By Daniel Etchells

Sydney Collier and her service dog Journey were among the winners at the 2014 International Equestrian Federation Awards Gala ©FEIAmerican Para-dressage athlete Sydney Collier, and her service dog Journey, were among the equestrian heroes celebrated at the 2014 International Equestrian Federation (FEI) Awards Gala in the Azerbaijani capital Baku tonight.

Collier and Journey, a white standard poodle who became famous during the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy for being the first dog to get accreditation for a World Championship, were the recipients of the "Against All Odds Award" at the Gala presented by watch company Longines.

Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Collier was diagnosed with the rare Wyburn Mason syndrome at the age of seven.

The 17-year-old has undergone a series of operations, including three brain surgeries, while a stroke at the age of 11 led to paralysis on her left side.

Despite these challenges and also being blind in one eye, Collier has pursued her dreams, and after competing at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games this summer, is determined to continue training and represent the US at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

"Winning the FEI Against All Odds Award means so much to me as an individual, and as an athlete," said Collier.

"Life has routinely thrown speed bumps and curves on my plans, but my passion for horses and their incredible spirit has repeatedly helped me find a way around obstacles that others might have seen as insurmountable.

"In winning this award I now have the incredible opportunity to share with so many others facing similar circumstances that their goals do not ever have to be put aside."

Sydney Collier said it meant even more to her to have Journey by her side to accept the "Against All Odds Award" ©FEISydney Collier said it meant even more to her to have Journey by her side to accept the "Against All Odds Award" ©FEI

In between training in New York, 10 hours away from her family and friends, Collier also volunteers once a week to speak, motivate and encourage young people of her age who do not have the same motivation and family support that she does.

"The world out there is filled with wonderful opportunities as long as you are willing to push yourself to reach them," she added.

"I would like to thank the FEI for creating this award to help continue to inspire every athlete, regardless of challenging circumstances, to strive to be their best every day in and out of the saddle."

After travelling nearly 6,000 miles from New York, Journey arrived on the Buta Palace stage wearing a bow tie to receive his own FEI award, a personalised dog bowl.

"It means even more to me to have my special service dog Journey by my side to accept this award," said Collier, who was also recently announced 2014 Junior Equestrian of the Year by the United States Equestrian Federation.

"When Journey was granted his credentials at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, a world of opportunity and education was opened.

"Together Journey and I are now able to share with others the special working relationship and independence that service animals grant their handlers."

Among the other winners of the "Oscars of the equestrian world" were world jumping champion Jeroen Dubbeldam of the Netherlands, who received the "Reem Acra Best Athlete Award", and Mauritius' vaulter Lambert Leclezio, who came away with the "Longines Rising Star Award".

Mauritius' vaulter Lambert Leclezio (right) receives the "Longines Rising Star Award" ©FEIMauritius' vaulter Lambert Leclezio (right) receives the "Longines Rising Star Award" ©FEI

Dubbeldam, who received her award from international fashion designer Acra, has had an exceptional year, claiming individual and team gold medals at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games and helping the Netherlands clinch the Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup final just weeks later.

"I'm very proud of it," said the Sydney 2000 Olympic gold medallist, whose career has spanned 25 years.

"Looking back at 2014, I am full of pride for my horse, Zenith SFN, and the way he competed, as this was the first year at this top level, filling in the gap of my former horse, Utascha SFN that was sold."

At just 17 years of age, Leclezio became the first athlete to represent Mauritius at World Championship level when he stepped into the vaulting arena at the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. 

An impressive sixth place finish in the individual category was the culmination of years of dedication to his sport.

Coming from a country with limited training facilities and vaulting horses, Leclezio received support through the FEI's global sport development programme, FEI Solidarity, to qualify for the 2014 Games by training and competing in Europe.

"It's a great honour to receive the Longines Rising Star Award," he said.

"I made lots of sacrifices to get here, and so did everyone who has been helping me.

"I would like to say a special thanks to the FEI for organising this beautiful ceremony for the equestrian family, and for the huge help from FEI Solidarity, which allowed me to compete at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy and made my dream come true."

Great Britain's Jackie Potts, groom to eventing world number one and compatriot William Fox-Pitt, won the "Best Groom Award", while the Singapore-based equine therapy centre, Equal Ark, claimed the FEI Solidarity accolade.

Great Britain's Jackie Potts (right) was the recipient of the "Best Groom Award" ©FEI Great Britain's Jackie Potts (right) was the recipient of the "Best Groom Award" ©FEI

Last month, Queen Elizabeth II became the first recipient of the FEI "Lifetime Achievement Award" in recognition of her leading role as supporter of equestrian sport throughout her reign as British monarch.

The Queen was presented with the award at Buckingham Palace by outgoing FEI President Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein., whose commitment to equestrian sport and the FEI, during her eight year term in office, was also recognised by her successor Ingmar De Vos in a special presentation at the Awards Gala.

"You have had a lasting effect on every single person in this room, on the organisation, on the FEI family and on the sport globally," said newly elected De Vos, after presenting his predecessor with a diamond brooch. 

"You have led us to new frontiers.

"You had a vision and you took us on an incredible journey."

The Awards Gala was attended by almost 350 guests from national federations, partners, VIPs and international media. 

Azerbaijani television presenter Leyla Aliyeva, first daughter of the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, and retiring FEI endurance director Ian Williams were masters of ceremony for the event. 

Contact the writer of this story at [email protected]

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