By Nick Steele
Photo: Philip Marcel
At just 18-years old, Kanyon Walker has the world by the tail. A local football hero at First Academy-Leesburg and an accomplished equestrian event rider with Olympic aspirations, he has already distinguished himself in both fields. We caught up with the star athlete at his family farm, the day before he departed for Tulane University, where he was awarded a full scholarship and will write the next chapter of his inspiring story. He is a humble young man with gracious manners, who is seemingly unburdened by the restraints of fear and self-doubt. He can appear quite imposing with his sinewy muscled frame, strong jaw and rugged good looks, but when he smiles (which he does frequently) his face opens into a wide grin that travels upward, igniting a spark in his eyes.
Kanyon competes in a specific equestrian sport called eventing—a triathlon of sorts, where a horse and rider pair compete against other pairs, across three different disciplines in one competition: Dressage, Cross Country and Show Jumping.
“I’m passionate about both football and eventing. Both require a lot of time and dedication. For me, ‘down time’ is wasted time,” Kanyon confides. “I just need to make sure I put all I have into both. I told myself a long, long time ago that I was going to be great at something. So my goal is to keep doing both until I figure out which one of them that is,” he continues. “I’ve never had anyone say, ‘You should really pick one or the other.’ My football teammates and everyone I ride with loves the fact that I do both. My whole family also really encourages me and has sacrificed for me to do this. And I found all these great mentors at a young age. If I was willing to bust my hump, they’d do anything for me. That’s what drives me every day.”
“I don’t know how we would do it, if we didn’t all work it together,” explains Kanyon’s mom Kayce, who nurtured Kanyon’s early interest in horses. “He always really loved horses, even as a toddler,” Kayce explains. “I would have to pull over to the side of the road to look at them in the fields. He would get very excited.”
It’s a memory that is still vivid in Kanyon’s mind as well. “I wanted to touch them and my mom would let me. Just the fact that she never tried to shutting down my curiosity, allowed me to think, Maybe I could sit on one…maybe ride one. If it hadn’t been for my mom, I probably wouldn’t have even had the want to be around horses. I definitely owe that to her,” Kanyon shares. “It’s not something you are exposed to at school and financially it is a big commitment, It is typically a rich person’s sport, for the most part. So I’ve had to do a lot more legwork than most people to acquire the same things. Me being willing to put the work in meant that I’d be able to get a lesson that would normally cost me $75 for free.”
“I was ignorant to the fact that no place will give a six-year-old a trail ride,” Kayce recalls. “Finally, I found a lady who said, ‘I won’t give him a trail ride, but I would do a lesson, let him groom the horse and then he would get a little ride.’ I thought he would enjoy that, so we signed him up,” Kayce recalls. “He’s had a lot of support from people who knew more than we did.”
“Kanyon has always been a competitor and he likes to win,” offers his equestrian coach Jennifer Holling of Holling Eventing in Ocala. “He is still learning about our sport at the upper levels. There are three phases to our sport. They all take the same amount of time to learn. He’s very naturally talented in all of those things. Learning the intricacies of each one of those, that’s where I come in,” she continues. “He manages to balance his horses and his football.”
The love of football, he gets from his dad Sheldon Walker, who is also the Head Football Coach at First Academy-Leesburg. “He’s pretty special. The diversity of his passions is just incredible,” Sheldon offers. “Kanyon spends countless hours just working, like mucking out the stalls at five in the morning. From there he’s off to school (where he maintained a 3.6 GPA and even took extra college-level classes). Then he’s off to football practice and from there, he’s back to training his horse. One of the greatest blessings you could ever have is to have a child who blesses you beyond your reach. I’ve had the opportunity to go places and meet people who otherwise would never have asked me to be a part of their world. But because of my son, his ability to ride and just the young man that he is, those opportunities have come to pass. It is so cool to be just Kanyon’s dad. I can’t be a prouder father.”
Kanyon also derives a lot of pride from being a role model for others, as one of the first black men to distinguish himself through his level of expertise in a sport traditionally dominated by young caucasian women. “I can definitely be an ambassador as a young black man in a sport like this. I’ve gotten messages from kids from all over the country and they’ll say, ‘I see you doing this and I think I can do it too.’ So, if that’s contribution I can make, then that’s great,” Kanyon confides. “When I was twelve or thirteen, I saw Randy Ward, who is also black. He has ridden up to the 3-star level and is a great rider. I thought, He’s doing it. Why can’t I? Not that I didn’t already have that drive, but that confirmed that it was a possibility for me.”
“He has a tremendous vision for his future,” Sheldon explains. “He would love to be an Olympian. But before he can become that, there are a lot of steps to take.”
It’s a sentiment that Kanyon, who doesn’t like to think in terms of timelines, echoes. “For most people, it takes decades to become a great rider. The beautiful thing is that the average age for Olympic competitors, for our sport, is about forty-five,” he explains. “I love both things that I do, but the reality for me is that there is such a short period of time that I can play football seriously. But I can always go back to eventing after I have my education.”
His education also points back to his equestrian dreams. “I plan to study business management. After college, I’ll be able to come back and maybe get a job working for one of my mentors,” Kanyon offers. “The only way you learn is by watching those who have been successful doing what they do. And from there, I would continue to develop myself as a rider. The goal is to one day have my own stable and clients, buying and selling horses and training people. That will also allow me the opportunity to compete further.”
Among his goals for future competitions is the chance to compete at HITS. “HITS is, for the most part, straight show jumping. There are a few people in my sport that have ridden to the Grand Prix Level dressage. They have evented to the 4-star level and they’ve show-jumped the Grand Prix. Those riders have set themselves apart,” he asserts. “That is personally a goal of mine. I hope to participate in the future.”
And while he will have the opportunity to ride at Tulane, for now, he’s focusing on football. “I love the coaches and the people there. We are in the American conference, so it’s exciting because we’ll play some really great teams,” he shares. “I will play UCF, here in Florida, during my sophomore year, so that’s cool. It means that my family will definitely get to see me play.” OM