By Buffy Pollock
for the Mail Tribune
Bryan Sowell has cerebral palsy, and underwent three heart surgeries and had a pacemaker implanted by the time he was 14. But the Illinois Valley High School senior draws the line at letting health concerns limit his life’s adventures.
The 18-year-old spent his final two years of high school on the equestrian team, mastering events such as barrel racing and team penning.
A three-day event at The Expo this weekend is his final for the season. But the Cave Junction teen plans to continue riding after high school, getting his own horse this summer, and will sign up next week to train as a volunteer firefighter.
As a sophomore, he competed in fencing with a cousin. Last summer, he worked long hours as a National Park Service guide at the Oregon Caves.
While he’s steered clear of contact sports, he said horses seemed like a reasonable enough thing to try, with risk an equal factor for even perfectly healthy riders.
“I had already stopped playing soccer in fifth grade because I had Osgood-Schlatter (a lump that can occur during growth spurts) in my left leg,” he said. “My sister didn’t want to do equestrian team alone last year, so I just told my pacemaker doctor that horses were a really high contact sport so that, even without a pacemaker, there’s a good chance of getting hurt. I figured it kind of evens out.”
“I think it’s all in how you word things,” he said. “You can make something that’s kind of bad sound not so bad.”
Sowell was born with a heart defect that required surgery when he was just eight days old. A second surgery became necessary six months later.
With his heart only pumping half the necessary amount of blood by age 14, Sowell required a third surgery — followed by the implanting of a pacemaker when something went wrong just days after surgery.
While he walks with a slight limp from partial paralysis on his left side, and rests his left hand on his saddle for stability, the teen hardly acknowledges any limitations, said his father, Will Sowell.
“Crawling and walking was a little slower because of the surgery at 6 months, but other than that, he just never knew he couldn’t do as much as he wanted,” his father said.
“I’m usually just supportive of whatever he decides to do. He never thinks that he has any type of limits, so he doesn’t have.”
Will said his son never seemed deterred, always boasting a positive attitude and constant sense of humor.
During an emergency transport from Grants Pass to Portland for his third heart surgery, the bored teen discovered he could stop his own heart by yawning or turning his head to the left.
“He really messed with the doctors and nurses,” his father recalls, laughing.
“He said, Hey watch this. I know how to make my heart stop.’”
While so many equestrian competitors scrutinize every performance for flaws, Sowell is happy just to compete.
Event judge Debi Kubik said most teens could take a lesson or two from Sowell.
“He’s just an awesome kid. We have all these kids whining about their back hurting or their horse not doing the right thing or whatever else. They could really take note,” Kubik said.
“With all his trials and tribulations that go on in his life, Bryan is still always so positive. You never see the kid not smiling.”
Teammate Meghan Flores, 17, agreed.
“Bryan helps me in school and he’s really smart and really nice. He’s just the kind of person that would help anybody out,” she said.
“His health stuff is kind of scary, but he has a good seat and he’s not afraid like most people. The coaches asked if he wanted the judges to know about his condition but he said he wanted to be treated like everybody else.”
Sitting atop a mustang named Ching on Friday, the teen was quick to shrug off any kudos.
“Something I might think isn’t a big deal could be really hard for someone else,” he said. “Everyone’s perspective on life is just different.”
For details about this weekend’s equestrian events, visit www.sohset.org.
Buffy Pollock is a freelance reporter living in Medford. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.