Inside Track: Deciding to Fight
Give up or fight. Those were the two choices Robin Cleary was left with more than 13 years ago after a tragic riding accident left her a quadraplegic. After a brief period of indecision, Cleary’s choice became simple:
“I decided my goal, in addition to helping others, was to get out of this wheelchair one day and walk again,” she said. “I could either wait for help or do something about it. So I’m doing something about it.”
Cleary’s decision to fight has triggered a remarkable story of courage, determination, and success. One day soon her work may directly benefit people all over the world.
In addition to somehow managing to help her husband, Brian, with their small Calder Race Course-based stable of horses, and assisting with the Thoroughbred rescue organization Pure Thoughts, Cleary does her greatest work with the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.
Part of the University of Miami’s School of Medicine, The Miami Project is the world’s most comprehensive research center dedicated to finding a cure for paralysis. Since she began working with them in 1997, Cleary has, on her own, raised more than $1.1 million, becoming the largest individual fundraiser the organization has ever seen. In fact, more than a decade ago, the Miami Project gave Cleary’s fundraising effort its own title—the Robin Cleary Paralysis Research Fund.
“She’s just a very special, determined lady; nothing short of amazing,” is how Miami Project director of communications Scott Roy described Cleary. “We’ve never seen a grassroots effort like hers. She’s an angel.”
Cleary, a horse lover from the time she was born, grew up in Florida and after stints showing, riding, and breaking horses, began working as an assistant trainer. In 1975 she met her future husband, Brian, also a horseman, and over the next two decades the couple eventually started their own stable, with Robin serving as an assistant and exercise rider for Brian.
On July 29, 1996, their lives changed forever when Robin was exercising a colt named Phone E Actor at Calder. During a routine gallop the horse broke down and threw Cleary to the ground. She was instantly paralyzed from the neck down.
“I knew right away,” Cleary said. “I felt this electrical jolt, and I couldn’t feel my arms or legs. When I was at the hospital, I went into cardiac and respiratory arrest. I flatlined twice. I had severe pneumonia after that. My prognosis wasn’t good.”
A fighter through it all, Cleary eventually made it into acute care and then a rehabilitation facility. Devastated and depressed for about a year, she eventually came to grips with her plight and decided to begin her mission to help herself and others.
The first step was to return to the racetrack, which she did reluctantly at the beginning. After a while, Cleary’s work with the Miami Project gave her a purpose. She started going barn to barn at Calder and other South Florida racetracks to raise money.
“The first time I asked a person for a donation I got $100,” said Cleary, who amazingly still goes to the track nearly every morning to be with her horses. “I couldn’t believe it. From then on I knew I had come to the right place. The willingness to help from people in the horse racing industry is inspiring.”
Through generous donations from horse people from all over the country, Cleary’s fundraising effort has grown every year. In 2008 she went over the $1-million mark, with every cent going directly to the cure. In 2010 the Miami Project hopes to begin the most anticipated human clinical trial initiative ever, with the ultimate goal of having quadriplegics such as Cleary walk again.
“I’m very proud of the work I’ve done, but I still feel like I can do more,” Cleary said. “It’s my passion to help.”
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