As founder and a trustee of The CatWalk Spinal Cord Injury Trust, Catriona Williams is pushing the boundaries of research to enable spinal cord injury sufferers to walk again.
Her story is truly inspirational. A champion equestrian rider, Catriona had reached the pinnacle of the show jumping and three-day event world. She had represented New Zealand at Badminton and the Open European Championships but a devastating horse-riding accident in November 2002 cut short her career, leaving her a C6/C7 tetraplegic. What began as a collection of friends and colleagues raising funds for her recovery, Catriona opted instead to pursue a new dream: finding a cure for spinal cord injuries for all sufferers. That journey led to the CatWalk Spinal Cord Injury Trust being established in 2005.
Under her leadership, it has already raised in excess of $5 million for spinal cord injury research. In November 2010, Catriona completed the New York Marathon on a specially-designed handcycle raising $330,000. She and three other handcyclists have also successfully completed The Big Cycle expedition through the Himalayas – 28 days, 10 mountains and a trip to Mt Everest Base Camp. The team raised an incredible $600,000 for their efforts. Catriona was recently awarded a Queen’s Birthday Honours medal and was a finalist in the Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year 2014.
With one New Zealander suffering a debilitating spinal cord injury every five days, Catriona dedicates her life talking to those who are embarking on a new life confined to a wheelchair. Her most recent challenge was to enter the New Plymouth Half Ironman in February. The Gaitpost chatted to Catriona after the event, where she completed her 2km backstroke swim in just 1hr 15mins. The official race start was held off for 10 minutes so that all competitors could watch her finish, after which she was carried to her transition tent flanked by the full quota of entrants cheering her in. After a full assessment and efforts to get her prepped for phase two, a 90km handcycle, the medical team pronounced Hypothermia and withdrew Catriona from the rest of the race.
After all the hard work and training, what was the final amount raised?
I think the final total was $50,000 so that’s great. I know it’s good but we all want to raise some more! After 13 months’ work, there were about 50-60 competitors doing it for CatWalk, which was awesome. Everyone did their little bit and so that was the best part saying that everybody contributed, whether they did the half iron man or whether they just did the swim or the cycle. We had a 60 year old friend who did the 90K bike ride by herself, we had another girl friend who’d never trained for anything in her life, she did her 90K bike so there were lots of lovely wins and a whole new group of CatWalk supporters who hadn’t really done anything for us before but stepped up for this and then there were some of the regular fund raisers and it was neat, it was a really lovely weekend.
The next thing for CatWalk is we’ve got our 10 year anniversary on 12 June in Auckland at SKY City so that’s a biggie. It’s hard to believe that it’s ten years ago literally that Zara Phillips flew into the country and became our international patron and the star of the night and since then she’s been world champion, European champion, she’s now married with a child, and Mark’s back in the game. There are so many amazing things that have happened in 10 years but obviously for CatWalk the research has gone ahead in leaps and bounds. It’s a celebration of what’s happened but also the theme is ‘Need for Speed’ and obviously that is because we need to keep fundraising. Things are happening and exciting things are happening and people are standing up, people are walking, people are getting voluntary movement where they weren’t before so let’s keep the momentum going. The ‘Need for Speed’ will run into horses, and cars, and women and all sorts of crazy things and it will be a really fun night.
And is Zara coming over on the 12th?
We are delighted that she is!
The research that CatWalk has funded in Auckland at the Auckland University is stuff that they have been working on for a number of years. Basically it is a gel that can be used on bed sores and it enhances natural healing and stops inflammation and scar tissue forming. The Americans have already purchased it from our team. What they have also found is if the gel is used within 24 hours at point of injury, because of its properties that stop swelling and prevent scar tissue forming, that it is going to help someone who damages their spinal cord. And because it is a gel, the big focus at the moment is to get the gel to travel through the blood stream. So if someone breaks their neck at a rugby game or falls off their horse at the races, for example, the gel can go straight in to the drip and travel straight to the point of injury so whilst there might be a touch of paralysis or something, it will certainly minimise what happens. And that’s a massive development in our research and is where we are putting a lot of money to research further.
CatWalk also works really closely with the Christopher Reeve Foundation and other units around the world including the UK. The Christopher Reeve Foundation is currently working on ‘the big project’ – they have got four boys – two tetras like me and a couple of paras who had no movement and one can now voluntarily move his legs, one can stand, one has sexual function going and it is just awesome. This has happened in the last few years in the UK and the results were just released at Christmas time so now they’re raising another GBP£15m to do another 34 people. Once that case is done, which will take another two or three years, then, if that all goes according to plan then it will just take off, which is really cool. And then there’s the work with electrical stimulation that’s gone into the spinal cord and this has proved that your brain is not necessarily needed to get the signals through if stimulation of the spinal cord can make the bottom part of your body work without your brain.
What or who inspires you within the equestrian world past and present?
