Books and Film

The Phoenix Flaps Her Wings

An excerpt from “Rise: The Jessica Phoenix Story”

“I am convinced that life is ten per cent what happens to me and ninety per cent how I react to it.”

—Charles R. Swindoll, “The Grace Awakening”

July’s sweltering summer sun beat down on the start box. The 2015 Pan American Games were underway in Toronto, Canada and the top Eventing horses from across North and South America were hashing it out for a place on the podium.

Canada’s reigning Pan American gold medalists, Jessica and Pavarotti, were up next. They were Team Canada’s last pair of the day. An elimination for another teammate on course put the pressure for a clean round squarely on Jessica’s shoulders. As the duo approached the start box, crowds began to line the galloping lanes. The dangers of cross-country were etched on Jessica’s body; freshly healed ribs and newly forming scars from her two recent surgeries were reminders of what had taken place only eight weeks prior in New Jersey. She hadn’t been on a cross-country course since her accident.

Sandra, a lifelong equestrian, was behind the scenes at the Games as Jessica’s groom, responsible for keeping Pavarotti looking and feeling great. “Jessie is always so positive, no matter how tough a situation she is in. Being last to go for a team is tremendous pressure at the best of times, never mind when you’re leaving the start box for the first time since a bad accident, in front of the home crowd, and after a team member has already been eliminated from competition. Jess and Pavarotti have such a strong partnership that once she got on and headed to the warm-up, we knew everything was going to be okay. I think she felt that, too.”

Pavarotti’s muscles rippled underneath her legs as the official counted down to go-time. “Ten, nine, eight…” Jessica’s gloved hands gripped her leather reins as she began channeling the energy between her and Pavarotti into steely focus. A miracle had occurred to bring her to this start box and many people following her comeback were skeptical. Yet here she was with a focus and determination that was visibly radiating off of her. And the crowds continued to form. “Three, two, one, have a great ride!”

Jessica and her sixteen-hands-high (hh) bay Westphalian gelding, owned by Don Good, came thundering out of the start box with the first jump in their sights.

“I was very thankful I was there on Pavarotti because he’s so experienced and we have such an incredible relationship together. We know each other so well,” says Jessica.

Their precision was stealthy and it was clear they were here to defend their gold medal. Hundreds of spectators stood cheering as she galloped by. Then promptly turning on their heels, the crowds began running to the water complex in the middle of the course to see her come splashing through. It was unusual for spectators to run a five kilometre course, but the atmosphere in Toronto was welling up with such energy that people couldn’t help themselves.

As Jessica and Pavarotti made their way around the e course, Sandra was able to watch their progress from the lookout tower where the announcers sit. “We knew there were a lot of people there that had heard about her accident and followed her journey to these Games, but I never imagined how many there actually were. As she galloped from fence to fence on course, the entire crowd ran with her. Watching from up high in the tower, we could see the massive group of people following her and Rotti, cheering after every fence. I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Sandra.

The trend continued with swelling numbers running to each of the next vantage points on course until all that was left was the final jump and the finish line. “I was completely oblivious to it,” Jessica recalls of the crowds. “As a professional athlete you’re so focused and so trained to do that job that you’re in the moment. It’s like tunnel vision and everything’s happening slowly. All I could hear was mine and Rotti’s breathing.”

As Jessica and Pavarotti completed the track with a clean round for Canada, the crowds began chanting. “After I crossed the finish flags and pulled him up, I started checking him over and taking off his tack, and then I heard this awesome chanting and cheering behind us and at that moment I looked up and understood the amount of support that our hometown crowd had given us around the course. That was a surreal moment and to see that crowd and know that my family was there was incredible.”

Sandra, who had made her way to the finish line to help Jessica cool down Pavarotti, says it’s a memory she’ll cherish for a lifetime. “The finish line and cool-down area were at the bottom of a hill and as they jumped the last fence, hundreds of people ran over the top of the hill to cheer them through the flags. The atmosphere was so intense and so triumphant. It was a moment I will never forget.”

Jessica emerged from the cool-down area and her five-year-old son, Jacob, who had been running the course with the other spectators and family members, leapt into her arms. Dozens of people piled in for autographs and congratulations. Media covering the competition found themselves swept up in the electric moment as well. North America’s well-known Eventing website, Eventing Nation, tweeted about the undeniable energy that filled the venue: “Hundreds of spectators crowding the galloping lane at the final fence to SCREAM Jessica Phoenix home. Indescribable moment here in Toronto.” The Toronto Star named her comeback as one of its top ten best Canadian moments at the Pan Am Games.

Our mom, Dawn, says the support and energy surrounding Team Phoenix was unlike anything she’d ever felt before. “That was a God-given moment. That was my finest moment in Eventing. Seeing her get her medal is amazing, but seeing how she touches people, hearing the support of the crowd. It’s hard to understand how many people she touches in her life until you’re there and you hear that crowd. And then I knew that everything she fought for was the way it was supposed to be. It was supposed to play out that way. It was greater than her; I’ve never seen that before.”

Jessica and Pavarotti’s physical strength were on display that day, but it was Jessica’s mental fortitude to push her near-fatal accident out of her mind and focus on the task at hand that stood out to Sandra. “Rotti is so confident on cross-country, he loves to be out there and is oblivious to the pressure of the moment. I think Jess is strong enough to put herself in a great place mentally, on a great horse, in those moments before heading out, and she knew exactly what to do to put in the brilliant performance they did that day,” explains Sandra.

The following day was show jumping; the final phase of the Event. Jessica and Pavarotti were sitting in bronze-medal position and needed to produce a faultless round to maintain a spot on the podium. “Show jumping is always extremely tense and nerve-wracking when the scores are so close and the stakes so high,” says Sandra. “One small mistake can cost you so much in these situations. Rotti was jumping amazing in the warm-up and I felt good about him jumping a clear round. When he did it, we knew that she had secured an individual medal at the Pan Am Games.”

Which medal that would be was still to be determined. As the Brazilian rider holding first place jumped the final obstacle on course, the sky turned dark and an ill-timed clap of thunder rang out. The last fence fell, dropping the leader to bronze and bumping Jessica to an individual silver-medal finish. Team Canada’s combined scores earned them a bronze medal in team competition.

“While we waited for the medal ceremonies to start, the skies opened up and it poured rain, so we took shelter in the little white tents they had set up for each team,” remembers Sandra. “It was a nice, quiet moment with just Jess, Rotti, and I — before the excitement of the medals — to reflect on how incredible this accomplishment really was and all that it took to get there.”

When the medal ceremonies began, Sandra stood proudly holding Pavarotti in front of the hometown crowd as Jessica climbed the podium. As the silver medal was placed around her neck, the venue erupted into cheers. It felt every bit like gold.

“What stands out the most to me about this competition is the incredible partnership that Jessie has with Pavarotti,” says Sandra. “She hadn’t had a lot of time back in the saddle before the Games following her accident, but when she’s with Rotti, it was like they had never missed a beat. He performed incredibly for her over those three days, and showed what a special horse he is.”

From a New Jersey ICU to the Pan American Games podium, Jessica’s return to Eventing was official.

This excerpt was published with permission from Roar Publishing Inc. To order copies of Rise: The Jessica Phoenix Story by Julie Fitz-Gerald, visit Roar-group.com.