Dressage program carries legacy of young equestrian killed in crash

Jan 15, 2018
A memorial was along South Shore Boulevard in Wellington near the spot where 19-year-old Dana McWilliams and 21-year-old Christian Kennedy were killed in a crash on Nov. 25. (Kristina Webb/The Palm Beach Post)

The legacy of a young man killed in a crash in Wellington in November is being championed by his mother and the village’s equestrian community through anti-drunk driving programs and a new scholarship for young, promising dressage riders.

Anne Baber Wallis traveled from her home in Kentucky to announce the Unicorn Scholarship in memory of her son Friday night at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, before the second evening of competition of this year’s Adequan Global Dressage Festival.

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The scholarship recipient, 16-year-old Anna Dykstra of Iowa, will travel to Wellington in March to take part in the Dressage4Kids program led by champion dressage rider and trainer Lendon Gray.

Christian Kennedy, 21, died when the driver of the car he was in lost control on southbound South Shore Boulevard between Pierson and Lake Worth roads about 11:25 p.m., Nov. 25. The driver, 19-year-old Dana McWilliams, was four times Florida’s .02 legal blood-alcohol limit for those under the age of 21, according to a report from the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner’s Office.

“Christian should be here tonight, with me and his friends, watching the freestyle,” Wallis said in an emotional speech. “In a few more years, he would have been here tonight, riding. I will never see that, and neither will you.”

Wallis was joined at the edge of the dressage ring by Ilse Schwarz, another prominent member of the dressage community who hired Kennedy to work for her after they met at a clinic she was holding in Tryon, N.C.

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Wallis described the pain she felt when she heard about her son’s death: She was on a plane to Nigeria when the crash happened, and learned the news “alone. In an empty hotel room in a city I don’t know.

“No mom should get that call. Ever.”

Kennedy and the other passenger in the car, 24-year-old Elaine O’Halloran of Ireland — who survived the crash, but faces a long recovery far from her home and family — did not know McWilliams had been drinking, Wallis and Kennedy’s friends have said.

Wallis, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Louisville, said the effects of alcohol on the brain are clear, especially those under age 21.

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“I am happy that this community – this very special equestrian community, which is bound by love of horses, love of the sport and love for each other – is taking some important steps,” Wallis said. “Already, work by Oded Shimoni, Ilse Schwarz, Robert Dover, Lendon Gray, the police, the high schools and the equestrian community are making changes.”

Dressage rider and trainer Ilse Schwarz (left) comforts Anne Baber Wallis, the mother of 21-year-old Christian Kennedy, at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center on Friday, Jan. 12, in Wellington. Wallis announced a dressage scholarship in memory of Kennedy, who was killed in a crash on South Shore Boulevard in November. The driver of the car in that crash, 19-year-old Dana McWilliams, had been drinking, according to a Palm Beach County Medical Examiner’s Office report. (Kristina Webb / The Palm Beach Post) Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

She pointed to Dover’s Get Home Safe program, which offers free rides home from some Wellington bars on weekends – with 600 rides logged so far.

Anna Dykstra, speaking by phone Sunday from Iowa, said she was honored to receive the scholarship named for her close friend, someone she considered an older brother.

“It’s really special to me because Christian and I were so close growing up,” she said.

The pair met about four years ago, and Anna said in that time Kennedy made quite an impression. She recalled the lessons he taught her about caring for her horse, and how “he could eat an entire cake by himself and he was still a stick,” she said, laughing.

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Anna had heard about Gray’s Dressage4Kids program. “But I never dreamed of working with her,” she said. “I’m looking forward to new experiences. You don’t get much of that in Iowa.”

Until the announcement Friday night, Anna was in the dark on her award.

“I didn’t know I was being awarded the Unicorn Scholarship so we were having a viewing party for (Wallis’) speech at my coach’s house,” Anna said. “I was surrounded by people I love and people who love Christian when I found out.”

When Anna comes to Florida during her spring break, she will learn with Gray’s Winter Intensive Training students.

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“I try within the Winter Intensive Training program to educate the kids as much as I can, not just in riding theory but all aspects of horse care,” Gray said. The students also learn about nutrition for themselves, how to give an interview, how to interview someone else — tools they need to emerge as well-rounded young equestrians.

“Wellington is really the only place you could do this so easily, because in Wellington you have a professional in everything that has anything to do with horses,” Gray added. “If it exists, there’s something here in Wellington, I can pretty much guarantee.”

Gray noted that even though Kennedy was not part of her program, he was “exactly the sort of person” she hopes to draw to Dressage4Kids.

“People that don’t come from a lot of money, that have to work very, very hard and work for everything they can get, and will do anything they possibly can to get it,” she said. “The way he looked at his equestrian career. That’s it.”

Maggie Alexander (left) and her mother, Mary Barbara Alexander, both of Wellington, wear shirts in memory of Christian Kennedy at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center on Friday, Jan. 12, in Wellington. Kennedy lived with the Alexanders while studying dressage. (Kristina Webb / The Palm Beach Post)

To raise money for the scholarship, a group of Kennedy’s friends created a shirt design in his memory. The long-sleeve shirts, which come in two styles through Equestrian Team Apparel, have inscribed down each arm, “Live like Christian. Love like Christian. Ride for Christian.”

Ten percent of the proceeds go to the memorial fund.

“It’ll help make a difference,” said Maggie Alexander, with whom Kennedy lived. Alexander is promoting the shirts that Kennedy’s friends, Kami Marcussen and Emily Smith, designed. “It’s just a little bit, but it will help,” Alexander added.