Her first job as an adult was as an exercise rider, then a jockey.
When an injury ended that phase of her life, she got her commercial pilot’s license for single engine floatplanes, and on September 11, 2001, she was stranded on a deserted island in Canada.
And now, while working as fish biologist, she’s decided to become a writer.
Well, sort of. She’s been a writer for a long time. It’s only recently that she decided to add “published author” to her list of not-terribly-stable professions.
Schaumburg grew up riding horses , though she admits, “I spent more time on my butt than I did in the saddle.”
Spurred by her love of horses, recovering from an injury suffered while playing on the University of Washington tennis team, Schaumburg got a summer job mucking stalls for trainer Kathy Walsh on her farm outside Seattle. One day, the exercise rider didn’t show up, and Schaumburg stepped in.
But before you go thinking that this is where the fairy tale starts….not so fast.
“I went to the track the next year,” Schaumburg related, “and honest to God, the first person I saw was an old jockey who asked me, ‘What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?’ Literally.”
But while initially daunted – she left the track and didn’t come back for two weeks – she did persevere. She learned to gallop and she rode in the Pacific Northwest for four or five years; she estimates that she won around 50 races.
Though she didn’t know it at the time, the last race she’d ride would be a feature at Portland Meadows. She won, and she broke her back the next morning, galloping over a frozen track. Her career as a jockey was over.
But her aspirations as a writer were just beginning.
“I was just starting to ride well when I broke my back,” she said. “And that’s when I got the idea to write.”
Schaumburg was riding in the 1980’s, a time she describes as “very sexist” for women jockeys. “It was really difficult,” she recalled. “I started riding at Longacres, and looking back, I probably should have gone to a smaller track and gotten experience there. I was under a microscope at Longacres, and there was a lot of criticism.”
Criticism from other jockeys, criticism from racing publications, and criticism from the other horsewomen on the grounds.
“I was surprised at the time at how sexist the female owners and trainers were,” she said. “Later on, I started to understand it. If a female trainer rode a girl jockey and the horse finished close but didn’t win, the talk would be that the horse would have won with a guy on him.
“It was definitely unfair. But a lot of things in life are like that.”
After her brief riding career, Schaumberg worked as an assistant for trainer Mike Harrington at Golden Gate Fields. Her years on the track had shown her a world that made her uneasy: a world of people not taking care of their horses, taking shortcuts because there wasn’t a lot of money, cheating because they were hungry.
And it was these days, and her time as a jockey, that inspired Her Last Race.
The novel is a story of a young female jockey, Nikki Summers, riding in the Pacific Northwest while studying to become a vet. Sharing the novel’s spotlight is Rachel Nottingham, Nikki’s mother, a top trainer at one of California’s top tracks. The narrative shifts back and forth between the two women, one struggling and empathetic, one successful and shrewd.
The novel doesn’t shy from the grittier elements of life on the backstretch of a small track, but while readers will have to confront the inevitable breakdown without which a horse racing novel doesn’t seem to be complete, Schaumburg’s vision of the racing world is ultimately affirmative.
“I wanted the novel to be redemptive,” she said. “Why can’t you entertain people, but also leave them with a moral imperative that leaves the world a little better place?”
What she seeks to include in her own writing, she found in another racing book this year.
“I loved Lord of Misrule,” she enthused. “For me, the heart of the story was Two-Tie’s attempt to redeem himself by protecting Maggie. The racetrack, as the setting, served to unequivocally expose the sad reality that some have a say in their fate and some don’t. Jaimy Gordon melded the real with the surreal to create a morality tale that was as dark as a Grimm’s Fairy Tale with a ray of hope lighting the ending, as she subtly rewarded her good-hearted characters.”
At this point only aspiring to the sort of acclaim that Gordon received this year, Schaumburg pays the bills by working as a fish biologist, developing and facilitating waterfront development and stream restoration. “I help set up mitigation plans so we don’t screw up the aquatic environment,” she described it.
But if she has her way, the jockey-cum-pilot-cum-biologist-cum-author might leave the waterfront behind and return to the writing desk.
“I have a lot of stories to tell,” she said.