- Associated Press - Saturday, May 20, 2017

COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) - Had it not been for some ill-advised Christmas gifts, there’s no telling where Olivia Oney would be today.

Oney, a senior at Columbus High School, recalled her sister getting little horse dolls during the holidays when Oney was 4 years old. Oney’s sister hated the figures, leaving Oney to take them and start what Oney described as an “addiction” to horses.

Those toys started a trail for Oney that culminated Monday. Oney signed her National Letter of Intent to compete on the equestrian team at Mississippi College in Clinton, Miss. As a result, she becomes the first equestrian signee in Columbus High School history.

Oney said she has a partial scholarship to participate on the team while receiving academic money as well. She admitted going six hours away to school wasn’t an easy decision, but considering how much she loves the sport, she couldn’t turn the opportunity down.

“Today is just a huge combination of all the work I’ve put in the past 14 years of my life,” Oney said. “I wasn’t sure this was what I wanted to do, but I had to sit down and tell myself that this was what I’ve worked for all my life. Years ago, I would have killed for this opportunity. Here I am, committed and ready to go.”

Oney began riding not long after she gave those faux horses a new home thanks to Jennifer Williams, who Oney said laid a good foundation for the rest of her riding days. Oney said her chances of riding collegiately really grew in the past two years. At that point, she began competing in the Interscholastic Equestrian Association.

“I had a great first successful season. I was basically undefeated (in the varsity intermediate on the flat division) until zones, and I was second in the country,” Oney said. “I also had a really good run last year. I was almost undefeated again and got to nationals.”

The triumphs in competition, however, haven’t come easy for Oney. Besides the high costs involved in the sport comes the travel required, especially since Oney calls Columbus home. Oney and her mother Betsy usually drove 90 minutes to Byron at least once a week to practice with the Middle Georgia Equestrian Team based there.

“Columbus as a city, it’s really hard for me to go to Atlanta every weekend,” Oney said. “We’re not in a good location to be in the center of the sport. It means a lot that I, throughout everything, have been able to make it happen. It means more to come from here.”

Oney and her family’s work started to pay dividends two years ago at zone finals in South Carolina, though Oney had no idea what was going on at the time.

As Oney rode during the event, she spotted a man in the crowd with a phone fixated on her every move, clearly recording her performance while also occasionally writing on a piece of paper. A little unnerved but steady, Oney carried on with her business only to later learn the identity of the unexpected videographer.

He was a coach from Mississippi College eager to show his interest in Oney. The coach then extended a sheet of paper to Oney about becoming part of the team.

“Once I looked at it, I saw it was the same piece of paper,” Oney said. “That was pretty cool.”

Oney made it clear she doesn’t plan on joining the Mississippi College program to simply take a back seat. Instead, she has full intentions to take over the reins and get the program into the best shape it’s ever seen.

“They have all the ingredients for success,” Oney said. “They have the facilities and they have the horses, but they don’t really have the kids or the coaches. I just want to go in there, take everybody in the gym with me and teach everybody how I do things. I just want to bring the team to the top.”

Oney celebrated the accomplishment in the Columbus gym alongside two fellow Columbus seniors who signed in their respective sports. It was clear that it took a lot to bring Oney to this point, but given her big dreams for her soon-to-be program, she’s not done yet.

But before she makes her way west, Oney paused to contemplate the opportunity that awaits.

“It was just a huge accomplishment for me,” Oney said. “Having some people that were so passionate about me, believed in me and loved me so much in order to put me on the No. 1 spot on their team, hold their horses for me and let me come in and take over the program.”

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