Pony jumpers, riders find perfection as Bluffton coach fights for her life

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comAugust 31, 2013 

Katie Maxwell is photographed with Lexie the horse at Rose Dhu Creek Equestrian Center on Wednesday.

JAY KARR — Jay Karr Buy Photo

Katie Brown Maxwell of Bluffton has achieved the unthinkable in the world of equestrian competition.

She was the coordinator -- or chef d'equipe -- of a pony jumper team that won a national championship last month in Kentucky. For the fourth time, she was selected to direct four teenagers representing the best riders in our five-state region. For the second consecutive year, her team won gold.

The real stunner is that this year's champions did not knock over a single pole in two rounds of tense competition.

"That's unheard of," Maxwell said.

For Maxwell, who has been competing on horseback since she was 4 years old, the achievement ranks up there with leading the Clemson University equestrian team to a national championship in 2008.

But as we sat outside the barn at the Rose Dhu Creek Equestrian Center on a beautiful morning last week, Maxwell talked about a more cut-throat competition that rages outside the arena lights. She's fighting cancer.

She was operated on Jan. 4, finished chemotherapy July 3 and is now in a clinical trial that might someday help others conquer a rare and deadly form of cancer.

Horses leaned out of barn windows and a cat hopped on the table as we talked. They seemed anxious to hear what Maxwell had to say about standing on a podium when she should be sick in bed.

"I wish I could have a universal secret," she said, "but I seriously believe it is because I have been able to keep riding through the whole thing."

'KEEP LIVING'

Maxwell found primary peritoneal cancer -- which is treated like ovarian cancer -- hard to detect.

Her job centers on competition, so she thought a burning sensation could be an ulcer from stress. The traveling circus of the horse circuit is a "go, go, go, go lifestyle" that makes it hard to check in with doctors, she said.

And pain? Like NFL players, professionals on horseback live in pain. She fractured her sacrum a few weeks before she was diagnosed. Not until she started retaining fluids did the truth come out.

A gynecologic oncologist at the University of North Carolina took out everything in her abdomen she didn't need, Maxwell says with a laugh. Then came a double-dose of chemotherapy -- one through IV and the other straight into her abdominal cavity -- at the Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

"It's not pleasant," Maxwell said. "But I just decided I could sit at home and be tired and sick, or I could be at the barn and be tired and sick. Which is better, you know?"

Her MUSC doctor -- Dr. Jennifer Young Pierce -- understood that horses were helping heal her patient, so she juggled treatment around Maxwell's competitions.

Maxwell made a strong finish in a hunter competition days after chemotherapy. A framed picture of her on the horse is now in her doctor's office. Maxwell signed it: "Thank you for helping me to keep living while I was fighting for my life."

IN THE SADDLE

A rush of anxiety followed the chemo. Maxwell was expecting relief, not worry.

"When you're in the fight, you feel like you're doing something," she said. "And then they say, now you're finished and all of a sudden you feel that vulnerable feeling that you felt when you found out the first time, when it blindsided you. You feel like you're just sitting around waiting, because they told me this type of cancer will come back.

"It's not if, it's when."

She also had her business -- and making payroll -- to worry about. Three years ago, she moved from the Landrum area to Bluffton, where her business offers all the services at the 17-acre Rose Dhu facility off S.C. 46.

On top of that are medical bills, and her duties as mother of two teenagers.

The only time Maxwell could free her mind was when she was in the saddle.

She's seen it work with young people. She and her husband have taken in a number of teens over the years who need direction in their lives. The responsibility of keeping a horse helps them.

"It really keeps you in check as a person because you have to do a lot of reviewing of yourself," Maxwell said. "Am I being reasonable, am I being fair, do I have a clear vision of what I want, am I communicating that, am I organized, can I focus on one thing at a time? Horses will give you direct feedback, and you can't blame anyone else."

When word got out about Maxwell's sickness, the kids came to help.

"All that strength that we have tried to give them, they pushed back to me when I needed it," she said.

She says her marriage is stronger than ever. She tries to spend more time at home, to go to the beach, to hug the horses and the children. She's totally changed her diet.

She knows not to expect perfection, like her inspired pony jumper team. But last week, the chef d'equipe from Bluffton was declared to be in remission.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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Zone 4 Faultless in Pony Jumper Team Final, Aug. 8, 2013

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