Ocala, Florida – One year after suffering a life-threatening riding accident that could have ended his competitive career, Olympic Bronze Medalist Darren Chiacchia was celebrating victory.
Chiacchia of Springville, NY, and Ocala, FL, won an advanced division of the Rocking Horse Spring Horse Trials in Altoona, FL, riding his 2003 Pan Am Gold Medal mount, Windfall II. One year earlier while competing at an event in Tallahassee, FL, Chiacchia had a rotational fall from a preliminary horse and was airlifted to Tallahassee Medical Center where his condition was listed as critical. The accident left him with a severe head injury, a collapsed lung and multiple rib fractures, and Chiacchia spent 42 days in unconscious and semi-conscious states.
It was nothing short of a miracle when Chiacchia was back in the saddle at the end of April. Riding only his veteran campaigners Windfall II and Better I Do It, Chiacchia was competing again by summer. His victory on March 8, 2009, at Rocking Horse marked his first advanced win since returning to competition.
Chiacchia rode three mounts in the advanced division – Windfall II, Better I Do It, and a new horse, Stoneybrook. Placed fourth after dressage and seventh following show jumping, Chiacchia and Windfall II climbed their way to the top of the standings by delivering a great cross-country round to finish the three-phase event with a score of 51.40 penalty points.
“I did all three of those horses on cross-country and I never thought about it!” said Chiacchia, who is only riding older, more experienced horses in order to keep the risks as low as possible. “I went out there and rode my horses and did not over-think it. The big side effect of my head injury is that I tend to over-think and to over-analyze things. I want to plan every little detail. You can imagine how that affects you when you ride. The fact that I could go out there and just ride is a hugely positive sign in my recovery.”
Of his head injury, Chiacchia noted, “If I was in a wheelchair or had a big old limp, people would be reminded that I have an injury. People can’t see it when you have a brain injury. Just because I am riding does not mean that I am cured and that I am fixed. The reality is that I am still in recovery. With a brain injury, it is not like one day you are suddenly better. It is a long, slow process.”
Following his win with Windfall II, Chiacchia spent two days at the Tallahassee Medical Center where he visited the trauma center and the people who played such an important role in his recovery.
“To have this win on the one year anniversary of my injury and to be able to visit the Tallahassee Medical Center is great,” said Chiacchia. “I am so lucky. To go from the magnitude of my injury to being where I am one year later is miraculous. It has been a hell of a journey!”
Chiacchia, who owns Independence Farm, divides the year between his training facilities in Ocala, FL, and Springville, NY, just outside of Buffalo. As an instructor, Chiacchia has been extremely successful and has coached several talented junior and young riders to numerous victories.
In addition to operating one of the country’s top eventing breeding, training and sales barns, Chiacchia is committed to the improvement of the sport and volunteers his expertise as a Board member of the United States Equestrian Federation, the United States Eventing Association, and the Florida Horse Park. He is also a Board member of Knox Farm State Park in East Aurora, NY, where he is spearheading the development of an eventing facility.