Maya Clarkson knows something about overcoming adversity. After suffering through a pair of tragic events, which included losing her family home in a fire and witnessing the death of a colleague in a tragic riding accident, the sophomore equestrian persevered and has achieved excellence in her sport and in the classroom.
"I have the best community of mentors and friends who have really become my family " said Clarkson, who is an interdisciplinary studies major. "I feel so lucky to have the most incredible community in my corner. I have so many families that have taken me in. I felt like everyone was there for me, so there wasn't a way for me to not be strong through it all. There were so many people there by my side."
A native of Santa Cruz, Ca"There's not great cell service in the mountains of Santa Cruz, and there wasn't an emergency communication line," Clarkson said. "She called me the next day and told me they were evacuated. I think it was the next night that our home actually burned down. We didn't really know until we were able to go back, which would be a while. People tried to get up the mountain to see what was left and let their friends know, but there was lots of smoke and active fires still so if you were able to get past the firefighters it was difficult and somewhat dangerous to really investigate what was still left."
It wasn't too much longer before Clarkson and her family found out they had lost everything in the fire.
"It was a rough phone call for sure, I think it was the third day after moving into the dorms for my first semester of my freshman year that my dad called me confirming our home was gone," Clarkson said. "That was my childhood home. It was definitely difficult moving in for my freshman year, and not feeling like I had a home here yet, and then my childhood home was gone. I felt a bit lost for a while."
Clarkson only had the clothes and items she had brought for college, while the rest of her family had next to nothing but the clothes on their back.
"My dad is a ceramics artist, and he lost his whole collection of art from years and years of work. I lost my horse trailer, saddles, all my tack, vet and grooming supplies - basically everything I needed for my horses," Clarkson said.
Clarkson went home a few times that semester to help the family regroup as they looked to rebuild their lives and dealt with insurance companies.
"We stayed in a hotel for almost a month and a half until we could find a rental," Clarkson said. "That was the same for our whole community. We learned a lot about how insurance companies work. The fire went on for months, and it felt like it was never-ending because you couldn't get back up to the mountain.
"I remember going home Labor Day weekend after our house burned down. We had to beg the firefighters to let us up the mountain and take a look. This was a month after it burned down. They weren't supposed to, but they let us up. Even just driving up the mountain was very emotional. All the places I used to bike, hike, and play as a kid were ashes. So many of my friends' houses that I spent hours in growing up turned to smoke. When we got to the place I used to call home, it was almost unrecognizable. It looked like a bomb went off on our property."
Rebuilding takes a good bit of time, and luckily as difficult as insurance was to deal with for Clarkson and family, they were able to secure a rental in town while they sorted out the building process.
In addition to the stress of losing everything and worrying about finances and insurance, there is also a lot of psychological damage for Clarkson and her family to unpack.
"When I was growing up, my whole room was decked out with all my ribbons, medals and awards," Clarkson said. "I do miss that, but I still have the memories and that's what matters. At the end of the day they're just things, and I've definitely learned that where little things used to mean so much to me, I realize it's just a thing. Your friends and family, the hearts that are beating around you, that's what matters."
Clarkson did go to some counseling, but she found more comfort in her friends. Anika Baker, Hannah Ertl, Kayla Reiman, Sarah Ertl, Katie Dillion, Maya Eulensen-Wallace, and Isabella Robinson among many other of her close friends she says we're the most helpful to get her through her darkest days
"It is a very close community," Clarkson said.
Amazingly, Clarkson stayed in school, but after finishing a semester, she temporarily moved back to California.
"It definitely was hard to focus on school and competing for Gamecock equestrian, but it was a good distraction," Clarkson said. "It's easier for me to just keep my head down and keep working and moving along with life. Awful things happen all the time that are out of anyone's control. We can only control what we make of it, and I chose not to let it get me and my community down. Sure, I have hard days, but my friends, horses, dogs, and family have always been there to keep me going."
A SECOND TRAGEDY
She ended up opting out of competing in the spring of her freshman year to move back to California and further support her family but stayed in school by taking online classes. Clarkson moved back to Columbia late in the spring of 2021 and found work that summer with a horse trainer, Annie Goodwin, in Aiken, S.C., with her new horse. In addition to competing for South Carolina, Clarkson also competes in other non-collegiate events called three-day eventing.
"It's very different than what the equestrian team does here," Clarkson said. "It's essentially an equestrian triathlon. We do dressage, cross country, and show jumping all in a weekend. The dangerous phase is cross country. It's basically galloping really fast over solid jumps. It's things like tables, logs, trees, ditches, banks, and water. It's a dangerous phase because the jumps don't fall down. If you and your horse go up to the jumps and you're not on the same page, you can have some really serious consequences."
Unfortunately, that's what happened to Annie Goodwin.
