A runner worth rallying for

When you think of the riders held in high regard in both Palm Beach and the East End, few names ring louder than that of Kevin Babington, an Olympic-level Irish rider who tragically fell from his horse at the Grand Prix. Hampton Classic 2019 and suffered a complete spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe regularly. Now, in 2022, he’s slowly regaining control of his body, has a busy teaching schedule from his farm in Wellington, Florida, and does color commentary at area equestrian competitions.

None of this would have been possible without his unwavering determination and the creation of the Kevin Babington Foundation.

Shortly after immigrating to the United States, Babington was widely acclaimed as the best rider at the CSIO National Horse Show, then as winner of the Hickstead Grand Prix in England, then two victories at the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF ) of 2004 in Wellington. In 2013, he won the I Love New York Horse Show Grand Prix, the Hampton Classic Grand Prix in 2014, then an Irish team victory at the FEI Nations Cup and a Grand Prix victory at the HITS Ocala CSIO4 in 2015. in the following years he scored other major victories at the WEF, the Hampton Classic, the Silver Oak Jumper Tournament and other prestigious horse racing events. He seemed an unstoppable force.

“The year of the fall, he was kind of on a tear – he was first, second and third on three different horses at Lake Placid, which is statistically unheard of,” says Jeff Papows, chairman of the Kevin Babington Foundation, Silver Oak Jumper Tournament Founder/President and Author. “He was doing extraordinarily well and he was getting ready to go to the Tokyo Olympiad.”

When Babington fell, he landed on his chest and somersaulted forward, stretching the spinal cord from his neck, but thankfully not tearing it completely. He was airlifted to a trauma hospital and placed on a ventilator. Things looked dire.

“They were convinced that would be the end of it, but Kevin being Kevin, he just kept fighting,” Papows said. And the equestrian community has also decided to join the fight.

Kevin Babington and Mark Q at the 2019 Silver Oak Jumper Tournament

The Kevin Babington Foundation was founded to help raise awareness and funds for Babington’s expensive medical and physiotherapy care, to do the same for other cyclists with spinal injuries, and to advocate for a improved safety equipment and immediate treatment of these injuries. The other riders were eager to contribute and Papows has an intuition why the community rallied as strongly as she did.

“(After winning a Grand Prix) Kevin would always look for the smallest kid that came out the front door, and he would take the ribbon off his horse and throw it at the kid. He was just like that,” he says as an example of Babington’s exemplary character. “Because of that, when he got injured, the sport – I think in a somewhat unusual way – rallied around him.”

Papows continues, “I think we’ve been successful because of the esteem in which Kevin is held, not because of his talent or his accomplishments, but because he’s been a hard-working guy who is always ready to take young horses and turn them into Grand Prix athletes, instead of spending millions to buy them, and he always helped students along the way who couldn’t afford tuition.

Kevin Babington winning the 2014 Hampton Classic Grand Prix
Kevin Babington winning the 2014 Hampton Classic Grand PrixShawn McMillen/Courtesy of Hampton Classic

Of the jumping lessons, Papows reports that Babington was eager to return to teaching after his sessions in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber strengthened his lungs enough to breathe and speak without problems. And although in a wheelchair at the moment, Babington’s mind is sharper than ever – able to spot a misplaced little finger via cameras that allow him to teach remotely.

“Keeping him mentally in the sport continues to motivate him,” says Papows. “He has as many students now as he had before the accident.” In addition to the motivational aspect, Wellington’s farm education helped restore Babington’s family of skilled horse riders – his wife Dianna and daughters Gwyneth and Marielle – to a steady stream of income after the disappearance of a so many of its customers following the accident.

Thanks to stem cell intervention trials at the Mayo Clinic, physical therapy four hours a day, and many fascinating devices such as a mechanical saddle to strengthen core muscles, Babington’s body is getting stronger. and shows miraculous signs of improved mobility. He is now able to wiggle all his toes, three fingers on his left hand – “including the important Irishman” – and his more dexterous right hand can almost reach his face. His favorite device seems to be his Functional Electrostimulation Bike, which sees the user strapped through their hands and feet and hooked up to electrodes that stimulate muscles and retrain neurons.

Kevin Babington and Shorapur Win $250,000 Hampton Classic Grand Prix
Kevin Babington and Shorapur win the $250,000 Hampton Classic Grand Prix, Photo: Shawn McMillen

“The next big thing we all want to see is him being able to get up and out of the chair, and he’s a long way off, but I have no doubt we’ll get there. “, said Papows. “If it was someone else in a similar situation with the same injury I would be much more skeptical, but this guy’s willpower is heroic.”

His new wheelchair grants him limited independence with joystick control of the right arm, and it is equipped with a button that triggers emergency services. If he is unable to press the button, such as during a blood sugar crash, he is equipped with a service dog that will press the button for him if he says the command “help”. Donated by Canine Support Teams Inc., Samantha has also been trained to pick up fallen items, open doors and stay calm around horses.

The Kevin Babington Foundation has been by his side every step of the way and continues to raise funds and awareness for Babington and riders like him, like young Alexis Halbert, who in 2020 at age 15 fell in a jumping class for children and broke three vertebrae. , leaving his legs without feeling. The foundation helped pay for her bespoke care at the Shepherd Center, and she’s walking again and even plans to play football next season.

The next fundraiser will take place on February 22 at Mida Farm in Wellington, where Victoria McCullough will host a benefit event and Kevin Babington Foundation auction, which will include items such as a guitar signed by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, private lessons with the best riders. (including Babington) and more. Riders from around 55 stables and nine countries will “ride for Kevin” in a 1.45m Grand Prix from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The online auction will end at midnight.

“If this is the last thing I do, I will carry this foundation and raise visibility, awareness and funds and do whatever is necessary,” adds Papows. “I’ll see him walk again if it’s my last breath. I have no doubt it will. »

To learn more about the Kevin Babington Foundation, upcoming events and ways to donate, visit kevinbabingtonfoundation.org.

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