It's hard to smile in the face of tragedy, but those close to Mackenzie Rooney have found a way.
For her mom, it's reflecting on the impact her 16-year-old daughter had in her short life. For her horseback riding coach, it's imagining the talented athlete mastering upper-level movements in the dressage ring in the clouds. For her friends, its remembering her bright smiling face and warm caring attitude.
Mackenzie excelled at everything she did.
“She was about living life,” her mom, Tammy Rooney, said. “She wanted to try everything.”
And that's exactly what she did. The Capreol resident had a vast range of interests — she raced junior dragsters, loved to paint and write, wouldn't give a second thought to catching frogs with her dad and liked riding her dirtbike. Most of all though, the petite teenage girl loved riding horses.
She was in the early part of training two of her own when her young life came to an end.
After a great day at the barn, complete with a positive ride on her challenging four-year-old mare, Mackenzie agreed to join some friends on a celebratory birthday bike ride.
Five minutes after leaving the house, her parents were called to the accident scene. Mackenzie had looked away from the path in front of her for a second to ensure the other riders were with her when she collided with tree.
Everyone did the best they could, but their efforts weren't enough to save Mackenzie. She died from her injuries the same day, Aug. 6.
“It wasn't because of poor choices,” Tammy said. “It was an accident.”
While she was adventurous and enjoyed pushing herself, Tammy said Mackenzie was never reckless.
“She had a head on her shoulders,” she said.
On many occasions, she opted to stay at home instead of going out, in order to be well-rested for the barn the next day.
Since she was nine years old, Mackenzie rode with Ashley Czerkas at Arabask Farms in Chelmsford. She was the first of Czerkas's students to break into the international level of competition, and will forever be like a “little sister” to the dressage trainer.
“She will probably forever remain my most dedicated, ambitious and bold riders,” Czerkas said. “She was incredibly dedicated.”
An “advocate for the underdog,” Czerkas said Mackenzie would ride anything. Her own horses were both young and in the process of becoming competitors thanks to the tireless efforts of the teenager.
“Mackenzie was absolutely committed to making the horses work for her,” Czerkas said. “She was doing it in leaps and bounds.”
The coach said she was looking forward to building show plans for the young rider, taking the team to competitive levels within the next two years.
“I wanted it so badly for her,” she said. “She deserved it.”
Czerkas wasn't the only one who recognized Mackenzie's competitive spirit. At her funeral, her “barn friends” all arrived in full show gear — tall boots and show jackets included.
“It was beautiful,” Tammy said. “There is no better way to honour her.”
This fall, the Rooney family was planning a trip to Portugal, where Mackenzie was to spend a week riding and training at a school there.
Tammy tearfully said she and her husband, Dan, Mackenzie's dad, are still considering taking the trip in their daughter's honour. It will give the parents the opportunity to reflect more on their only child.
“Dan and I really wanted to raise a confident young woman who wouldn't be steered by the regular influences we see,” Tammy said. That's what they got — a daughter who wanted to be the best person she could be for all the right reasons.
Just weeks before her death, Mackenzie helped her best friend grieve the loss of her pony. Through tear-stained eyes, Mackenzie comforted the animal while the vet administered a lethal injection.
“She was hurting for her friend and hurting for the pony, but she stepped up and did what she had to,” Tammy said, proud of the mature young woman her daughter was.
She recalled another fond memory from a national-level horse show, where a fellow rider had returned to the barn following a particularly unpleasant test at the same time Mackenzie returned with a red ribbon.
She was only 12 years old at the time, but without saying a word, Mackenzie knew to discreetly hand off her prize and go offer her fellow competitor some kind words.
Even in her youth, Mackenzie wanted to help. She was only in kindergarten when Tammy underwent surgery. Barely old enough to take care of herself, she helped her mom every night by washing her hair in the bathtub.
“She was a nurturing soul,” Tammy said.
A scholarship in Mackenzie's honour is being set up by Tammy and Dan at Bishop Alexander Carter. Donations, by cheque only, are being accepted for the Mackenzie Rooney Memorial Art Scholarship.