When Jefferson City native Deborah McAlexander was 24, the young violin player and equestrian rider started to lose her vision. At that time, a doctor said she would be completely blind and deaf by the time she was 30 years old.
"That plummeted my life into this horrible downward tailspin of terror," McAlexander recalled. "For a while, I wandered around not knowing what to do or how to handle or deal with that."
However, doctors later said she would be blind in her left eye and would have an extremely constricted field of vision in her right eye for the rest of her life.
Now, decades later, the Jefferson City High School graduate hopes to compete in the 2020 Paralympic Games and 2022 World Equestrian Games as the only competing equestrian rider with a blindness disability in the United States.
The International Blind Sports Association classified McAlexander in Grade 5 Profile B2 for national competition. Grade 1 involves athletes with severe physical disabilities, while grade 5 includes athletes with vision impairments.
Dressage involves the horses and riders performing pre-determined movements by memory at different locations throughout the ring.
She is the only competing blind U.S. equestrian athlete the United States Equestrian Federation is aware of currently, said Laureen Johnson, USEF director of para-equestrian and vaulting.
"All things are possible — all things — when you ride, you walk, you live by faith, not by sight," said McAlexander, who is also a motivational speaker. "To just know where I am, just riding, the only one in the United States, it makes me feel humbled, but it also makes me feel proud."
While McAlexander had previous equestrian experience, it wasn't until after her husband, Jack, died in 2017 that she stumbled upon Paralympics and para-dressage.
At the time, she had been operating an independent piano studio in Jefferson City for 30 years after receiving a masters of music degree in piano performance.
She has been training at the USEF Center of Excellence, North Texas Equestrian Center in Wylie, Texas, since March.
She and Cornet Noir, a 10-year-old Bavarian Warmblood, competed in her first dressage horse show in April, where they came away with a high score of 72.188 and several first and second placings.
Now she hopes to continue riding toward the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo and the 2022 World Equestrian Games.
"There is nothing more magnificent or incredible, at least for me, when I'm riding a horse and everything is falling into place and I'm communicating with that animal," said McAlexander, flashing a wide smile. "With dressage, the whole goal of it is to have a willing partnership with that horse, to ride in harmony."
McAlexander is training every day and will travel to England in July to get her international classification so she can ride in international shows. Then she has to ride in several shows, accumulate scores and try out for the U.S. para-dressage team.
While McAlexander is "very driving and is working every day," her trainer, Kai Handt, said, it would be tough for her to compete in the 2020 Paralympics due to a shrinking timeline. If they continue her training, though, he hopes she will compete in the 2022 World Equestrian Games.
"In order for her to do that, she still has a long way to go to learn all of these things and she's just kind of in the beginning stages of it right now," said Handt, owner of the USEF Center of Excellence, North Texas Equestrian Center. "But as far as her training goes, she moved up really quick. It took, like, three weeks for her to compete, where most people it would take three or four years to do that."
Working her way up the ranks to compete in the Paralympics is not a cheap task, though. Between training, equipment, lodging and more, she estimated her para-dressage journey could cost up to $1 million.
McAlexander created a nonprofit, Vision Beyond Eyesight, and is accepting donations and sponsorships. Those interested in donating can visit deborahmcalexander.org.
Through her journey, McAlexander said, she hopes to demystify stereotypes and stigmas around blindness, as well as encourage those with disabilities to strive for their dreams.
"I want to stand up and represent and say you can overcome everything — every obstacle, adversity, failure in your life, but you have to make the choice to do that, and you have to be willing," she said. "Whatever happens in your life, when you get bucked off your horse, you've got to get back on."