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This 53-time Special Olympics gold medalist wasn’t supposed to live and now says anything is possible

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IDAHO FALLS — Since she was born, Karissa Trinchera has been told what she wouldn’t be able to do things as a result of her developmental disability. But for most of her life, Karissa has been proving people wrong.

Karissa demonstrates a unique ability to love everyone and help everywhere through her achievements in service organizations and athletics. Today, her mission is to enlighten the lives of others in the Special Olympics by advocating Equestrian sports be added as a category in Idaho.

Karissa’s Sports Story

Karissa is currently 28 years old but has a cognitive age of around 12. She was born prematurely with Sticklers Syndrome, a genetic disorder that can cause serious vision, hearing and joint problems, according to She also has a severe brain injury that resulted in developmental delays. Doctors, who at the time didn’t know her diagnoses, told her mother, Christa, that she wouldn’t live long after her birth.

“They were kind of giving up on her,” Christa tells

Since she was 12, Karissa found that her joint condition helped her in swimming, and began competing in the Special Olympic games. This is where she found she had a real talent.

She was the first Special Education student to make her high school’s varsity swim team, where she trained for 14 hours a week.

After winning all sorts of awards and accolades, including 48 gold medals from the Special Olympics, tragedy struck.

Karissa was in a horrible car accident after being hit by a driver who was texting. The results left her arm and joints in serious pain. Doctors told her she would never swim again.

However, Karissa has never been good with being told she can’t do something.

“She had a mindset of ‘I have 48 gold medals, I’m winning that 50th.'” Christa says. “But her shoulder just wasn’t quite the same.”

After hard work in rehabilitation and six pins in her shoulder, Karissa not only won her 50th gold medal but also won several other awards before retiring from the Special Olympics. Her hometown of Elk Grove, California awarded her the key to the city for her accomplishments.

Athletes for Officers

Karissa’s achievements don’t end there.

Growing up, one of her best friends was police officer Kevin Tonn, who was killed in the line of duty on January 15th, 2013.

Since that day, Karissa has been trying to make a difference for law enforcement.

Karissa with Police
Karissa with the California Highway Patrol | Courtesy of the Athletes For Officer’s Facebook Page

She created the organization Athletes for Officers, a group where Special Olympics Athletes can support members of law enforcement in their time of need, including raising money to purchase bulletproof vests and a new K9 police dog.

Her acts of service for the group show no bounds. When one officer she knew was critically wounded, Karissa vowed to win another medal in his honor, knowing that would mean going back to rehabilitation for her shoulder.

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As with everything she does, Karissa never gave up and was able to present the 53rd medal to the wounded officer on the capital steps. While she was training, her example inspired him to go through his own rehabilitation process to re-learn how to walk. The officer was able to return to duty years later.

For her service in Athletes for Officers, Karissa was awarded the California Highway Patrol’s Commissioner’s Medal of Distinction. She is the 5th person in history to receive this award since 1929.

Trying New Things

Since moving to Idaho in June, Karissa has been excited to try something different — Equestrian Sports. Though Karissa has worked with horses before, getting into the sport of it was a new experience, but one she loves.

Riding a horse was much easier of Karissa’s shoulder, but the main reason she loves it is because of her horse, Kodiak.

Kodiak, like Karissa, was a big deal in his world of sports. After appearing on equestrian magazines and making a name for himself, Kodiak had what was supposed to be a career-ending injury after tearing a tendon in his hind leg. After a long time of rehabilitation, he was able to come from Ireland to Idaho and meet Karissa. She understood a thing or two about what he had gone through.

Last August, for her birthday, Karissa’s mom leased Kodiak out for Karissa, a present she will never forget.

Karissa and Kodiak work together at Parkwood Equestrian Center in Idaho Falls. Typically, Parkwood isn’t equipped to work with those with special needs and have them around horses, but once trainer Sally Parks met Karissa, she was thrilled to include her.

“She’s delightful, she’s hardworking, she’s mentally tough, she has a goal in mind,” Parks said. “She produced all those qualities of a good horseman.”

Karissa and Kodiak have been inseparable since they have met. Karissa loves riding, brushing, and talking to Kodiak. Kodiak especially loves when Karissa gives him treats, peppermints specifically. According to Christa and Parks, the two have really made each other stronger, and this relationship can benefit anyone

“Horses will empower whether you have a disability or not,” Parks added.

Karissa with Kodiak Close up
Karissa and Kodiak | Silas Wright,

Making it happen

It’s relationships like this that made Karissa sad to learn that Equestrian Sports is not part of Idaho’s Special Olympics program. But as with everything else, Karissa doesn’t let this stop her.

“If Special Olympics won’t allow equestrian (events) in their games, she’s going to do the real ones,” Christa says.

Karissa is working to perform in her first equestrian show in Boise this May — not with other individuals with special needs, but with anyone who qualifies.

She is excited about the opportunity and says that everyone needs to try new things because they may just end up loving it.

However, she can’t stop thinking about her friends in the Special Olympics who really want to ride horses here in Idaho and hopes her story and hard work will catch the attention of the Special Olympic Officials who can make her dream a reality.

Karissa and her mom know that anything is possible because, after looking at many people who have tried, they know what happens when Karissa is told “no.”

Karissa with Kodiak less close
Karissa and Kodiak | Silas Wright,