Mackenzie Russell is one well-rounded animal lover.
It’s been a busy few months for Russell, a Hilton Head Island native and incoming sophomore at the College of Charleston. First and foremost, she recently won the Individual Walk-Trot-Canter Equitation On The Flat, an equestrian event at the IHSA National Championships in Lexington, Ky.
In doing so, Russell beat 17 others from a pool of elite equestrian athletes culled from 400 or so participating schools across the country. In such a competition you draw a number to find out what horse you’ll be riding, then you have about 20 seconds to get acquainted with your draw before the competition starts.
“The idea is to test that you’re competent to ride any horse, any personality, anytime,” Russell said.
Bob Story, College of Charleston’s equestrian coach, said Russell had the perfect draw that day — and the perfect ride.
“I was standing down at the end gate and I really didn’t talk to her the whole ride,” Story said. “Normally I’m runnin’ my mouth a mile a minute when they’re in the ring. But she was just in this zone and I didn’t want to break that. When she finished I turned to whoever was standing next to me and said, ‘I think Kenzi might win this.’ ”
Russell knew she’d had a good run but that feeling was cemented when she heard Story’s reaction.
“I walked by my coach when I got off, and my coach is a man of few words, so when he’s happy it’s a big deal,” she said. “I’m pretty sure he just said, ‘Perfect.’ ”
That weekend was full of big deals for Russell. While she was accepting the Jon Conyers Memorial Trophy and an expensive collegiate saddle for her win at nationals, back in Charleston the short film she’d made for a class, “Birds of Prey,” was debuting at the Charleston Film Festival. The nine-minute documentary on the Center for Birds of Prey in Charleston was created to promote conservation, something Russell says is close to her heart.
“I’ve always been into conservation,” said Russell, who is majoring in psychology with an animal training concentration, and pursuing a double minor in biology and environmental science. “I have a drive to protect our earth ... and all the animals we should be sharing it with.”
The self-described “beach hippie” is the daughter of Gregg and Lindy Russell. She comes by her love of animals and ocean life honestly, having been raised near and on the ocean. A certified diver, avid surfer and kayaker, Russell says her love of animals naturally migrated from land to sea over the years.
“First I wanted to be a veterinarian, then I wanted to train race horses, then train jumpers, and now I want to train marine mammals,” she said. “But it’s not that big of a jump (from land mammals to marine mammals). The ocean is, I don’t know, my other half.”
Which brings us to the third animal habitat in which Russell is gaining experience. This summer, she’s working as an educational intern at Sea World Orlando, helping to lead children’s educational day camps about marine animals. For someone whose dream is to be an animal trainer at Sea World, this season spent working with sea lions, dolphins and plenty more marine mammals is in itself a dream come true.
“I absolutely love it,” she said. “The jobs in the field I’m trying to get into are all about experience. So this is my start.”
Russell knows it may seem odd for such a strong proponent of conservation to want to train marine mammals for people’s entertainment. But there’s a deeper reasoning there, she says.
“Sure there’s a few dolphins that aren’t in the wild, but we have thousands of people that come through our park every day that haven’t seen a dolphin before. And how can you care about something you don’t know anything about?” she said.
“We teach people to care about these animals so they’ll protect them, they’ll want to protect them. It can be a very positive thing.”