When Adele Norton was a little girl, she canvassed her Falls Church, Va. neighborhood with a petition asking her parents to let her take horseback riding lessons.
“I got people to sign it,” the 21-year-old equestrian said, smiling mischievously.
Good thing, because when Adele was 7 years old, her parents gave in. Riding lessons began on a gray pony named Charlie Brown and 14 years later – on April 18 in Waco, Texas – Adele played a major role in capturing the University of South Carolina’s third National Collegiate Equestrian Association Championship.
And while USC’s female Scholar-Athlete of the Year is set to graduate Saturday from USC with an undergraduate degree in English and a teaching job waiting for her in Florida, confidence was a long time coming to Adele.
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Growing up, Adele said she always felt like “the odd man out. I wasn’t interested in playing dress-up games. I wanted to be riding or reading my books. I remember sitting at recess, writing short stories. In middle school, I had a teacher who let me eat lunch in her room. I’m a perfectionist and I’d always look in the mirror and I wanted to be thinner and prettier. I remember thinking how put-together my high school friends seemed …Body issue images.”
Ouch. The angst of adolescence. Harder for some than others to overcome.
In Adele’s case, horses were her safe haven. “I was entranced with these majestic creatures.”
But still, when Adele arrived at USC as a freshman and a member of the university’s equestrian team, she said she had “virtually no confidence in myself or my riding. …When I first came here, I was always trying to make myself smaller.”
Enter Boo Major, the team’s head coach for 17 years.
“Boo taught me to own it,” Adele said. “She believed in me before I believed in myself.”
“(Adele) always had a soft touch with horses,” Major said. “It was often so soft that the horses didn’t understand what was being asked of them ... She would often stop herself by second-guessing her decisions … When Adele was on, no one could beat her.
“We called that ‘Adelefire’… She showed that fire on many occasions but mostly this past year. It may have taken until our national championship for her to understand how important she was to our success and how self-confidence was what would make her deliver consistent performances.
“Everything culminated at our championship. Each horse she rode in the first two rounds were horses that she had ridden in the past and made mistakes on. She set a goal of ‘redeeming herself’ and riding not to lose but riding to the best of her ability and trusting that she had all the skills and confidence she needed to have winning rides. Proof was in the pudding. Three rides at national and three wins.”
Adele smiles modestly at the mention of her stellar performance.
“I will always find a way to be around horses. They bring out the best in me. When I’m riding, there is nothing on my mind other than the relationship I have with the horse. They’re such hardworking and caring creatures who give us their all every time we ride them. Do they have to do that? Absolutely not, but they do and I love them for it.
“When I am on a horse, I feel beautiful, confident and capable.”
This weekend, she will graduate with a new outlook.
“These four years, well, it’s because of my teammates, my teachers, my coaches and the horses that I’ve developed this strong sense of self that I never thought I could have … I have finally seen the light in myself.”
And the name of that long-sought-after and so well-deserved light?
Know of a story that needs to be told? Email Salley at firstname.lastname@example.org.