Losing a limb is a life-changing event but a woman from the Saskatoon area is turning her disability into opportunity as she chases a Paralympic dream.
Tanya Shevchenko had her right leg amputated below the knee in 2017, two years after developing a giant cell tumour on her ankle. A previous operation to remove the non-cancerous tumour had proven to be only a temporary fix, as the growth had returned just a few months afterward.
Shevchenko says she was determined not to let the amputation control her life.
“I could come out of this situation in two ways. I could either be a victim of the amputation, let the amputation own me and live day in and day out with that’s all I think about and how there’s so many things I can’t do anymore or I could come out of this thinking, ‘Yeah, it’s gonna be hard, find a way to deal with it. If there’s something you want to do, then there’s no such thing as can’t.'”
Armed with that mindset, Shevchenko turned to a familiar pastime to fuel her recovery.
A competitive equestrian rider in her youth who gave up showing horses to start a family and a nursing career, she saddled back up after her surgery at Equilibrium Therapeutic Riding near her home in Neuenlage, Sask.
“Everything just happens for a reason, I think. We moved out to this acreage, I got sick and then this therapeutic barn is five minutes from my house, so I was lucky to be able to come over here before I was even on a prosthetic,” she said.
With the help of therapeutic horsemanship coach Erin McCormick, Shevchenko, who had spent two years on crutches prior to her amputation, taught her body how to walk again.
“The first few lessons was literally me just closing my eyes as (McCormick) was leading the horse around the arena, just getting my balance and letting my hips and my pelvis move the way they’re supposed to.”
Shevchenko soon realized she wanted to do more than just ride for therapy — she wanted to compete again.
After she and McCormick attended a clinic led by Clive Milkins, the para-dressage high-performance program technical leader for Equestrian Canada, Shevchenko set her sights on making the national para-dressage team in hopes of competing at the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris.
“It’s a huge goal but it’s not a goal that I’m going to accomplish overnight. I have to do it day by day and step by step,” she said.
The sport of dressage sees horse and rider judged on their ability to perform various patterns and changes of pace and direction. Shevchenko has spent the last 18 months working with a now-12-year-old mount named Apollo. The partnership has proven to be a good one.
“A lot of things go into being a superstar and one of them is your work ethic, and Tanya’s got a ton of that. The other is a willingness to learn and she’s also got a ton of that,” McCormick said.
While dressage is a well-established equestrian discipline, para-dressage is still in its infancy in Canada and Shevchenko believes that she can help bring more exposure to the sport.
“I have a potential to be able to grow this sport and open doors and pave a path for not just the athletes here at Equilibrium but through Saskatchewan, through the prairie provinces and hopefully kind of bring awareness to the sport throughout Canada,” she said.
Shevchenko plans to compete in Saskatchewan and Alberta this year — provided COVID-19 restrictions have eased — and hopes to travel to the United States next winter to further her development.
“I really need to make that move towards competing internationally in order to make the (Paralympic) team and compete at that calibre of competition,” she said.
It’s a long road ahead but with every step she and Apollo take in the arena, the dream becomes a bit more real.
“I am not ready to go to the (Paralympics) as of today. But I know that I can get there, and I’m making strides every day and I know that I can do it.”