Cambry Kaylor Nelson is a former equestrian vaulter. She was also a ballerina, gymnast, cheerleader and a member of her high school diving team. She considered herself an athlete and had trained for ten years to compete in equestrian vaulting on an international level. She had competed all over the country and had won national championships while working beyond her silver medal level to reach a gold medal level.
But those goals changed after her high school graduation in 2005.
- On June 21, 2005, I was training with my equestrian vaulting team and miscommunicated with my partner on the horse. I went for my aerial dismount and hit my partner with my leg. It changed my rotation in the air, and I landed in a position that broke my back and severed my spinal cord. I became permanently paralyzed from the waist down. My dreams for the future were crushed. My life drastically changed.
Kaylor fell hard on her back, severing her spinal cord on impact and breaking her back at T10 and T11. She spent the next three weeks at a trauma center and then another three weeks at a spinal rehabilitation center. But she never accepted that she would never vault again.
Equestrian vaulting is a mix of gymnastics and dance on the back of a moving horse with people in pairs or as teams of six. The sport is believed to be one of the oldest equestrian sports, dating all the way back to 1,000 years ago in Rome. It is still popular in Europe and was introduced to the United States in the 1960s, but is still relatively unknown, with only 100 active clubs.
The horse is controlled by a person in the middle of the arena guiding the animal on a long rein called a longe. Depending on the difficulty and level of the vaulter, the horse either walks, trots or canters as the athlete mounts, dismounts, jumps and even does a handstand on its back.
While vaulters, like most athletes, are prone to spraining ankles and wrists or maybe breaking a bone, Kaylor's is the only major injury the sport has seen in the decades it has kept records.
When Cambry came back to Utah, she began assistant coaching with her club in Spanish Fork. Shortly after she created her own club, Technique Vaulting Club, and has coached some national champions.
- "Coaching really helped with the transition by being in vaulting but not being able to vault," she said.
She also determined to walk again and found a personal trainer who taught paraplegics how to “walk” with braces and canes. She spent nearly two years learning to walk again. At most, she was able to cross about 50 feet in five minutes.
- Every time I “walked” I ran the risk of falling and injuring my arms, the only two extremities that I still had use of. One day I finally thought, “What am I doing? This isn’t bringing me any joy. I certainly don’t have my old life back. What am I doing?”
- In that moment I realized that I don’t have to walk to be happy. In fact, “walking” was making me really unhappy. I came to accept that I wasn’t going to get my old life back. But I could create a new life full of happiness.
One day, an opportunity came for her to get back on a horse. Her mom’s riding partner hadn’t arrived, so her mother asked Cambry to ride the horse. Although she was afraid, she got on the horse and did not fall off. Later that afternoon, she got on the horse a second time. She learned that she could overcome her fear and that she could do hard things.
- Since the accident, I’ve learned to love and accept myself, regardless of my physical appearance. I’ve learned what really makes me happy, and I go after it no matter what obstacles are in the way. I’ve learned how to find humor in awkward and difficult situations. My paralysis has taught me to look at the big picture and believe in God’s plan instead of my plan.
Cambry holds a master’s degree in occupational therapy and helps people live with spinal cord injuries. She married Zack Nelson in 2019 and often helps him with his YouTube videos.