At the close of competition, athletes return home with medals or ribbons, a tangible reminder of their ability to achieve. Athletes attending the Special Olympics North Carolina (SONC) Equestrian Tournament close competition with these reminders, which are also awarded to their respective horses. A year later, Special Olympics Mecklenburg County athlete Tisbe Pizani is still reminded of her three gold medals, earned in the 2022 SONC Equestrian Tournament.
Her first-ever medals won in a Special Olympics competition, she wears her pride for them in a most literal sense. Attending the 2023 SONC Equestrian Tournament, held Sept. 22-24 at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, North Carolina, last year’s medals came with her. They were not around her neck, they were tattooed on her leg. In the months leading up to competition, Tisbe’s cousin designed and gave her the tattoo, depicting the three gold medals and her horse, Shadow.
“We have family in Brazil,” said Tisbe’s mother, Sonia Pizani. “She showed my nephew a picture from last year and, right there, he decided to tattoo it for her.”
Born in Brazil, Tisbe and her family often return home to São Paulo to reunite with family. First moving to Michigan from Brazil, they lived in Michigan for 20 years before relocating, eventually settling in North Carolina. Bilingual in English and Portuguese, Tisbe maintains close relationships with her relatives in Brazil and her loved ones in the United States. In 2023, Tisbe spent three months in Brazil, during which she visited the beach, ate her favorite foods and got her first tattoo.
“There are a lot of people and they have traffic all the time,” described Tisbe.
Back in North Carolina, Tisbe surprised her horse, Shadow, with his replica, now inked on her leg. Tisbe was introduced to Shadow nearly two years ago, both training at RideAbility Therapeutic Riding Center & Equine Assisted Services in Clover, South Carolina. More than 30 certified Special Olympics coaches volunteer with RideAbility, home to the Special Olympics Mecklenburg County equestrian team. At RideAbility, with the help of her coaches and their horses, Tisbe navigated her way to gold.
Special Olympics Mecklenburg County equestrian coach Paula Clayton has worked with Tisbe throughout those two years. Firsthand, she watched Tisbe better her technique on the horse, which earned her a gold medal in pole bending, working trails and English equitation in the 2022 SONC Equestrian Tournament.
“When she came to us, she had trained at another barn and knew the basics,” said Paula. “As far as body positioning, we had a lot of work to do, like with balance. She used to hold her hands up high and the horse would stop. You see her today and her hands are lower. Last year, she competed in the walking class. This year, she is in the trotting class already.”
“My balance is not good, since I can only see out of one eye,” added Tisbe.
Facing a course marked with cones and poles of varying colors, Tisbe struggles to find her bearings on the horse. With time, she and her coaches have implemented new techniques to strength her confidence while riding.
“What we are working on is setting expectations,” explained Paula. “She swept her three classes last year with three gold medals, she likes to win. We’re setting the expectation that if she’s in a harder class, it’s more challenging…It’s not about perfection, it’s about progress.”
Competing against athletes in a more advanced class for the 2023 SONC Equestrian Tournament, Tisbe trained her hardest, rising to the occasion. Riding Shadow, Tisbe earned a gold medal in pole bending, a silver medal in English equitation and a bronze medal in working trails. With new hardware in hand, that tattoo could be readying for expansion.
But before the start of competition, before the medals, there’s a rider and their horse. There’s a shared trust between the two, a bond that defines teammates. The spotlight ahead of Tisbe, Shadow falls just behind. Now, Shadow follows wherever she goes. All she has to do is look down.