For every dream realized, aspiration fulfilled or journey still to be embarked upon each of us can look back on an individual or group of individuals that sparked our decision toward a chosen path.
For some, it was a larger-than-life childhood hero who stirred our notions to dream big. For others, it was a mentor who helped guide us through our own personal story in life. Or it’s simply been that friend who shares in the delight of our successes and is there to comfort in our times of struggle.
Every one of us has traveled our own personal path and been inspired in our own ways. What we all have in common though is that our journeys have not been traveled alone. We have all been sparked by inspiration, whether we’ve come to realize it yet or not.
My hero, my mentor, my best friend—my spark—is my father Larry McQuillan.
My dad grew up in a small Connecticut town with dreams to make it as a reporter. After graduating from St. Bonaventure University (N.Y.) he worked at a local newspaper in upstate New York. Not satisfied that he’d reached his full potential, my dad ignored the advice he received from those wanting him to play it safe and took the leap into the cutthroat world of D.C. political coverage. His ultimate dream was to some day become a White House reporter. Not only did he achieve that dream, covering six different presidential administrations, he eventually was elected President of the White House Correspondent’s Association and was selected into the famed Gridiron Club.
So when his son showed those same passions, but this time in horses, he saw a kindred spirit. Despite his chaotic schedule, traveling all over the world with the President in the press pool, he always took the time to scope out local farms he could take me to. Most of the time we would just sit there with a handful of sugar cubes, hoping one of the horses would be enticed enough to come to the fence line, but every once in a while he’d wrangle a lesson for me. At the age of 12, with my only points of reference on horse care and riding being the movies “The Black Stallion” and “The Man From Snowy River” I convinced my parents to bite the bullet and purchase a horse.
Bucky, a 4-year-old Appaloosa gelding my parents purchased for a few hundred dollars, sealed my fate. I was hooked. Though we didn’t own a saddle and it took close to a year to figure out exactly how to get a bridle on Bucky, I was living my dream.
My dad, not knowing the first thing about horses but recognizing his own drive in me, became actively involved with Bucky. Every trail ride I went on, my dad was right there walking along with our dog Brandy for countless hours, always with a smile on his face and never a complaint. When I first started taking regular lessons, he did as well. He didn’t do this for any particular interest he had himself in riding but as a way to support and share in my enthusiasm.
As the years progressed and my passion became my life’s work as a professional rider, what remained constant was my dad’s love and support. In one of my earlier blog entries I wrote on the psychological fears I was dealing with after a traumatic injury that all came to a head at the Virginia Horse Trials.
What I did not mention before is that when I shakily returned back to the barns after my ride I was shocked to find my dad standing there by my stall. When I had left for the event he was traveling with the President in Russia. Not only did I have no expectation he would be back in time, let alone drive the 5 ½ hours from my parents' house in Maryland, I don’t remember even mentioning to him that I'd be competing there.
That was my dad though. He knew I was struggling after my injury and wanted to be there for me.
I can’t even put into words what that meant to me. He was there. I was not alone. Without him saying a word, just a hug, it gave me the strength to overcome that time in my life.
This past September, after exhausting every medical and surgical option, my dad lost his battle with cancer. It was a very cruel roller coaster of a year. Twice we were convinced the cancer was gone only to have the rug pulled out from under us.
My dad handled this situation just as he lived his life. He never got down; he never gave up, and he remained gracious and composed all the way till the end. For everyone that knew him, this did not come as a surprise. While he was always fiercely determined to make his mark on life, never would he do that at the expense of others. He had a tremendous compassion toward others, always there with a helping hand or word of encouragement. He handled every accolade with grace and humility, and every hardship with dignity and composure.
This of course is what heroes do, and my dad was my hero.
I’m not too vain to admit my own shortcomings. Spending the year in and out of hospitals at my dad’s bedside watching him suffer and eventually succumb to cancer shook me to my core. On the few opportunities I did have to compete during the lulls in his treatment, I found my focus and drive were not what they once were and it showed in my results. However, as I look back on this past year’s personal and professional struggles, I realize I still have my dad’s guidance to help me through this.
While he achieved many career successes, he also dealt with his fair share of setbacks. Everyone fails in life and hits rough patches. What determines success is not the avoidance of failure, but owning the situation and learning and overcoming it. My dad never got down when life threw him a curve ball, whether it was the loss of a job or later his health problems.
Situations are what they are. Letting it tear you down accomplishes nothing. You learn from it, make the appropriate corrections, and grow from the experience with a positive outlook.
As I come to terms with my father’s passing, I feel tremendously grateful. Grateful for the amazing family love and support I share with my mom Gerry, wife Kendra and beautiful daughters, Payton and Madison. That same familial support extends to my incredible group of owners and clients.
It means the world to me how understanding they’ve all been through this ordeal. I’m grateful for the lessons learned this year. From all the tough times, I learned the importance of staying positively centered and forward thinking. I learned to strive to overcome rather than allow life’s struggles to weigh me down.
Life goes on. Life moves forward. I’m grateful for my father for showing me the way, I know he’s still with me and I can’t wait to start on my next adventure.
Thanks Dad for being my spark.
This was Part 1 of a two-part blog entry, with a look at embracing change coming up tomorrow.
Eventer Sean McQuillan started riding in Maryland at age 12 and by the time he was 20 he was eventing at the advanced level. He worked as an assistant trainer for the O'Connor Eventing Team (Va.), but also has a wide breadth of experience. He has hunted professionally with the Orange County Hounds (Va.), trained steeplechase horses and competed in the jumpers. His wife, Kendra, is an experienced eventer, groom, barn manager and saddle fitter. Together, they run McQuillan Equestrian & Kilfinnan Stables.