"During the summer, Annie, my trainer at the time and I were cross country schooling, where she suffered a fatal fall," Clarkson said. "Annie was incredible. She was a wonderful person, and I absolutely loved her. I hadn't worked for her that long, but I got so close to her so fast. We had a lot of fun while I was there. Not a day goes by where I don't miss her. I often find myself thinking about the days I was fortunate to spend with Annie and wishing for just one more, well actually several more decades. She was taken from us way too soon. She is someone I admire and look up to and try to carry her spirit on with me.
"It was a really hard day. We hear of tragic cross country accidents happening all too often but seeing it in person and losing someone who had become a huge part of my life made it all too real for me.
"My eventing community who raised me on the west coast, Dayna Lynd-Pugh, Kelly Pugh Goodman and Shannon Lilley, truly got me through that day and the weeks to come. I was unsure if what I was doing was the right thing or what I should be doing. Together, these three made certain I was going to find my way again"
Goodwin was only 32.
"I had lived with her and her fiancée at the time," Clarkson said. "It was similar to the fires in that the community there in Aiken was just so supportive and rallied around her family who also stood by me and helped me continue riding and competing.
"It wasn't easy getting back to competing, but I knew if I didn't do it then, I wasn't going to do it. I love eventing so much, and I've worked hard to be able to just ride my whole life. I constantly battled my parents because they don't understand the horse world and never really wanted me to be a part of it. Riding is pretty much all I know, so after Annie's accident I was honestly terrified that I wasn't going to want to do it anymore."
Clarkson ended up going to a horse show about a month after the accident.
"I had been with Annie that day to try to figure out if I should move my horse up, or if I should stay at the level I was at," Clarkson said. "I went out and just decided to move up, in her honor a bit. I said, I'm going to go do it, and I'm going to go ride well for you, and I did. I finished fifth that weekend.
"I've never been a nervous rider before, and I've never had fear of cross country. I was staying at a trainer, Alex Green's place (in Knoxville) for the competition, and when it was cross country day, I totally blacked out on the drive from her farm to the horse show. I was pretty terrified in warm up and heading to the startbox. I'd never had nerves like that before so I didn't really know how to handle them. Luckily for me Alex is a phenomenal coach and really helped me make it around that day. The mare I had at the time, Carrera 75 was truly incredible. I got out of the box with her, and I was like, holy cow, we're doing this. When I left the box that day I was scared out of my mind but also had complete trust in my horse. It was almost like she reassured me at every fence, 'come on mom, we can do this,' and she convinced me I did want to be an event rider still because the relationship we have with our horses is like no other."
Clarkson worked at Annie's farm for a while to help out the Goodwin family until school started in the fall of 2021 as she once again tried to get back to normal with a heavy heart. Once school started, Clarkson decided to move her horse closer to campus to Holly Van Zyl's family barn.
"Holly and her family have become people who I can turn to on a bad day knowing they will support me and make me laugh when necessary," Clarkson said. "Their family played a huge role in helping me get back to a normal life and making South Carolina finally feel like a place I can call home."
REBOUNDING AND THRIVING
Clarkson returned to campus last fall and competed for the Gamecocks this spring. Despite all of those setbacks and time away, Clarkson worked herself into the starting lineup on the flat and was one of South Carolina's top performers, winning five straight meets and was named SEC Rider of the Month in February. She also performed in the classroom and kept a 3.79 grade point average.
"I think I took the time that I needed to make sure I was in the right place, mentally. My Coaches, Boo Major and Kristen Terebisi were very supportive of allowing me to have that time and stood with me every step of the way, helping me recover from all that life has thrown at me," Clarkson said.
"I definitely thought about giving up school a lot of times, more so to compete with my own horses. At the end of the day, I think having a degree as a backup plan is important. You never know what can happen. The equestrian team has become a close-knit family for me, and this team brings me so much joy. The friendships I have made will last a lifetime, and I know I was meant to find these girls on Gamecock equestrian at this difficult time in my life."
Now that she feels like she is on firmer ground, Clarkson plans on continuing to improve her skills with the Gamecocks and would eventually like to continue in a similar professional career.
"I worked in Germany before I came to school, and maybe I would go back overseas because equestrian riding and competitions are better over there," Clarkson said. "It's everyday life there to go to a horse show. It's not an elitist sport like it is here, so there are so many more opportunities to better yourself. It's just more common that people have a ton of horses. So, I might go back over there, or I might start my own business or partner with someone here. I've started buying and selling horses here, so hopefully I will be able to keep doing that.
"Once I graduate and become a professional, then I will start training horses and taking clients."
For now, Clarkson is excited about her future with the Gamecocks and her two new event horses, FE Velvet Underground and Maks Mojo C.
"I'm excited to start eventing my two horses and continue competing with the Gamecocks," Clarkson said. "We have a really good group of freshmen coming in, and I know the last couple of years haven't gone exactly how we wanted them to go, so I'll keep doing my part to keep us rising. Every time I compete, I'm riding for Annie and hopefully, with her spirit helping us, next year we will make it closer to the top!"