Can't isn't part of equestrian's vocabulary
October 12, 2011 - The word "can't" simply doesn't exist in Katie Champagne's vocabulary.
Katie Champagne, a member of the OHS Equestrian Team, doesn’t let the fact she was born without hands slow her down. In fact, she excels at everything she does. (click for larger version)
"I think saying can't is basically saying won't," said the 17-year-old Metamora Township resident, who was born without hands. "There's no such thing as you can't; it's just you won't."
If Katie believed in the word can't, she wouldn't be drawing, texting, playing the piano, or preparing to get her driver's license.
"She texts on her phone faster than I do," said Katie's mother, Michelle Champagne.
And Katie most definitely wouldn't be a valued and active member of Oxford High School's championship equestrian team.
"She's very inspirational," said Equestrian Coach Dee Shepherd. "She just has such a positive attitude. She never says 'I can't' or 'I won't.'"
Katie, who's a homeschooled junior in high school, was born with quadrilateral limb deficiency. Basically, her right arm ends below her elbow in the forearm area and her left arm stops at her elbow. She was also born without either big toe and the bones that normally attach to them.
"When she was born, we were told that she may never walk," said Michelle, who's husband, Doug Champagne, is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force currently serving in Afghanistan.
Katie's parents were also told that she would most likely suffer internal problems and brain damage.
"She's had none of that," Michelle said. "Katie has just never fit the mold."
Michelle said there was this perfect moment at the hospital just after Katie was born that showed her daughter was going to be just fine.
"I was rubbing her cheek and she took her left arm and she pinned my hand between her cheek and her arm," Michelle said. "I just started crying and I thought she's going to be able to do anything."
As usual, mom was right.
Today, Katie's a very independent young woman who excels at just about everything she does in life without making any excuses and without the aid of any special devices often used by people with disabilities.
"I just find a way to do what I want and then I do it," she said. "I don't want to do things differently or be treated differently. I don't want to be told that I'm disabled."
Katie said people who don't know her are often "surprised" by everything she does.
"They assume that I just sit in the corner and say I need help," she said. "I don't. I prefer to do things myself."
"Nothing really slows her down," Michelle said.
"That's how I like to keep it," Katie added.
That's one of the reasons Katie stopped using prosthetics when she was in the sixth grade.
"I hate them," she said. "It didn't work for me. I told (my parents) I just want to be me."
"She was never really comfortable in them," Michelle said. "Some people love them and wear them. They're a great tool and they're so useful. But it wasn't right for her."
"It was more difficult to do stuff when I was wearing them than when I wasn't," Katie noted.
Katie's love affair with horseback riding began when she was 3½ or 4 years old. She got on a friend's horse and loved it. By the time she was around age 5 she had her own horse.
"I love them because they're such beautiful animals," Katie said. "They're so big, yet they'll follow you anywhere. They just trust you wholeheartedly. I think that's so cool."
Katie's family owns six horses – four quarter horses, one Arabian and one Thoroughbred.
Competitively, she rides a 17-year-old quarter horse named Sophie.
Riding makes Katie feel at peace. "It's relaxing when you're out trail riding," she said. "It's what I would like to do everyday."
Katie's involvement in the 4-H Club led to her joining the OHS Equestrian Team. This is her fifth year riding competitively. She spent two years on the junior team and three years with the high school team, of which she's now a co-captain.
"They're like my family," she noted. "I can't imagine not seeing them all the time."
When she competes, she primarily rides western style and uses romal reins, a rein style that incorporates a closed rein with a long quirt (forked type of stock whip) at the end.
Katie said riding competitively "boosts your confidence and encourages you try more."
"It's amazing how quiet it gets when she's (riding)," Shepherd said. "You can hear a pin drop and when she's done there's always a big round of applause."
Katie's never been viewed by her peers and coaches as anything but just another member of the team. "They accepted Katie from Day One," Michelle said.
"They never questioned me," Katie said. "They never ask 'can you do this?' They just say, 'here, do this.'"
"As long as I have known Katie, I have never really looked on her as having a disability," Shepherd said. "She doesn't ever want any special treatment.
Katie recalled one humorous instance in which a fellow team member stopped herself in mid-sentence because she was about to ask if she could borrow her gloves.
"They really just forget," Michelle said.
"She's just part of the group, part of the family," Shepherd said. "She's never been looked at as being different or disabled. She's just one of the kids, one of the riders."
Shepherd said Katie is an absolute joy to have on the team because of her enthusiasm, dedication and sunny disposition.
"She's a very refreshing teenager," she said. "She's the sweetest person. She never gets angry with her horse, which can be a problem with some riders."
While it's clear Katie has a terrific support system in the form of her loving family and the equestrian team, she also draws a good deal of strength from her spirituality.
"I think the main thing that helps me through everything is God. That is my reason for life," she said. "Of course, there's days where I don't want to do it anymore. It's my faith that keeps me going."
Rather than be bitter, angry or depressed about the way she was born, Katie believes there's a divine purpose to it all.
"I think that he made me this way so I can show people God's love and to let them know they're not alone and they can do anything they put their mind to," she said.
Katie enjoys helping others. That's why she spends her summers at Lake Ann Camp, located near Traverse City, doing volunteer work in the barn for the petting farm.
Looking to the future, Katie still isn't sure exactly what career path to take, but she knows what the focus will be. "I know I want to go into something with horses. It's my life."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.