When Luigi Ferdinando Acerbi missed out on a chance to represent Italy at an Olympic Games for the third time in his international eventing career, he decided it was time for a lifestyle change.

But little did he know that 20 years later he would in fact be fulfilling his dream, albeit not under the circumstances he had imagined.

“I evented at top level for 18 years, and I had competed at all the major events, bar the Olympics,” says Ferdi. “I missed out on the Olympics once when I broke my leg, and again when I broke the horse! So I thought it was time for a rest and a change, and after the Atlanta Games in 1996 I took up sailing — my other great love.”

Ferdi moved to Eygpt, where he also worked as a scuba diving instructor. In 2004, he was volunteering in the aftermath of a plane crash in Sharm-El-Sheikh when he was asked to take a group out diving.

“I took a group out but during the dive one of my clients suffered a heart attack underwater. I tried to rescue him, but I got the worse end of the deal.”

During the rescue, Ferdi came to the surface of the water too quickly and suffered an air embolism. In saving the life of another, he was left quadriplegic.

The battle that followed over subsequent years saw Ferdi recover some movement in his arms and legs, though he has no sensitivity in his legs. But it wasn’t his daughter Giulio, at the age of seven, asked to learn to ride, that horses re-entered Ferdi’s life.

I started riding as a joke,” he chuckles. “I took my daughter to ride a pony at a friend’s, who said ‘why don’t you try getting on a horse?’ I said ‘no, no’, but then I had a beer, two beers. After the third beer I jumped on the horse — and never looked back.”

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With the chestnut gelding Quasimodo Di San Patrignano, also a former eventer, Ferdi competed in his first international para dressage competiton in March this year, and yesterday (12 September), he took to the Paralympic stage for the first time. He scored 70% in the grade Ia team test.

“Quasimodo is 18 now, but he is still difficult enough for me to enjoy,” adds Ferdi, whose aim is to ride at Tokyo “and everything in between”.

“It is so fantastic to be here. It is fascinating and challenging — I didn’t think it [para dressage] was as challenging as it is. I’m so proud to be a part of it.”