For Ashley Gowanlock, overcoming adversity has been a challenge she met head on.
Diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of two, Gowanlock was told she would never walk or talk. Extensive physiotherapy was prescribed to help build strength and flexibility, but it was a horseback riding program designed for children with disabilities that set her on a path to success.
“My parents tricked me and signed me up for a horseback riding camp to help with my stretching and therapy,” said Gowanlock, but the opportunity to work closely with the horses soon blossomed into a love of riding.
When she was 14 she attended a Scouts camp for disabled riders looking to develop their skills and pursue a dream of competing internationally. That exposure and training led to Gowanlock qualifying for numerous international events, highlighted by a chance to compete for Canada in the Para-dressage event at the Paralympic games in Beijing in 2008 and then again in London in 2012.
“I’m a competitor in these events but it’s still amazing to see people riding with no arms or no legs controlling a 1,200-pound horse with the reins in their mouth or holding the reins with just their feet trusting their horse,” she said. “Wheelchairs, canes and walkers sit abandoned in droves at the side of the arena as each horse becomes a vehicle of absolute freedom.”
Although her horse was unable to compete in London because of an injury, Gowanluck placed fifth in London on a borrowed horse.
After returning home she by chance watched a documentary about Right to Play, an international organization founded by Norwegian Olympic speed skater Johann Olav Koss, that uses sport and play as a tool for positive childhood development around the globe.
Now 27, Gowanlock decided to get involved as a junior leader, giving her an opportunity to speak to kids about her life and creating a peaceful school community.
Recently she had her first speaking engagement at Frank Hurt Secondary School in Surrey, where she spoke about her life growing up and her dream of becoming an Olympian.
“You don’t need to have heaps of money, you can still make an impact,” she said. “Even if you are not an athlete, if you have air in your lungs you have value and you have the ability to change someone else’s life, just find the thing you enjoy and do it and don’t let people put a label on you.”
This was one of 220 school-wide presentations Right to Play Ambassadors will be delivering across Canada, educating students on Right to Play’s Sport for Development and Peace movement and how they can participate in global citizenship and social justice.
For more information on Right to Play go to www.righttoplay.ca