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Seeing is believing

A tumor impaired her sight, but it couldn't keep Tory Watters from her passion.

By CHRISTINA K. COSDON, Times Staff Writer
Photography by TONI L. SANDYS of the Times Staff

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 12, 2003

Tory Watters accepts her challenge and makes up for her impairment with mental preparation before heading onto the course.
TAMPA -- Galloping toward an obstacle during a jumping competition, rider Tory Watters suddenly realized something had gone wrong. The triple combination she and her horse were approaching was much too high.

There were gasps from the spectators, then the only sound was the horse's hoofs pounding the ground as the pair closed in on the towering triple jump. Too close to turn away, she had to go for it. Even then, she knew the horse could still crash while attempting to jump high and long enough to clear it.

"You could have heard a pin drop," she said. "It was a triple setup for the afternoon grand prix riders. We got over it. Thank goodness I was on a retired grand prix horse.

"Afterwards, I pulled up and walked out of the ring hyperventilating. The photographer later told me he couldn't even pick up his camera to take a picture, he was in such shock."

She calls it the most spectacular wrong jump she has made in more than 20 years of competing. Though she walks the courses and memorizes the layout before each competition, she admits it could happen again.

After all, she's legally blind.

Teaming up with a powerful, spirited horse and guiding it over an intricate course of obstacles is no easy sport for the sighted, let alone a person who can only see shadows in a small, limited area of one eye.

But Tory never has considered giving up riding and competing. She thrives on challenges, and horses are her passion.
Watters has loved horses since she was a teenager, but her children Maxwell Round, 4, top, and Matthew Round, 2, are the stars of her life and she looks forward to spending time with them.
She was crazy about horses by age 14, when she was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor that left her with no measurable sight in her right eye and only peripheral vision in an upper corner of her left eye.

When doctors told her parents that in 70 percent of cases like Tory's, the cancer returns within 2-21/2 years and almost always is fatal, they gave her their blessing to do whatever would make her happy.

"We didn't know how long she would live, and her father and I wanted her to have quality of life," Paula Watters said. "She just wanted to be strong and healthy again and get on with her life."

They knew she would get back on her horses.

"I was blessed with parents who believed that when I met my limitations, I would stop," Tory said. "They let me try (to ride) and I learned to adapt and adjust. A month after surgery, my head still swollen from the surgery, I was on a horse doing a walk, trot and canter class."

She taught herself to read with a high-powered magnifier. It took her a year to read a 150-page book, and when she finished she and her parents celebrated with a champagne toast.

The petite, blond woman, 37, talks about her vision challenge as just that, a challenge that she never has considered unsolvable.

She learned to walk without aid.

"She's quite mobile," her mother said. "She has learned to extend her radar beyond what we can measure."

But what she sees is a blur.

"Everything is like an impressionistic painting; I see everything out of focus," Tory said. "A lot of people don't even know I can't see them when they walk by. They probably think I'm a snob when I don't smile back."
Tory Watters' mother, Paula, right, helps her pick the black olives out of her salad. "I can't tell you how many times I've bitten into something on my plate that I can't stand but couldn't see," Tory said.

After high school, Tory graduated from Mt. Vernon College in Washington, D.C.

Horses and competition continued to be the love of her life.

Over the years, she was successful in jumping classes and sold her winning horses. "Some trainers would say, 'If Tory can win with them, so can my amateur who's got perfect vision,"' she said.

Before a competition, she usually walks the course with trainer Ken Smith of Ashland Farms in Wellington, where she has lived for six years.

Smith will tell her things she can't see that might slow her down or be a problem. "He might say, you can't see it, but the footing is kind of deep in front of jump No.1, so help your horse a little bit, give him a little more leg," she said. "Or he might say, 'By the way, the photographer is standing right next to Jump 3, don't run him over."'

"Riding is like a science," she said. "If you stay on track and keep a good rhythm, then the jumps will come to you. It almost becomes a feel. You have to feel your rhythm, know your horse and it all should flow together."
Watters is trying to sell Eye Remember Rio, whom she rides Saturday during competition in Wellington. She says her success helps her sell horses: "Some trainers would say, "If Tory can win with them, so can my amateur who's got perfect vision.' "
"Tory is a good student and an excellent rider," Smith said, "and she has good, solid horses that try to do the right thing at all times."

She looks for horses, she said, that "won't have a meltdown if I meet the jump at a little bit of a wrong angle. Or, if I jump a jump backwards, it's not going to shatter their confidence in me."

With her wry sense of humor, she always gives her horses eye-related names, like Eyewitness, See For Yourself or Eye Remember Rio.

Tory is divorced and has two sons, ages 41/2 and 21/2, who live with her across the street from the giant Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Center. The annual Winter Equestrian Festival spends seven weeks at the center and three weeks in Tampa. She will compete in the adult amateur hunter, 36-50, classes March 21, 23, 27 and 28 at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

She won ribbons last November in the prestigious National Horse Show and hopes to qualify for the event again this year.

"The horses are my thing, my fix, like some people play tennis or golf," she said. "But my children are the stars of my life. When I take my riding clothes off, I go back across the road and become a mom."

"I thank God every day for this life. Who knew at 14 that I would have a brain tumor? I know how precious every day is. I could not be here tomorrow."

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