When I heard the news of Christopher Reeve’s death, I felt as if I’d been bowled over. Though not a part of my daily life by any means, Reeve had been an inspiration to me in a way most people don’t even consider.
I am a horseback rider. Before I could walk on my own power, I was tooling around on my mom’s Arabian. I was one of the lucky 6-year-olds who actually got a pony for Christmas, and when I was 13, I started learning to jump. At 14, I got a thoroughbred horse and began competing in three-day eventing – the sport made infamous when Reeve fell from his horse in 1995.
Reeve was by no means competing at a high level. I have friends who have competed at the very show in which he had his accident – and jumped the offending jump. When we heard of his accident, the eventing community sparred back and forth for days – trading theories on what caused the fall.
Reeve was not thrown from his horse. More likely, he made a mistake all of us in the sport have made at one point or another: He anticipated his horse’s jump and when the horse refused the fence, Reeve was caught too far forward to stay on. I have committed the same sin but was luckier than Reeve on landing – I didn’t jar my head and spine in exactly the right way to cause paralysis.
Every rider’s nightmare is being injured by the very animals that bring us so much joy and excitement. But we all accept the risk of our chosen sport, just as Reeve did. I’ve had friends, colleagues and even students seriously injured or killed participating in horse-related activities – and the fact that Reeve survived to tell the tale of his accident, let alone become a champion for spinal cord injury research and the disabled – was reason to celebrate for me.
And not only did Reeve survive, he continued to live. He diligently exercised – as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry pointed out in Friday’s presidential debate – to keep his muscles strong for the day when his injury would be cured. Every muscle movement was a victory – moving his index finger for the first time was cause for celebration. And Reeve never gave up hope that he would walk – and ride – again.
The actor went back to acting and directing. The irony of his role as Superman hit home with his fans – the quadriplegic murder witness they saw in the 1998 “Rear Window” was no less stellar an actor than the fully functional and mild-mannered Clark Kent who transformed into the dashing Man of Steel.
But more far-reaching than his personal accomplishments are his champion causes: heading the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, speaking out for embryonic stem cell research and becoming a vocal advocate for the disabled and their quality of life.
More near and dear to my heart, the equestrian world opened up to his cause, donating money from charity shows to his foundation and stressing safety within the sport. While wearing a helmet did not keep Reeve from becoming paralyzed, it definitely saved his life. As it turned out, Reeve’s efforts as a result of his injury touched countless lives and furthered spinal injury research more than it ever would have been had he not pushed it.
Reeve’s death was tragic, but his life was not. His inspiration and activism within scientific, political and equestrian communities will continue to have positive impacts for years to come – and that makes him a real-life Superman.
Jennifer Selvig is an editorial board member. She welcomes comments at [email protected]