Mark Todd, without hesitation, and he’s one of our patrons for CatWalk. But Mark’s natural empathy with a horse is second to none. He’s someone who has that ability to read any horse so well. Charisma was a once in a lifetime horse and I think for all of us in that era, they were definitely our heroes and always will be. We do have some pretty special riders, show jumpers and eventers. I was lucky enough to be riding with the likes of Blyth Tait, Andrew Nicholson and Vaughn Jefferis and that period was a pretty amazing period of eventing so there are lots of people I admire as riders, but certainly Mark is a stand out.
Do you have a favourite equestrian possession?
I think the problem with the question is that life is about doing things, not keeping things, so I can give you lots of wonderful memories like jumping around Badminton clear for the first time and reaching the World Cup show jumping finals in Sweden and they probably mean more to me than possessions.
Is there an all-time yard or stables that you’ve been to, and why?
I did go to Newmarket stables, owned by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Khalifa Al Maktoum, and I remember all the brass door knobs and that blew me away. But it’s always good to go somewhere that’s tidy and well looked after. It’s not so much the money that goes into it, it’s more the fact that it’s cared for because then you know that the horses are looked after as well.
Of course it’s New Zealand. If you look at why, it is because of a couple of things. I’ve just finished reading Laura Dekker’s book, the yachting girl who sailed solo round the world at the age of 16 (started when she was 14) and as she said, New Zealanders are ‘can do’ people. They just get off their backsides and do things because they live on a little island so they’ve got to travel to do things so it’s not so much ‘why can’t I’ as ‘how can I?’
And the other thing is that we have this amazing country that produces great grass and great terrain so I think the horses, whether it’s a thoroughbred or a crossbred, they get the right nurturing as a youngster and that doesn’t mean fussing necessarily but so long as the grass is good and the terrain gives their bodies a little bit of strength, I think that you get the best animal. If a horse is brought up in a 3m x 3m stable and never gets any grass and is always in an arena, I don’t think that that horse’s longevity has the same chance of going as far as in New Zealand.
What would you like your legacy to be?
That everything you do with me may take a bit of hard work but it will also be a load of fun.
Catriona is married to Sam Williams, proprietor of Little Avondale stud, a 250 acre property in the beautiful Wairarapa valley just north of New Zealand’s capital, Wellington. They have between 150 to 300 horses on the stud, most of which belong to clients including Towkay, Per Incanto and Nadeem (owned by Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum) who are the three main stallions.
What is the quality you look for in a horse?
Attitude! And the same with people as well! If a horse lacks a little bit of star quality, say it may not have a really big trot, and you want to take it eventing, it’s trainable. You can always produce a horse that has a brain, whereas you might have all the ability in the world but if it hasn’t got a brain it’s very hard to harness it and pull it together, especially for a short person like me! And that’s the same with people I think, if they’ve got the right attitude they’ll put their head down, dig deep and get going. Give me that over talent any day. And I think that’s really obvious with riders too. You only have to look at our number one rider at the moment, other than Andrew, Jonelle Price from the South Island. When we were riding, she was a good rider but she has worked incredibly hard and now she’s one of the best. So it goes to show, you can get there if you have that ‘want’.
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you were given and who gave it to you?
I do remember one person and it was Andrew Nicholson just before one of my big cross country events in England and he said ‘when you think you’re going fast, go faster’. And that’s coming from a man who’s always under time! And I thought that was really good. As he said, every time you land after a fence, if you kick then that’s one second and with 30 jumps, that’s 30 seconds and there’s your time – it’s as simple as that. So that was really good advice for that situation. But I think the other is to always be humble and always realise that no matter how your day is going, there is someone else perhaps whose day is not going as well.
Do you have a guilty pleasure?
I love country music.
What is your message to the equestrian world?
The relationship with the horse is incredibly special and don’t ever take it for granted. 99% of the time it’s your fault if a horse doesn’t behave in the way you expect. It’s a privilege for us to spend time with horses and when you think what they do for us, we are incredibly lucky.
Do you have a secret superstition before an event?
Not so much before an event but if I go into somebody’s house, I have to go out the same way that I go in. Poor Sam. If we’ve had to go up five flights of stairs to get into somebody’s house, I can’t take the lift down, I’ve got to go down the stairs again! Always in and out the same door because otherwise it’s bad luck. I think my Mum was a bit superstitious so that’s probably where it came from. Also we never wear anything new on competition day, back protector, new jacket, whatever it is, it must always have been worn before.
What are your top five indispensable pieces of equipment for your events?
If we’re talking physical training for, say, the half ironman, I can’t do without sun block, my hard hat on my bike, my batteries on my bike, without my batteries I can’t go anywhere, I’m very slow, swimming, nose peg and swimming hat and goggles and then pushing, and batteries that help me. I need batteries to help me go, but they stop if I don’t push so it’s still physical exertion just not as much as it would be if I didn’t have them.
Dick Francis or Jilly Cooper? Jilly Cooper
Royal Ascot or Cheltenham Festival? Royal Ascot
Badminton or Burghley? Burghley
Sand or Snow? Sand
Tea or G&T? Neither, hot water or Brandy and Dry
Bay or grey? Bay – too much washing and sun protection needed for greys
We would like to say an enormous thank you to Catriona for speaking to TGP and also to Wendy Betteridge for visiting Catriona at home and conducting the interview.