Square blocks went flying in all directions, the audience gasped audibly, before jumping to their feet to see a stunned Élan scrambling to his feet and turning quickly to stand, head down, hovering over Anake´s motionless body. In the eerie silence, he let out a resonant, low whimper.
Charged with adrenaline, André, flew over the guardrail, and stormed across the arena to where his student lay below the anxious stare of her noble horse. As he fell to his knees, the flow of blood from the back of her head caught his eye, and he called out frantically to summon medical help. Her helmet had crumpled. It looked to him as if it had pierced her skull.
"Oh my God!" he let out audibly, praying desperately for her survival. He took the reins dangling from Élan and bent forward to feel her pulse. Softly calling her name, he could see that she was unconscious, but her pulse was strong. He stood up to make room for the paramedics. The horse backed away nuzzling him, and sought succor by whimpering in a rich baritone grunt. With great care, the paramedics moved her onto a stretcher, secured her, and slid the stretcher into the ambulance.
"Where are you taking her?" André asked.
"Who are you?"
"I'm her trainer. I know everything about her."
"OK then, will you ride with us?"
"First, I have to take care of this horse. Where will I find her?"
"Saint Joseph's Hospital Emergency Ward."
"Thanks, and pray to God that mercy goes with you."
Oblivious to the loud, spontaneous applause of the crowd, André walked Élan around the arena to the exit and once he was certain he had not been injured, gently settled him in his stall.
Deeply worried about her head wound, and murmuring hopes for her survival, he hurried off to the hospital. He knew so little about her background. As her trainer, he never pried. Her father was alive. She had a son. He didn't know how to reach them. He could´t leave important medical decisions to the hospital bureaucrats. She had been married once. If pushes came to shoves, he decided to act as her husband.
They kept him waiting in the lobby of the emergency ward. His mind wandered through the experience of working with someone as tenacious and talented as Anake. In his experience, the way she communicated with her horse was unprecedented. Élan was as close to her as her own offspring. They could immediately sense if something went wrong with each other. When she was on his back, they moved as one. She was a brave woman on a highly talented horse. As a team, they seemed invincible. How else could one explain a rider winning top honors in dressage, show jumping, and cross-country racing, all on the back of the same horse? Certainly, they had been the most remarkable pair he´d ever trained. He felt a twinge of remorse thinking about the times he had lost his temper with her. She hadn´t complained and simply tried harder.
"Mister Brink," a female voice brought him back to reality.
"You may now go in to see the neurologist. Doctor Pritchard is his name. Follow me, please."
Dr. Pritchard looked up."They tell me you are her trainer. I sense you essentially are her manager. She´s in serious condition. The fall crushed her hard-hat and a shard of titanium entered the rear of her skull. She´s still unconscious. We have to perform surgery immediately to remove any foreign material that could have gotten into the wound in her brain. We will then have a better idea of any damage she may have suffered.
"Will she survive?;
"Yes, her vital signs are strong and stable. If I had to guess, I would say her eyesight may be impaired.
"You are being forthright and honest. Her great ambition is to represent the United States at the next Olympiad. You can imagine what screwed up vision will do to her psyche! You just have to pull all the stops you can to save as much of her sight as humanly possible.
"To make the Olympic Team may take super-human effort. How is your relationship with her?
"We are professionally close colleagues with a common goal."
"Are you kidding me? I saw you on TV, the look on your face, the way you came running! Leave your cell phone number with the desk. I´ll need you here after she´s conscious.
"When will that be?"
"I want to do a cat scan first...say, about three hours.
"Thanks for staying focused, doc.
"Don´t mention it. She´s something special. Take care of that horse.
This was how it all started until several days later she was released and she and her trainer, André Brink, withdrew to their home spun equestrian facility in California´s Santa Ynez Valley, determined to still make the U.S. Olympic team as a Dressage rider.
They had to start from scratch to train her to ride dressage tests as if blindfolded on her prized Friesian Stallion, Élan. The exhausting process imposed increasing challenges with each higher level of tests from level 1, all the way up to level 4 and onto the international levels of Prix Saint Georges,Intermediare I and II, on to Grand Prix with the ultimate goal of including Grand Prix Freestyle.
Many years her senior, André served as her eyes, mentor and business manager, bonding with her until they were inseparable. At progressively higher levels it drew increasing professional attention to Anake, making it more and more difficult to hide her sight impairment from dressage federation observers.
Dr. Prichard, who saved her vision, became inspired to provide financial help through his hunt club members in Phoenix and sent his dressage-riding teenage daughter, Madison, to live with them. She bonded with André to achieve astounding results very quickly, while Anake accepted an invitation to attend a high level annual clinic in Holland. Her famous host took a personal interest in her and motivated her to ride all three Federation of Equitation International tests, culminating in the Grand Prix on the back of her host´s famous Warm blood, Breda. She left Europe with a strong affection for her imposing host, Jan Prinsloo.
With the unexpected rapid progress embracing all three FEI credentials in one swoop, they seriously turned their attention to showing at important championship shows on the West Coast beginning in Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland. Their enthusiasm was buoyed by an equestrian correspondent who discovered Anake in LA and interviewed her. The publicity leads to an all-out show effort in the Northwest where they get a palpable sense of being watched by experts of the US Equestrian Federation.
Madison has her own challenges set by André to take her horse, Rowdy Joe, through level three on the same trip. The combination of stress to beat each previous triumph at successive shows along with the aggravation of André´s attention to Madison, wears on Anake. When Madison brings to André´s attention the tell tale signs pointing to a Brazilian Olympian as one of the federation´s agents watching them, Anake begins to behave aggressively toward Madison, causing André to pay more attention to Anake. When he finally sets a trap for Renata, the beautiful Brazilian, to ride Élan against Anake in Portland to elevate Renata´s appreciation of Anake´s depth of ability, it almost brings their marriage to a breaking point.
A few weeks later in Los Angeles they meet the Brazilian again and a friendship develops between Renata and Anake and she invites her to join them for the next show in Las Vegas. As they grow closer to Renata, her prior romance with Prinsloo at one of his earlier conferences comes to light and the fact that it led to Renata´s untimely pregnancy and a rather nasty breakup with Prinsloo. This caused her grand father to take her child into custody in Brazil, leaving Renata stranded abroad to fend for herself.
André steps in to convince her Stanford MBA father to make peace with her and to persuade her grandfather to release the child to her. This comes to a head in Las Vegas as Anake prepares for her last West Coast debut. With the specter of added competition for André´s attention from this new formidable dressage figure, Anake overdoses on Bols Gin an hour before her Grand Prix Freestyle test. Aided by Dr Pritchard, André revives her in time for the test, which falls slightly short of expectation, but it sours her relationship with Dr. Pritchard to the point that André packs her off to a wild animal camp in Botswana on the Caprivi Strip where he and several associates had contrived to save a rich heritage of wild animals during the Angolan war.
Anake seeks comfort in the arms of Rolf one of Andrés bosom friends. When this comes to his attention André decides to encourage the courtship to ensure her security and to preserve at least their training relationship, but annuls their marriage. At arms length they hold it together through a vigorous show series at Grand Prix level in Florida which almost assures her of a place on the next U.S. Olympic Dressage Team, but causes a nervous breakdown which hospitalizes her in a psychiatric treatment facility in Wickenburg, Arizona.