GEORGINA Sergeon entered a field dominated by men and for a while was making a name for herself as the lone female rider at Caymanas Park.
After joining the jockey's apprenticeship programme in 2009, she notched up 25 wins in her first full season and earned a nomination as RJR Sports Foundation Sportswoman of the Year in 2010.
But her career hit a snag on Saturday, January 21. Going for her 56th career win onboard Tricky Train during the seventh race, Sergeon took a spill which effectively halted a blossoming career.
The fall left her unconscious, but for Sergeon, who was taken to the Spanish Town Hospital, it was only the beginning. What was initially thought to be a broken leg proved to be much worse. She had sustained a broken spine.
"I was at Spanish Town Hospital and I was feeling enormous pain and I stayed there three days and (after) went to University Hospital of the West Indies January 24th. That was the same day I did surgery but they didn't know my spine was so badly damaged," she said.
Dr Peter Charles, one of eight neurosurgeons in the island, along with head of Neurosurgery at the Kingston Public Hospital, Dr Dwight Webster, operated on Sergeon within hours of realising the extent of her injuries through CT Scan and MRI imaging.
The examinations revealed a thoracic spinal fracture/subluxation — with spinal cord compression. It required eight hours of surgery to perform an emergency decompression and stabilisation of her spine.
"I didn't know that it was that bad," Sergeon shared.
Since then, she has showed remarkable fortitude in her recovery.
According to Charles, who incidentally only returned to the island to begin a consultation at the UHWI on January 1 after spending a year fine-tuning his craft at the Regina General Hospital in Canada, Sergeon had movement within 24 hours of surgery.
She was standing up a few days later and was able to use a walker to move around within 10 days post-op. To our surprise she was able to walk again," he said.
Said Sergeon: "At first he said it is 50/50 chance and not reliable for me to walk again. Up to now he says he cannot really predict because my body is moving different from norm.
"You have to have God in place because without God there would be no life and when you have God in place that's the only thing you can thank him for," she explained.
"The will power has to be there too. Your mind is really the one... because if your mind tells you to go (you go) but if your mind is lazy, you won't go on to do what you want to do. It's your mind control your body."
Charles said Sergeon has surprised herself, even going against orders to stay off a horse until her spine had completely fused.
"She improved so much that she got a little excited and went on a horse. Not to race, but I've asked her to please stay off until her spine is fused. Once we're happy, then she can go back to racing. All in all, I think she is quite motivated and she will do well," he told the Sunday Observer.
As his way of "giving back", Charles sees the jockey at "no cost" every two or three months. After seven months of rehab and physiotherapy, Sergeon was given the all-clear to begin gym work in September.
"It's been really good to know I got the go-ahead to start back. It has been a nice experience being back... to finish what I have started," she said.
Having been out of work for eight months has also been difficult for the jockey who earns a percentage of the winnings from any horse she rides.
"I live off the money that I earn. If it wasn't the money that I earned and my trainer Wayne DaCosta and some of my trainers, I don't think I would be able to manage my bills. It's really the money you have earned already that you are using up. That's really the tricky part," she said.
It has proven the case now. Since getting the go-ahead she still hasn't started as she has been trying to drum up the funds to do so for the last three or four weeks.
Barcelona Olympic Games two-time silver medallist Juliet Cuthbert, who now operates Cuthbert's Fitness Studio on South Avenue in Kingston, started working with Sergeon over a year before she was injured.
"Most jockeys have a back problem, nothing that terrible, so we have to stabilise that and make sure her back is strong enough to stay on the horse," she explained.
"For now we are just going to use the exercise rubber band. Stuff on the mat like floor exercises — total body. Just use her body weight. We have to take it slow because it's a process. She will warm up on the treadmill; it's a gradual process. We will step it up week by week, month by month," Cuthbert explained.
Meanwhile, the ambitious Sergeon, who graduated from cosmetology school in 2008 after leaving Kellits High in Clarendon, and was a professional hairdresser before switching careers, remains focused on improving herself.
"I mostly rest but now I'm doing a course getting more subjects... so I'm really consuming myself with school work, improving my education," she said.
Despite her stalled career, Sergeon became a full-fledged jockey on August 16 after graduating from the Jockey's School.
"I (was) still a part of the programme. You sign a three-year contract. Once you abide by all the rules and regulations, we are officially jockeys."
When Sergeon is ready to ride again, the decision will be taken by Charles, and to a lesser extent, Cuthbert.
"How she is going... in the gym... will dictate when she goes back on a horse. This part is very important; if she doesn't do all of this she cannot go back on a horse," said Cuthbert.
Dr Charles is confident Sergeon will mount again: "Psychologically, I think if she wants to race again then her body will allow her to race again," he said.