The Sweetest Ride

07/30/2022 11:23 AM By Joshua
From the Paddock
Cayla Van der Walt
Cayla Van der Walt
Story by Cynthia McFarland • Photos by Joshua Jacobs

The Sweetest Ride

Cancer-Survivor Competes in Paralympics

Life comes with no guarantees. Everyone learns this painful lesson at some point, but for Cayla Van der Walt, that harsh realization came when she was just 15. Born and raised in Durban, South Africa, Cayla began riding at 4 years old and started lessons early. She loved everything about horses and concentrated on jumping until devoting her focus to dressage when she was about 10.

Because of her father’s business, the Van der Walt family moved to Utah in 2009 and then returned to South Africa. No matter where they lived, horses were a constant, as Cayla continued to ride and improve her skills.

Unexpected Turn

Life was busy and happy for the 15-year-old until the morning of July 10, 2016, when she woke up with excruciating pain in her left arm. “There was no lump, but my arm was hard to the touch near my elbow,” recalls Cayla. “My dad took me to the ER, and they did ultrasounds, which showed some kind of mass.” Doctors responded quickly, doing surgery on July 12 to remove the tumor.

Two days later, Cayla was diagnosed with malignant Ewing sarcoma, a rare cancer occurring mostly in bones, although it can develop in soft tissue around bones. While it can strike people of any age, it’s more often found in children and teens. It’s uncommon for Ewing sarcoma to start in soft tissue in a limb, yet that’s exactly what happened to Cayla.

Doctors told the family she would have better treatment options in the U.S. and recommended Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. When she boarded a plane to fly to Utah, Cayla had just finished half of grade 10. (School runs by the calendar year in South Africa.)

“My dad came with me, and I started chemo in August 2016. Then, my mom flew out and was here with me, and my dad went back to South Africa in September. I did chemo through April 2017 and then did radiation all of December 2017,” recalls Cayla.

“Everyone at the hospital, especially the nurses, became my second family, because I was there so much. I’m still really close to them,” she adds.

Olympic Dreams

Since treatment ended, Cayla and her parents have stayed in the U.S. The family moved to Marion County in September 2020 specifically for Cayla’s riding pursuits.

Although Cayla only has 30 percent use of her left arm, due to her bout with cancer, it hasn’t dampened her passion for competition. “Surprisingly, the cancer opened up a lot of good opportunities,” says Cayla.

When she was going through treatment, she never expected that, within three years, she’d be competing in the Paralympics. “I always thought about going to the Olympics but definitely didn’t think I’d do it this early,” says Cayla, who rode for South Africa in the 2020 Paralympics.

“The difference between the Paralympics and the ‘regular’ Olympics is that the Paralympics allows an athlete’s equipment to be adapted to accommodate a disability,” explains Cayla, who competes in dressage at grade 5, which relates to a limb problem.

Because the tumor had wrapped around a nerve in her forearm, surgery to remove it and subsequent scar tissue caused permanent nerve damage. “I don’t have feeling in my thumb or pointer and middle fingers, so I can’t move them much and can’t bend my hand certain ways,” notes Cayla. “In the beginning, my arm was super weak, but after physical therapy and building up my strength, I’ve learned to adapt and work around the disability.”

Tokyo 2020

The whole Paralympics adventure was life-changing for Cayla, who rode Daturo, a horse she co-owned. She bought Daturo in 2018 with the specific intention of qualifying for the Paralympics with him, since the other horse she owned wasn’t quite at that level of international competition. Cayla was gone for an entire month, including the week-long quarantine in Germany required for horses.

Tokyo 2020 was hailed as the strongest equestrian competition in Paralympic Games history, as individual freestyle gold medalists achieved benchmark high scores.

Home in Florida

Cayla co-owns a farm in southeastern Marion County with her parents, and she is still almost always on a horse. She’s hard at work expanding Librae Dressage, her training business, and is already planning ahead for the 2024 Paralympics. “My focus is fully on riding,” says Cayla, now 21.

Although horses take up most of her time, she loves anything related to the water, including the beach and boating. She also has two dogs and a cat.

Cayla has been in remission for five years and only goes for an MRI scan every six months. Unless someone sees the scar on her arm, they wouldn’t know what she’s been through, but Cayla does, and it just makes every day that much sweeter.
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