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HEBER CITY — Lara Oles didn't grow up dreaming of competing in the Olympics. But after a terrible skiing accident in 2006, she found new possibilities for her life.
Oles and her husband, Dan, were members of the ski patrol at a resort in Wyoming. However, that all ended after a skiing accident in Colorado left Oles with a spinal cord injury that paralyzed her left arm and gave her stroke symptoms in her right leg.
Oles spent a full year recovering from the accident and doing physical therapy. She began taking horse riding lessons at the National Ability Center in Park City as part of her therapy. After commuting from Wyoming for several months, she decided to move to Heber City so she could become serious about horse riding. She hired a trainer, bought a horse, and she and her husband found jobs in Salt Lake City.
"It all worked out and it's amazing," she said. "It's just amazing how when you jump in headfirst, the universe aligns — at least it did for me. I am incredibly lucky. My husband and I are happier than we have ever been before. We did it for this. We were just kind of following a dream."
Oles began training in dressage after watching the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky. She attended the games as the recipient of the Independent Adult Rider of the Year award. Oles said after the awards banquet, a woman from the Carlisle Academy in Maine told her that she needed to start training with the other riders at a para-equestrian symposium.
"I said, 'No, you don't understand. I'm just a therapeutic rider.' And she said, 'No, you don't understand. We need riders for the United States (Olympic team). We need to be more competitive. We don't have enough riders. We need people who have horse sense. And you can learn.' "
After she began competing, Oles realized that she did have a shot for competing in the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. She won first place in three dressage classes during the 2013 Annual Idaho Dressage Festival — all while competing against able-bodied contestants. Oles also recently won the Training Level Championship for Adult Amateurs at the 2014 Annual Idaho Dressage Festival.
"I guess I never really excelled at anything before this," Oles said. "I'm probably (in the) top 20 para-riders in the U.S. It's kind of cool. It gave me something to live for."
As the first internationally qualified para-rider in Utah, Oles will try out for one of the four spots on the U.S. Paralympic dressage team in California in March 2015. She said she may also try to qualify for the World Equestrian Games.
"It's funny how you adapt when things happen because you don't really have a choice," she said. "It's amazing what you can live through. You have no idea how strong you are until you don't really have a choice."