Olympic Medalist Darren Chiaachia Rebuilding from Two Near-Death Experiences

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Darren Chiacchia riding Freddie Mercury, an 11-year-old Oldenburg gelding, at the White Fences Equestrian Center in Florida. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

Darren Chiacchia,  Olympic and Pan American Games medalist in three-day eventing, has returned to form good enough to start making long range plans after two life threatening experiences in five years.

Despite the setbacks, his major goal is making the United States team at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. And to get there, the 48-year-old rider has returned to his roots of specialized training in dressage and jumping by basing himself in Wellington, Florida where the Winter Equestrian Festival and dressage competitions attract some of the top competitors in the world.

Darren, who won a bronze medal with the U.S. team at the Athens Games in 2004 and individual and team gold at the 2003 Pan Ams, is coming up to the fifth anniverary of his first near-death experience, when a horse he was competing at Tallahassee, Florida, March 15, 2008, fell on him.

Doctors told his mother they did not know whether Darren would live. Two months later, he was back on a horse.

The next years were turbulent, both personally and professionally, losing much of his business but trying to rebuild his life while still suffering the effects of the fall.

The top events that he had previously competed in such as Rolex Kentucky Three-Day and Burghley, England looked as if they might be memories. He competed little for a couple of years, then not at all in 2010. In 2011, he returned to compete at Tallahassee and by the end of summer 2012 felt his life was back on track.

At a CIC3* event in Unionville, Pennsylvania, in September last year he was having pounding headaches but thought he might be coming down with influenza. Three hospital emergency visits later and enough pain relief pills that he jokes now was probably “a lethal dose” were having no effect so he called the neurologist who had treated him after the fall.

It turned out to be meningitis, a bacterial infection that occurred at the same time 12 people died from an outbreak after injecting steroids for back back problems.

“Another near-death experience was just what I needed,” he told dressage-news.com while competing several horses at the Welcome Back to White Fences dressage compettion in Loxahatchee, a community neighboring Wellington, where three competition arenas were busy from sunup to sundown for three days.

“When you’re in the hospital and a priest comes to read you your last rites and the doctor advises your family to get your affairs in order you know you’ve fallen into the serious category.”

Darren Chiaachia competing at the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Since recovery from the latest life-threatening episode, Darren is more focused than ever on making it back to the highest level of the sport. That means, he said, returning to what he did in the 1980s when he worked on his jumping with Conrad Holmfeld and Joe Fargis, gold medalists at the 1984 Olympics, and dressage with Jessica Ransehousen, an Olympian and pioneer of the sport in the United States.

“I was ahead of my tme 30 years ago when I was cross training,” he said, “going to the best in the separate disciplines.

“I’m not doing anything different–I’m going back to my roots.

“To exist and thrive on the new world stage you’ve got to put yourself under pressure for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“I’m rebuilding my life, my business and my career. I’m excited about it.”

He has horses for eventing, and other horses specifically for dressage and jumping and is based in winter out of a Wellington sport horse center of 32 stalls on 10 acres named The Yard and owned by Ann Clemons, who also owns somw of his horses. But his home the rest of the year is Buffalo in upstate New York where he has an extended family and can be “the world’s greatest uncle.”

And he’s past “over thinking” that comes from a lack of confidence, a situation he had to deal with after the 2008 accident.

“When you have confidence, it’s like breathing.

“I’m rebuilding, back at it.”

The calendar for the next year is to forego his annual pilgrimage to Europe and to concentrate on two- and three-star events with Rolex Kentucky in 2014 as the main goal for now.

The mission, though, is Rio for the 2016 Olympics.

Darren said he feels sometimes like he might have used up all his support with so much happening in his life in the past five years. So much has happened, that he might not have been blamed if he stayed in bed and pulled the covers over his head.

However, he said “it’s almost like a dream. There have been a lot of amazing moments. As a spiritual friend of mine says, ‘from the darkest places come the brightest lights.’

“Crises equals opportunity. When I find myslf in a crisis I think of it as a springboard to the next level.”