As the British dressage team reserve, or alternate, at the Tokyo Olympics, Gareth Hughes has a unique and emotionally challenging role. He, groom Steph Sharples and the 11-year-old Sintano Van Hof Olympia, whom he owns along with Judy Firmston-Williams, have travelled out to Japan with the British team of three as a travelling reserve pair. Unlike previous Olympics, here in Tokyo the reserve can be swapped into the team up to two hours before the start of the grand prix special on Tuesday, 27 July, for veterinary or medical reasons.
It is a somewhat thankless job, as Gareth must train and prepare in exactly the same way as Carl Hester, Charlotte Dujardin and Lottie Fry, who make up the team of three, but unless one of them are forced to withdraw, he will not compete, nor take home a medal.
But Gareth has managed to maintain a positive mindset around his position as alternate, as he explains to H&H: “I had my mare [his 2019 team horse] Classic Briolinca aiming for the Tokyo Olympics at the beginning of this year and she was in the mix for a team place, then she went lame. But I have had time to deal with that, and missing out on coming to the Olympics with her.
“With Sintano, it is a completely different kettle of fish. At the start of this year he hadn’t even done an international grand prix; he wasn’t in the mix at all. But he went out and did well, then he did a second show and popped himself right in the mix for that reserve sport. So, with him, I was actually looking at the reserve spot, and that puts a very different spin on it.
“I knew my job coming here,” Gareth, a world and European medallist for Britain, continues. “We are very much a team of four up until the competing [for team medals in the special]. So that’s been fine, and I have done everything as part of the team: the trot-up, the arena familiarisation, the training – everything is the same as for the others. The hard part is when they compete [in the special] – then they are a team of three, and as reserve you are pushed to the side. But that’s the job – I have to step away, and I wish them every bit of success.
“Obviously I’ll be disappointed that I don’t get to compete, but you wouldn’t be a normal sportsperson if you weren’t. But I always knew that my job was to come out here and support those guys as needed.”
Gareth revealed that he is starting to turn his thoughts to getting home, and in particular, a slightly different form of horsepower.
“I’m looking ahead to Friday when we get back, because I have the day off and I want to go out on my motorbike. The weather looks good so I might hit up the Cotswolds, maybe go to Jeremy Clarkson’s Diddly Squat Farm Shop!” he laughed.
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