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Tegan Vincent-Cooke : Telling it Like it is

Tegan Vincent-Cooke is an aspiring Paralympian with a smile that can light up the world. She loves breaking down barriers and sharing with the world what it’s like to be Black, queer, disabled and rebel.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Deborah Goldstein with sound design and mixing by Reel Audiobooks. It was written by Emily McMahon-Wattez and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Dédé Davi. Joy Smith was our executive producer. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Tegan Vincent-Cooke couldn’t believe this was really happening. As she trotted out into the arena atop her horse, Coco, she heard the crowds buzzing with excitement. This was everything she’d been training for — she was about to compete in the 2022 British National Championships in Dressage. All of her hard work and countless hours practicing had brought her here and however she performed today could determine her future as an athlete. 

As she waited for the signal, Tegan could feel her heart pounding and the eyes of spectators watching her every move. Years ago, this might’ve made her feel self-conscious, but today, Tegan felt powerful and strong. And yet, she knew from experience, anything could happen….

I’m Dédé Davi. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebel women who inspire us.  

On this episode, Tegan Vincent-Cooke — award-winning equestrian, motivational speaker, and advocate for people of all abilities and backgrounds.

For most of us, walking between classrooms at school is an easy part of the day. We get to say hi to the friends we pass, maybe stop at our locker to swap out a book, swing by the water fountain. No big deal.

 But when Tegan was a kid, that walk to class was what she dreaded most.

Tegan was born in 2001 with quadriplegic cerebral palsy, which meant she had a hard time moving her body, especially her arms and legs. Tegan’s muscles didn’t behave the way she wanted them to – they tensed up, stretching tighter and tighter, until her limbs felt as stiff as a tree. Sometimes her muscles contracted all on their own, moving her body in ways she couldn’t control.

Tegan had to put extra effort into every single movement, coming up with her own way to do things like tie her shoes, or get a glass of water. She tried to stay cheerful and positive, but as she got older, she started to notice how people would gawk at her. That long hallway at school with its bright florescent lights felt more like a runway, where everyone’s eyes were fixed on her. Sometimes, people assumed that since Tegan’s body worked differently, her brain must’ve worked differently, too. They’d talk to her like she was a baby, or just stare, and avoid talking to her at all.

The one place where Tegan felt like she always belonged though, was on top of a horse.

It’s really important for people with cerebral palsy to exercise their muscles – it helps to keep them strong and flexible. Tegan tried swimming, walking, and lots of physical therapy, but her favorite exercise was horseback riding. 

Tegan started riding horses at 4 years old, and from the very first time, she was hooked. Sitting way up high on top of this powerful creature… it was like her disability just faded away. There she was, a tiny girl who struggled to control her own body… amazingly able to control an animal many times her size. With just the slightest move, like squeezing her legs into the horse’s body or tapping her toes onto its flank, Tegan could instruct a horse when to walk, which way to turn, and how fast to go. It was a freedom of movement that she had never experienced before. When Tegan was sitting on a horse, it relaxed her muscles, and her mind.

Tegan started competing in an equestrian sport called Dressage, which is like ballet on a horse. She had to show the judges that she was in complete control as she and her horse performed complex movements together.

Tegan was very good at dressage. She’d spent so much of her childhood thinking about mobility, and how to encourage her body to listen. Doing that on a horse was almost second nature. 

And yet, even after winning local dressage competitions, Tegan didn’t think horseback riding could be anything more than a hobby – mostly because she’d never seen any professional equestrians like herself. Hardly anyone she saw in the horse-world was Black, most of the people were pretty wealthy (because it costs a lot to own a horse), and of course, everyone she’d seen was non-disabled. 

Then, when Tegan was eleven, she watched the Paralympics — a worldwide sports festival for athletes with disabilities that’s held every four years. Tegan was thrilled as she watched Sophie Christianson in the arena. Sophie was an equestrian athlete with cerebral palsy and many other health difficulties — and she won three gold medals!

Now, Tegan had a new goal: to become a Paralympic champion herself.

Tegan immediately buckled down on her training. She pushed herself a little harder each day, building her strength and her balance. She also needed to work with each horse she rode — really get to know them — so she could anticipate their moves, and teach them how to listen to her. 

