No matter how many contests she loses in the future, Tam Collins has proven herself a winner.
Last month, the 33-year-old mother of two won the prestigious Proteus Award, given by the Clifton Horse Society for "most versatile rider." She won the grueling year-long contest despite a personal battle with a cancerous brain tumor.
"She had difficulty walking up to get the award," said Rick Peck, a contest judge and immediate past president of the organization. "I had to help her walk. It was quite a testament to the human spirit."
"There was not a dry eye in the house," her husband Roy, a computer programmer, said of the awards ceremony. "She set her heart on winning and she wouldn't let anything stop her."
For 22 weeks, Collins, of Gaylord, Va., had chemotherapy on Monday, wretching stomach aches and headaches until Thursday, then rode in competitions on weekends. While her husband stayed home with their two sons, Collins spent most weekends traveling with a friend from North Carolina to Pennsylvania, participating in an array of events, from barrel racing to fox hunts.
All of the 150 members of the Clifton Horse Society are eligible to enter the contest, but this year only 15 dared. To win, a person must rack up the most points for participating in a variety of events.
The emphasis is not on winning each event but on variety. Only one point is allowed per each type of event and the horse and rider can receive credit even for such activities as leading a parade. Collins was runnerup for the Proteus last year. This time she beat last year's winner by seven points.
"The most amazing thing was her attitude, which was very, very, up," said Peck's wife Paige. "Her attitude was, 'Not only am I going to beat this cancer, but I'm going to win this award.' "
Leslie Clark, this year's runnerup, said, "When I found what I thought was a very obscure event, there Tam would be. I could never sneak one over on her . . . . "
"It was a goal I set for myself," said Collins, sitting in the dining room of her Victorian-style farmhouse in Gaylord. "I wanted to win that bad," she said, pointing to the bronze trophy in the middle of her dining room table.
"It's been really tough," she added. "But I like that good feeling that comes with a sense of accomplishment."
"She's a gutsy person," said Peck. "Winning the Proteus means dedicating a lot of your year to training . . . . It means the discipline of going from one skill to another, crossing cultures . . . participating in western-style barrel racing, then switching to fox hunting."
The Proteus is given to the horse and rider team that earns the most points for entering events that take place from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31. Collins began her quest on April 28, 1984, and from that day until Dec. 29, 1984, she participated in 39 horse events. In May she discovered she had a brain tumor.
"The headaches were . . . severe," said Collins, a slim woman with perfect posture and a keen sense of humor. "There were times when it was hard to get on a horse and keep my perspective. I would be dizzy. Once on the horse, though, I would relax. Some people watch TV to relax; I get on a horse.
"After chemotherapy started, I sometimes got dizzy, but it was easier to keep my balance sitting down. We tried the therapy on different days, finally setted on Mondays," explained Collins, whose dark brown hair -- once thin from chemotherapy -- is cut in a stylish shag.
"I would go to therapy on Monday, be sick on Tuesday, look at the horses Wednesday, then ride Thursday and Friday and show on Saturday," Collins said. When she wasn't sick or riding, she was cleaning saddles and bridles, polishing boots or washing the horses.
She got her first horse when she was 13, by "outbidding the meatman at the public auction," said Collins, who credits her belief in God with giving her the strength and determination to continue riding during her illness.
Her father is a design mechanical engineer and her mother a retired medical technologist. Neither rides horses, she said. But there were always animals -- peacocks, dogs, cats, chickens, ducks -- around when she was a child because her mother was a county humane officer.
A cardboard box brimming with ribbons and pins and a scrapbook packed with pictures of Collins in riding attire and holding trophies and prizes, attests to the fact that she has entered and won a lot of events since her teen-age days. "When most kids were riding around in cars and asking to borrow the keys, I was riding horses," she said.
Collins laughs at some of the events she has participated in over the past year. She recalled one relay in which she and a partner took turns riding the horse, or running beside the horse while the other person rode. "My partner had never ridden a horse and I don't run," said Collins. She also remembers getting home once "at 5 a.m. and leaving the next day at 1:30 p.m. for another show."
She's taking radiation treatments now and is going back on the road soon, with five events scheduled for the next month, including her first 100-mile, 24-hour trail ride.
"The last year has been very trying," said Roy Collins. "Basically, the competition is the one thing that has kept her going. She's always gone after what she wants."
"I'm a fighter," said Collins, who has her mind set on winning another Proteus. "I've always been a fighter."