Sophie Wells’ dressage blog: Paralympics part one — sabotaging birds

  • Well what can I say? Since my last blog, a small but mighty whirlwind has occurred; the Paralympic games. It was amazing to be a part of it, but also so surreal that it almost feels like it hasn’t happened!

    So, myself, Reece and Jorge left on 1 September to start the mammoth journey to Rio. We met up with the rest of the team at The Arrow RDA in Dartford where the selected horses were checked out to make sure they were all healthy and fit to travel. Thankfully all the horses were fine, but this also meant the reserves had to head for home once the selected horses had arrived in Liege, Belgium, at the airport ready to travel the following day to Rio.

    Beth, my groom at home, travelled with Reece and Mark Perry who transports the horses to the airport and loaded him in the crate to go on the plane. Sophie Cassey, my competition groom, flew out to Rio the day before the horses so she could be there take him off the lorry the other end and get him settled in his new home. I flew with the rest of the team on the same day as the horses, but from Heathrow and we were very lucky to be able to fly business class, which meant physically we arrived in good form and ready for the competition.

    Reece in his Paralympic stable

    Reece in his Paralympic stable

    The 12-hour flight was quite a long one and Reece did lose some weight, which was expected, but he certainly wasn’t feeling tired when I got to see him!

    The next week was spent familiarising the horses to the venue, training arenas and then the competition area at the end of the week. The setting was beautiful with a backdrop of mountains. The main arena definitely felt smaller than the one at London 2012 but it was friendly, which is really important when it comes to the horses feeling comfortable in there by themselves on competition day.

    The athlete’s village was amazing. The flats were comfortable and I think making it a homely space is really important when you are away for so long. I decorated my walls with pictures from home and good luck cards. The apartment blocks were surrounded by swimming pools, palm trees, water features, climbing frames, tennis courts…. the list goes on. The normal food hall, which was the second biggest temporary structure in the world, was as crazy as ever. The food was probably the worst bit of the trip. There is only so many times you can have sticky or dry noodles, grilled chicken and well over-cooked broccoli!

    All the British horses passed the trot-up — they were beautifully turned out by the very hard working grooms, and we all looked very smart in our Adidas team kit. Although it was supposed to be Brazil’s winter, they had a bit of a heat wave that lasted the two weeks, which meant most days temperatures were over 30 degrees. Therefore we spent a lot of time taking Reece out for some grass where there tended to be a bit of a breeze in an open field, and we were fortunate that the British team took out fans for the horses’ stables to try and keep them cool. We also washed them off with ice water during training and in the warm-up for competitions every 10/15 minutes to keep them as cool as we could.

    My first day of competition was the team test. I was thrilled to hear that I was put onto the team to fight for the prestigious team medal that we have all fought so hard to retain. It’s always an honour. I was the first of our team riders to go and we always have in our minds that we need to ride for a safe ‘clear round’ for the team score. I was more nervous than I thought I would be. We trotted in and Reece felt the atmosphere — to be fair I could feel it too!

    Reece cooling off in the misting fans

    Reece cooling off in the misting fans

    I think we had all resigned ourselves to the fact that the atmosphere was never going to be like London, being a home games, and with ticket sales being low for the Olympics, we didn’t think there would be many people watching. We were wrong!

    The test went well, but it felt like Reece was holding his breath a little bit and he lost his swagger. It was a clean test though, which we needed, just not quite on full power. It was quite a feeling finishing the test and hearing the cheers from the crowd, and the brilliant British supporters. I said to myself before I got on, that I wanted to go in and enjoy it, take it all in and live the experience, and just ride the best I could. We did enough to come second by a small margin, behind reigning Paralympic and world champion, Michele George and Rainman, which was a comfortable position to be in going in to the individual test two days later.

    I gave Reece a little trot stretch early the next day before it got too hot. It’s important to keep his muscles moving after working hard the day before, and we did some walk work to keep his brain in gear. He then had the rest of the day to chill out.

    I had kept telling myself that it’s not about the medals. Although I train to be the best I can be, some things are out of our control and after the disappointment of London I wanted to go into the Rio games in a different head space. I’ve worked really hard with Jennie Killilea this year on my core values, and have been working with much more of a holistic approach.

    I knew what I had to do going into the individual and was in a calm place. I went around the arena in rising trot, talking to Reece and giving him the confidence in there that he had in the warm-up. His swagger had returned. The test was going well, but when I went into canter two birds took residence in the arena. I remember thinking to myself: “You are not going to ruin this for me!” We managed to perform around the birds, we even got through the dreaded simple change that has haunted me since London. I found myself smiling as I was riding round, enjoying it, enjoying dancing with my boy as we have worked so hard to be here. It was then the final centre line with a canter to halt transition at X, and where were the birds? On X. I said in my head “move birds – I need to halt there”. I think they sensed I meant it as at the last moment they waddled quickly to the side of the centre line and we halted – on X!

    As soon as I saluted and walked off I felt this surge of emotion that came out of nowhere. We had done everything we could in that test. As soon as I saw Ange coming out of the kiss and cry stand, she was in tears. We didn’t even know a score or the scores of anyone else. We just knew we had delivered what we could and the rest was out of our hands.

    Continued below…

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    I gave Reece a little trot in the indoor school to cool him off as it was over 30 degrees and the whole of our support team congregated in the corner of the arena. I walked for a bit, then got some water and walked a bit more. I could see them talking and looking at a phone. I knew it would be at the scores, but I didn’t want to know. I wanted to take a moment to let it sink in that we had competed at the Paralympics and done a great test and Reece tried his heart out for me, trusted me, and gave all he had.

    I got off and Lucy (the physio) said: “Do you want to know?” I said “no!”. But she told me anyway. “You have done it – you’ve won!”

    I burst into tears, I couldn’t believe it. The rush of emotion was so huge, all that time I had been trying to convince myself that the medals didn’t matter — they did. The years and years of work, the disappointments, the struggles and the lessons learnt had all helped to get to this point.. It was amazing to see the rest of the support team that we are so fortunate to have the support of being emotional too. A lot of them have been on our journey for a long time, and know the hard work and heart ache it has taken. So this is for everyone who has contributed in every way, big or small, directly or indirectly, to our journey and success. Thank you.

    To be continued…


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