She's jumping, back in saddle

Equestrian: Just five months after an auto accident that broke her neck, McDonogh's Molly Cole is back at the sport she loves.

High Schools

October 22, 2002|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,SUN STAFF

Molly Cole and her horse Jake move around the tiny McDonogh indoor practice ring with almost mechanical precision. The 16-year-old has ridden her 11-year-old thoroughbred for so long that she knows his every move and he knows hers.

Approaching a jump, Cole leans into Jake's neck as his forelegs leave the ground. The two merge into one entity, gliding seamlessly through the air. They clear the 3-foot, 6-inch bar without a nick.

They jump so smoothly that McDonogh riding coach Streett Moore can't find anything to complain about - or any signs that Cole is coming back from what could have been a devastating injury.

"That's as good as Molly was before. Even the untrained eye can tell that's a beautiful horse jumping a beautiful jump," Moore said. "That's pretty close to perfect."

Perfect enough to win Cole and Jake a spot in the Children's Hunter Class at this week's prestigious Washington International Horse Show at MCI Center.

Perfect enough for them to qualify in a single two-day event while most of their peers tried all year to earn enough points.

Perfect enough to belie the reality that, just five months ago, Cole suffered a broken neck in an automobile accident.

An equestrienne since she could walk, the McDonogh junior never suffered more than a few bruises in a fall from a horse. But on May 18, Preakness Saturday, she could not walk away after the car she was riding in hit a telephone pole and flipped over on a rain-slickened McDonogh Road curve less than a mile from the school's Owings Mills campus.

She doesn't remember the impact or the roll - only feeling helpless, screaming and thinking she was about to die.

"When I woke up, I was hanging in my seat belt. I couldn't get myself out, and I couldn't lift my head," Cole said. "My head was cocked to the right and I tried to lift it up, but it fell back down. It didn't hurt at all."

At first, she thought it nothing more than whiplash, but soon her mind was buzzing with all kinds of fears, even that she might be paralyzed.

Cole spent a harrowing 12 hours in the emergency room at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center after being cut out of the car and transported by ambulance. It took hours more to fit her with a brace that would support her head for the next 2 1/2 months while two broken vertebrae healed.

Her physical recovery was a cinch compared with the psychological adjustment to wearing the brace 24 hours a day. She could barely move her arms in the brace, which reached from just under her lower lip, her ears and the middle of her head to her waist.

Cole needed help doing just about everything, including being fed. Her appetite dropped off - along with 10 pounds from her 5-foot-2, 105-pound frame.

Still, the toughest thing, she said, was not being able to ride and not knowing when she might get back in the saddle.

"At first, they wouldn't tell me anything. Then, they told me I probably wouldn't [ride] until January 2003, which was a huge deal, because this is what I do," said Cole, motioning around the McDonogh barn.

"The most I've ever taken off was three weeks for a sprained ankle. Other than that, I do this pretty much every day, so I was pretty depressed."

Moore, who has known Cole nearly all her life and coached her older sister Julie, watched her struggle through the summer.

"We had other people show her horses a couple times just to keep them going," Moore said. "I think it really bothered her to come watch other people ride her horses. Today, it wouldn't matter if someone else rode her horses, but the fact that she couldn't do it was pretty hard for her to take."

Less than two weeks after she completed a month of physical therapy in August, Cole was back on Jake.

Her mother, Joanne Cole, was not surprised.

"After I saw the progress she was making, I just knew when you have a passion for something like she does for riding, she was going to be determined to get back in the saddle, maybe not to the same extent that she was. She was doing a junior division, which is a lot more competitive, but I knew that she would start back slowly."

At first, Cole was a bit tentative, so she made some adjustments to ease back into competition, which involves taking 18 to 20 jumps over four or five different courses. There's no time limit and riders are judged in a variety of categories, including how they and their mounts look, how they work in unison and the form and distance on the jumps.

She dropped from the Junior Hunter division, with jumps of 3-6, to the Children's Hunter division, with jumps of 3-0.

"I never really had a scare, so I wasn't really afraid to do anything," said Cole, a Lutherville resident who turns 17 on Sunday. "Now, I don't want to chance anything, so it's taking me a while to get my confidence back."

A big confidence booster came on Labor Day at her first competition since the accident, the Quentin Fall Horse Show near Lebanon, Pa. Cole entered just for fun, but she ended up winning four of six classes and accumulating enough points to make the cut of 30 riders qualifying for the Washington International.

Tonight, Cole and Jake compete at MCI Center, trying to duplicate the near perfection Moore saw in the McDonogh barn. Win or lose, Cole has it all in perspective.

"Before I broke my neck," Cole said last week at the McDonogh barn, "I would come out here and I'd have a bad day. I'd be discouraged and think, `This is the worst day.' Now, I come out and try my best. Then I come out again and try again.

"I don't let the little things get to me, because I know what it's like to have riding taken away from me. That was the worst. Just being able to ride is the best."

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