- IMD Business School
Alumni Stories · Leadership

Getting back on the horse: striving for gold at the Paralympics

For Celine van Till, OWP was a positive experience and gave her an opportunity to hear others’ colorful life stories. Her own extraordinary story is an inspiring tale of determination and positivity
September 2017

In 2008 Celine van Till had an accident that changed her life forever. While training for a dressage competition in Germany, the horse she was riding reared up and fell back onto the 17-year-old, causing her a massive head injury.

Unconscious, she was rushed to hospital and after undergoing brain surgery, remained in a coma for a whole month. It took her a further two months to wake up fully, and so began a slow process of re-education.

“I realized I was partially tetraplegic and had to re-learn everything: how to find my balance, how to walk again, and how to speak again,” recalls Celine. For the first four months, she was in a wheelchair, before eventually progressing onto crutches. “Every day I was improving a little bit and each single step was for me a stepping stone towards a better future,” recalls the athlete.

Then, through sheer determination and hard work, Celine was able to get up on a horse just four months after her accident. She remembers this as a magical moment and provided her with what she calls a “Powerball for recovery.”

While attending IMD’s Orchestrating Winning Performance (OWP) program in June 2017, Celine witnessed many examples of resilience and determination in business. “I learned a lot on the program, not just from the lessons, but also from others,” she says, “and it was a huge opportunity for a young athlete at the beginning of their career,” says the 26-year-old.

Although she was able to regain her speech and re-learn her motor skills after the accident, the trauma to Celine’s brain has left her with partial blindness, visual range reduced by half on the left side, and double vision. The equestrian has also sustained an impaired sense of balance and coordination.

Listening to Celine, other OWP participants will have heard her say that the accident had a profound impact on her life philosophy and formed her belief that “with determination, anything is possible.”

While still recovering, Celine was able to study part time for a Marketing Management BBA in Geneva and today the sportswoman effectively runs her own ‘business’. She has not only taken charge of her equestrian career and regularly takes part in international tournaments, but is also frequently invited by organizations to deliver keynote speeches. Celine says both these activities expose her to similar opportunities and challenges that other business leaders face.

Despite her busy schedule, which also involves sitting on the board of NGO Handicap International, Celine has also managed to find time to write a book about her life. Currently only available in French, the publication’s title translates as ‘Step by step: the story of an accident and a resurrection’ (Pas à pas, histoire d’un accident et d’une resurrection). The documentary ‘Bucéphale’ also recounts her amazing story and is set for release this year.

Today Celine’s goal is to win a gold medal. The horse rider is set to take part in the dressage event at the Tokyo Paralympic Games in 2020. This follows her competing in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro as part of Switzerland’s dressage team, just eight years after her accident.

Looking back at that fateful day in 2008, Celine has no regrets. “I wouldn’t want to go back to how I was before the accident,” she says, “because I had a real chance to learn what I now know about life. I am a much richer person after experiencing all that and enjoy my life.”

 - IMD Business School