More Than Just a Rolex Ribbon for Katie Stimac

Photo used with permission from Brad Roberts Photography

Katie Stimac. Photo used with permission from Brad Roberts Photography.

Katie Stimac was 14 years old when she attended the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event for the first time. Having ridden dressage and western for most of her life, it was her first foray into the eventing world. She situated herself on the cross country course, ready to take in the action for the first time.

Katie had zeroed in on Laine Asher and Frodo Baggins as her pair to cheer on that year. “I’m not sure exactly what it was, but I just felt good about them,” Katie recalled. It was that year that Laine suffered the worst accident of her career, which landed her in the hospital fighting for her life.

“I was 14, ready for a perfect weekend, and the pair I picked to go to the top was eliminated in a terrible accident,” Katie said. “That was perhaps the first major thing that occurred in my life that showed me that life doesn’t always work out the way you think it should. It was a huge dose of reality, and that was something really critical to learn.”

Katie followed Laine’s journey to recovery, painful as it was. She found inspiration in Laine, and she didn’t know then how pivotal that inspiration would prove to be eight years later.

In September 2015, Katie, now 22, began to suffer from severe fatigue, headaches and blind spots. She visited an ophthalmologist, and blood work showed that her hemoglobin, white blood cell and platelet numbers were very abnormal.

“The doctors called my house after midnight, saying my counts were incredibly abnormal and that they were waiting for me in the University of Michigan emergency room,” Katie said. The diagnosis was Acute Myeloid Leukemia, a disorder of the blood as well as the bone marrow.

Katie began receiving chemotherapy immediately, and suffered many complications on her way to remission, including blood clots, blindness and a blood infection. She also underwent two episodes of fluid overload, which resulted in cardiomyopathy.

In January of this year, Katie underwent chemotherapy again in an effort to keep her in remission. She had been on the list for the Bone Marrow Registry, but her heart condition prevented her from receiving a transplant from an eligible donor.

Laine Ashker and Anthony Patch were one of only four pairs that jumped a double clear round. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Laine Ashker and Anthony Patch were one of only four pairs that jumped a double clear round. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Fighting the good fight

Last month, Katie was admitted to the hospital again for more chemotherapy and to prepare for a double cord stem cell transplant, which she received on April 27, the Wednesday of the first horse inspection at Rolex. Having attended Rolex several times since 2008, Katie was sad to miss the event this year and instead watched the competition online from her hospital room, especially to to cheer for Laine.

“I’ve been following from a distance, but she’s never been far from my mind. After her accident and her recovery, that good feeling I had about her continued to stick with me. I’ve been wanting so much to return to Kentucky to watch Rolex again and was hoping this year would find me there. September sent that dream (and many others) to a screeching halt, but when I knew I’d be at (Mott Children’s Hospital) for this year’s Rolex, the days crawled by until I was able to watch it online,” Katie said.

“I was in awe of Laine’s performance, and I continued to think about her motivation and drive to get better. I started to find connections between our experiences of having our lives tossed into unexpected chaos, and I thought that she should know just how deeply her journey has impacted my life.”

Katie sent Laine a message on Facebook, hoping to share just how inspirational her story had been through the difficult times she was experiencing. “She deserved to know how she has been one of the shining lights of encouragement and inspiration for me to plow through this ordeal with every intention of getting back into the saddle both literally and figuratively,” Katie said.

Laine received Katie’s message the day she returned home from Rolex and found herself speechless upon reading it. “I’m very rarely at a loss for words, but it took me a day to respond to Katie’s message because I didn’t even know what to say,” Laine said. “I had no idea that this could so deeply impact someone who is literally fighting for her life.”

While composing her reply to Katie, Laine glanced at the 19th place ribbon she earned at this year’s event with Anthony Patch. Every time she achieves a goal or receives a significant ribbon, Laine places it on the dashboard of her truck as a reminder of her big goals. “I always keep those ribbons on my dash as a reminder to fight the good fight, and I thought that Katie needed to have it,” she explained.

Laine packed up the ribbon and wrote on the back: “Fight the good fight. I hope this gives you extra motivation.”

When Katie received the ribbon, along with a special #LAE necklace designed by Swanky Saddle Designs, she couldn’t believe it. “When I removed the ribbon from the package and read the touching message Laine had written on the back, I just stared at my mom with a massive grin as the reality of what she had sent sunk in.”

The ribbon has become one of Katie’s most prized possessions and one that she will continue to use as that extra bit of inspiration. “I can definitely say that night was the first time in a long time that I fell asleep with a smile on my face. I was like a kid on Christmas, peaking occasionally at the wall to where we hung it, just to make sure it was actually there. It was surreal, absolutely surreal, and beyond any act of kindness I ever could have anticipated.”

Katie Stimac with Laine Ashker's Rolex ribbon. Photo via Katie on Instagram.

Katie Stimac with Laine Ashker’s Rolex ribbon. Photo via Katie on Instagram.

Fast friends

Laine and Katie continue to talk regularly. “I think about it and I think about how her story has been an inspiration to me,” Laine said. “I don’t know who’s healing who, to be honest.”

Katie continues to progress, although she still faces a long road ahead even with her bone marrow transplant. She is an active blogger, and you can follow her journey here. She’s still in happy shock that she’s made a friend in Laine, someone she has looked up to for such a long time.

“She keeps me entertained, and every time I hear from her I still reel from the reality that my role model has become a friend,” Katie said.

In Laine’s mind, the ribbon couldn’t have found a better home. “It was amazing to make that connection with Katie,” she said. “That ribbon did not need to be with me. It needed to be with her.”