A Meaningful Ride for Special Olympics USA Team
In 2003, when Marissa Lee Brzescinski agreed to host a training session of Special Olympics equestrian coaches at her horse farm in Mocksville, she had no idea that 12 years later she would coach the Special Olympics USA Equestrian team for the 2015 World Games in Los Angeles.
Originally from Long Island, N.Y., Brzescinski has been a horse lover since she was four years old. However, she didn’t initially pursue a career in the equestrian world. Instead, she launched a career in television news, which she describes as “lucrative but somewhat soul-crushing.” She was working as a videographer in New York during 9/11, and the traumatic months following the attack caused her to do some serious soul-searching.
“I covered and attended more funerals and memorials than anyone should ever have to,” Brzescinski says. “I even had to cover the funeral of a friend and fellow videographer for the news shortly after that day. As I tried desperately to focus through the viewfinder through a curtain of tears, I realized that I needed to spend whatever precious time God granted me here on this earth doing something that meant something to me – something that would make a difference.”
Brzescinski decided that horses were part of that equation. She left the news world to teach and train full time at a farm in New York, and two years later, she and her husband, Kris, moved to North Carolina to operate Dixieland Farm. Not long after arriving in North Carolina, she was approached by the local coordinator for Special Olympics Davie County about hosting the annual training school.
“We thought it would be a great idea to open our facility to the organization, and it would give us a chance to get to know the horse community of Davie County,” Brzescinski says. “The coordinator mentioned how nice it would be if I were to get certified myself, along with some of our students and boarders – which was really her not-so-subtle way of asking if we would mind taking over the equestrian team at our farm full time!”
Before long, she was the head coach of Special Olympics Davie County, taking a team of athletes, horses and volunteer coaches to the Special Olympics North Carolina tournament in Raleigh. She was named the assistant coach for the 2007 World Games in Shanghai, China, and for the 2011 World Games in Athens, Greece.
As the head coach in the 2015 World Games in Los Angeles, the team came home with 11 gold medals, eight silver medals and three bronze.
“Every single member of the team medaled,” she says.
When it comes to the World Games, Special Olympics athletes face many challenges. Athletes don’t get to bring their own horses to the games; instead, they compete on unfamiliar horses, and are typically given very little time to practice – often only 10 to 15 minutes. They are usually competing in a different time zone, eating unfamiliar foods and spending time away from their families.
That said, she notes that horses are the “great equalizer.”
“Equestrian is one of the few sports where age or gender of the competitors is truly meaningless,” she says. “Men and women compete side-by-side … old, young, all together on the same playing field. The real challenge they face is that they are competing with a 1,200-pound partner who they have to convince to do what they want. Soccer balls and tennis rackets don’t tend to give you an attitude!”
A variety of breeds are used for Special Olympics, including quarter horses, Thoroughbreds and paint horses.
“When people ask me what breed makes the best mount for Special Olympics,” Brzescinski says, “I tell them the one with the biggest heart.”
One common denominator is that most of the horses are more than 20 years old. Brzescinski says the athletes keep the horses young at heart.
“My athletes are exceptionally devoted to our horses and to their sport, and I think my horses feel the same way,” she says. “One of my favorite photos is of one of my athletes at the state tournament one year. She was super tired and had been waiting for her turn to enter the ring for a long time. I turned around to tell her something, and realized she had leaned down, wrapped her arms around her horse’s neck and fallen asleep – along with the horse! The pair enjoyed a catnap together before going in and nailing their ride. My athletes and their horses are truly a team.”
Brzescinski is no longer the head coach for Special Olympics USA Equestrian; a new team of coaches will be selected in 2018 for the 2019 Summer World Games. Regardless, the experience has more than fulfilled her desire to make a difference in the world.
“Working with Special Olympics has taught me that our athletes can do some of the most amazing, inspiring, jaw-dropping things,” she says. “My athletes have taught me the true meaning of respect and given me a whole new appreciation and love for the sport.”
– Karsen Price