Nicola Wilson’s medal-laden eventing career ended and her life changed forever following a catastrophic cross-country fall at the prestigious Badminton Horse Trials last year.
But the 46-year-old Olympian’s inspirational determination to seize what she describes as her “second chance” knows no limits.
She readily accepts that life will never be the same again, but her ongoing recovery from a neck injury that severely affected her spinal cord and all four limbs – she spent more than three weeks in intensive care and five months in hospitals 260 miles apart – has proved heroically defiant.
“I am living with it every day,” Wilson told the PA news agency, in an exclusive interview.
“What I can and can’t do has changed enormously, which is a constant reminder from the moment I wake up each day to the moment I go to sleep. That will not leave me, I don’t think.
“But equally, it is what it is. I can’t undo it, so we have just got to make the most of what we have.”
As a rider, North Yorkshire-based Wilson was among the world’s best, helping Great Britain to team silver at London 2012 alongside Zara Tindall, Tina Cook, Mary King and William Fox-Pitt.
She was also crowned European individual champion in 2021, while seven other major championship medals included world team gold and three European team titles.
Her partnership with Badminton ride JL Dublin had made such an impact in recent seasons that many astute judges had them firmly in the selection mix for next year’s Paris Olympics.
“Dubs”, as he is affectionately known, is now in the equally expert hands of double Olympic medallist Tom McEwen, and while Wilson’s Paris hopes have been cruelly snatched away, her strong connection with the sport she adores remains.
She runs popular coaching clinics and eventing master-classes, while media work will mean an emotional return to Badminton next week for the 2023 event.
“I was on the ground and thought I was winded because I couldn’t breathe,” she added. “There was somebody kneeling near to me, and I was trying to say I couldn’t breathe, but of course no words came out, and then it was lights out for me.
“The reason I couldn’t breathe was not because I was winded but because I was paralysed. Nothing was working, my diaphragm, nothing. I was surviving on the air I had in my body – then I disappeared.
“There was an army consultant anaesthetist, who I think was the first to me. He saw how I landed, knew it wasn’t good and held my neck and head. The Badminton medical team were amazing. If the fall had happened somewhere else, there is no way I would be here now.
“I don’t feel bitter. We do a dangerous sport and something like this could always happen. Life is for living, and I feel incredibly fortunate that I have been given a second chance.
“Yes, life is incredibly different to what it was before, but there are also qualities that have come out of that.”
More than three weeks at Southmead Hospital in Bristol were followed by four months in the spinal unit of James Cook University Hospital, Middlesbrough.
“I was back in the land of the living and stable with my breathing when I left Badminton, and then the paralysis bit was the next issue we needed to deal with,” she said.
“Bit by bit I could start to wiggle my toes, I got a little bit of movement into my legs, so I could bend and move them. They obviously had no strength, stability or co-ordination in them, but I could feel them.
“You have to be resilient. I felt if this was my next hurdle in life, it was something I needed to overcome. I am inclined to be more of a positive person than a negative one – where there is a will, there is a way.
“The will was there, and the way were the hospitals, their support, their care. I have a fighting inner me that wants to drive on and stay positive.
“When I came out of hospital, I came out with a wheelchair and was on crutches. My injury was an incomplete injury to the spinal cord, so I was going to be able to carry on improving. A complete injury means exactly that.
“I was adamant that the wheelchair went back. If I couldn’t walk to wherever I wanted to be, then I couldn’t go there until I was strong enough to do it. It was my challenge, my competition to compete against myself to try and make sure I carried on improving and getting stronger.
“I can do a lot of things – it just takes me a very long time. I can now put a coat on, just, but it takes a long time and I am aware it takes a long time. People are so kind in helping me. I just need to keep doing it and keep practising it.
“My body feels very strange, but it is fighting for me and digging deep. The improvement will be up to two years. I am halfway through my improvement span, so we will see how I am this time next year.”