Tegan’s diligence and determination soon paid off! She started winning bigger and bigger competitions. Of course, there were a few disappointments along the way — like the very first time Tegan got to compete in the British National Championships. Tegan was 12 years old at this point, and she strode out into the arena with a huge smile on her face.

She was competing on a horse who was known for causing trouble, but Tegan felt like she was in control. 

I’m going to win this! she thought to herself, letting her focus drift as she imagined how amazing it would feel to take first place – and during that small moment of distraction, her horse got startled by something in the audience. Before Tegan knew what was happening, her horse started flying around the arena, knocking everything down. Tegan managed to hold on, but just barely. She certainly didn’t win that day. 

Now, some people might have given up, or refused to ride that horse again — but not Tegan. She rode that same horse again just ten minutes later — impressing all the judges — and the experience only inspired her to train more so she’d be ready to compete again. 

At the same time that Tegan was finding focus and motivation in dressage, she was also struggling socially. She knew she couldn’t live on top of a horse, but practically every time she was in a social situation on her own, she encountered some sort of weird looks or discrimination from people who just didn’t understand the way her body worked. 

So, Tegan decided to make a video about what it was like to be her. She would tell her own story, and answer all the questions that her classmates were too shy to ask. Tegan made an animated video about her life as a girl living with quadriplegic cerebral palsy and posted it on YouTube for kids all over the world to see.
Tegan was very vulnerable in her video and revealed a lot about how she lived each day. And it quickly became a huge hit online, gathering thousands and thousands of views. Tegan was inspired, and excited to post more!  

Next, she posted testimonials about what it was like to button her jeans with cerebral palsy, or how she managed to type on her phone. She talked about her favorite superhero films, mint chocolate chip ice cream, and Ariana Grande! She also posted about bigger issues like how she coped with peoples’ biases or assumptions about her based on the way she moved, the way she talked, or the color of her skin. It was important to Tegan that people saw her for who she was on the inside, not just the outside. Tegan even announced her bisexuality on her YouTube channel, because she didn’t want to hide any part of herself from her audience. 

Tegan’s videos were funny, clever, and honest.  And pretty soon, she had an enormous following — her videos had millions of likes and she was asked to give public talks worldwide!

Not only did this feel freeing and empowering, but Tegan realized she could accomplish two things at once – share her story with people all around the world, and earn money doing it so she could buy her own horse!

Equestrian sports are very expensive and it’s challenging for anyone to find the right horse. The energies of horse and rider have to complement each other; the personalities have to click. Since Tegan’s muscles could be unpredictable at times, she knew she needed a horse that was both patient and perceptive.

 The very first time Tegan met Coco — a beautiful, powerful, brown mare — she knew this was the horse of her dreams. As soon as Coco took off with Tegan on her back, Tegan couldn’t stop smiling. It felt like they moved in unison, speaking their very own language without words.

Over the next year, Tegan and Coco became the best of friends — learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes — until Coco was able to anticipate exactly how Tegan wanted her to move. 

And that’s how, in 2022, Tegan sat high and tall on Coco’s back, ready to compete in the British National Championships.

They both felt poised and powerful, confident in themselves and each other.

“Alright Coco, let’s do this…” As Tegan rode Coco out into the arena, she focused on connecting and communicating with her new best friend. Together, they cantered and pivoted, prancing around the arena in a singular fluid movement. Tegan impressed all the judges with how well Coco responded to her instructions – two bodies moving gracefully together, as one. And when they won their first medal at Nationals, it was difficult to tell who was happier.

Tegan and Coco’s next goal is to join the 2024 Paralympics in Paris, where Tegan will be the very first Black female equestrian to compete.

Of course, every day, the training presents different challenges. Tegan’s muscles are always stiff, but on good days she can feel her limbs easing as she walks and rides. Some days though, she is in so much pain that she can’t even get out of bed. Tegan knows she just has to listen to her body and honor it, letting it rest when it needs to and pushing when she can.

As Tegan says, she isn’t dis-abled, she’s differently-abled. And if you think about it, Rebels, we’re all differently-abled. We all have things we’re great at, and things we have to work harder on to achieve. Tegan’s not just a girl with cerebral palsy. She’s a Rebel Girl who’s thrilled to share her story with the world, and celebrate how different and amazing we all can be.