2015 Pan American team silver medalist Georgina Bloomberg talks about the congenital condition that nearly brought her riding career to a premature end in 2010 and the extraordinary measures she’s taken to remedy it. As told to Carley Sparks.
I was born with a back condition called spondylolisthesis.
It’s basically a side to side version of scoliosis. My spine curved to the left, so my hips were out of whack. One of my legs was a quarter of an inch longer than the other. Because I was always off to the left, my horses always went right.
I always knew my condition was going to give me more back pain than the ordinary athlete. Riding is hard on your joints and your core. The motion of going with a horse over the jump and the impact when you land can be jarring. Doing it over and over again every day, riders often develop groin and back injuries—and that’s without the added alignment issues of a curved spine.
I had to work as hard as possible to be as strong as the other riders.
In 2002, I broke my back from a not-particularly bad fall while training for the Hampton Classic and was in a brace for six months. It was my first major injury.
In 2010, it happened again.
The second time, I didn’t even think I was hurt enough to go to the hospital. I went to the bar with a few friends that night, thinking my back kills, I need to have some alcohol. I had a concussion too, so I wasn’t thinking clearly.
It wasn’t until I woke up in the middle of the night in excruciating pain that I knew something was really wrong. I called my trainer, James Doyle, and he took me to a hospital for x-rays.
The doctors said that my back fractures so easily because it’s so unstable. Every time I have a bad fall, it’s going to keep happening. Not exactly welcome news.
If you ride horses, you’re going to take some falls. I knew I was mentally never going to be able to come back to the sport until I fixed myself physically. You can’t be thinking about what could happen if you fall off when you’re galloping at a 1.60m oxer.
At that point, I was dealing with back pain almost every day, too. It wasn’t just holding me back as an athlete, but as a person. It became a matter of quality of life.
I decided at that moment that I was going to use this injury to change my life. I knew it was my one shot. If I wanted to stay in the sport, and to compete at the level I wanted, it was something that I needed to do.
I met with surgeons and, in 2011, had surgery to reshape my spine. The doctors slipped my vertebrae back into place and spaced them out using bone grafts from my body and a bone bank. I now have metal rods and pins in my lower back to hold it all together. I’m three-quarters of an inch taller than I was before—that’s how crooked I was.
For eight months after my surgery, I didn’t ride. It was the first time in my life that I listened to the doctors. I let my back heal as long as I could. I did physical therapy and strength training. I really concentrated on coming back as fit and strong as possible, particularly in my core.
I’m a petite person and I’m trying to control an animal that is ten times my weight. I figured that the stronger I am the better I am able to do that and the less likely I would have more injuries.
I noticed a big difference not only in the amount of pain in my back, but in the way I was able to ride, the number of horses I was able to ride, and the level of competition I was able to do. I’ve had the most successful seasons of my career since my surgery. I cracked the top 50 in the world rankings in 2015 and made my first championship team, riding for the US in the Pan American Games.
Now, I make a huge effort to stay physically fit and to do the stretching. I work out for an hour a day on top of the riding. I try to do as much stretching as possible and also as much cardio as I can. In the summer, I do laps in the pool for half an hour as well. When we’re in Florida for the winter, I work out with a trainer and then do Pilates in the evening.
And I love that time. I’m addicted to working out.
I love getting in the gym, watching a tv show or putting on headphones and getting lost in the music. I’ve developed a love of strength training as well, which is something I never did before. For me, it’s therapy. I’m not someone who likes to meditate or sit around. Relaxation to me is getting in the gym and working up a sweat.
As much as it’s helped me physically, it’s improved my mental performance, too. Riding is a very physical sport, but it’s also a mental sport. If you’re not in a good place mentally, you’re going to have trouble in the ring. You need to be very concentrated and aware of every jump.
The more even I am mentally, the more it pays in the ring. It’s just as important to me as being physically prepared.
Surgery changed my life. I take care of myself now in a way that I never did before.
There’s no telling where that’ll take me next.