From Ocala to Tokyo: Paralympian to compete after cancer diagnosis

20-year-old Cayla Van Der Walt raising money to travel with horse to Paralympics

Watching 20-year-old Cayla Van der Walt on horseback, you'd never realize what she's overcome.
Watching 20-year-old Cayla Van der Walt on horseback, you'd never realize what she's overcome.

OCALA, Fla. – Watching 20-year-old Cayla Van Der Walt on horseback, you’d never know what she’s overcome.

In 2016, while living in South Africa, she was diagnosed with cancer after a tumor was found in her left arm. She moved to the United States, where she underwent surgery along with chemotherapy and radiation. The treatment left her with only 30% feeling in her left arm.

“Luckily we caught the tumor early. You can see the scar from surgery and the dark mark surrounding it is from radiation, like sunburn on my skin,” Van Der Walt said.

Losing feeling in her arm didn’t stop her from doing what she’s loved since she was a child: riding horses and competing.

“When I started riding again competitively, I noticed my right arm was weaker and putting me off balance. I had to do physical therapy and learn how to regain my balance so I can ride properly,” Van Der Walt said.

Her training team and family are now living in Ocala, the horse capital of the world. Van Der Walt has been preparing to compete in the 2021 Paralympics in Tokyo with her horse, Diturro.

While she’ll be on team South Africa, Van Der Walt will also be representing Ocala.

“It’s exciting and a little nerve-wracking now that it’s starting to hit me about how stressful everything is. And seeing the other riders, they are the top of the top. It’s going to be a competitive,” said Van der Walt.

Van Der Walt and Diturro will be competing in a variety of equestrian events. Their favorite is musical freestyle.

“Once the music starts, I can feel him perk up, get all big and proud and go for it,” said Van Der Walt.

The trip for Van Der Walt and Diturro costs about $48,000 out of pocket. The family created a GoFundMe account to help raise money so she can compete in the Paralympics.

“Having to pay for his flight to Germany and all Diturro’s equipment and feed. We also pay for his flight back after the Paralympics. I don’t think anyone realized how expensive it would be,” said Van Der Walt.

While Van der Walt is raising money to help get to the Paralympics, she’s sharing a message to others.

“If you have a dream, I’d say do whatever you can to keep going for it. I didn’t think I’d get to the Olympics this early in my life. Don’t let anything hold you back and just go for it,” said Van Der Walt.

Van Der Walt and Diturro are planning to head to Tokyo for the Paralympics the first week of August.

After the Paralympics, Van Der Walt hopes to qualify and compete in the World Equestrian Games.

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About the Author:

Crystal Moyer is a multimedia journalist who joined the News 6 team in February 2020. Crystal comes to Central Florida from WKMG’s sister station, WJXT in Jacksonville, where she worked as a traffic anchor and MMJ.