H&H Tokyo rider of the day: meet the Paralympian who underwent chemotherapy and open heart surgery months before Tokyo

  • This time last year, South African rider Philippa Johnson-Dwyer had just taken on the ride on her Tokyo Paralympic horse Just In Time.

    The grade IV rider was looking forward to getting to know her mare and gearing up for Tokyo. One month later, Philippa was diagnosed with endocarditis – a rare and serious infection of the inner lining of the heart.

    “I had to have open heart surgery and then, lucky enough – as the Dutch say ‘luck with an accident’ – in the tests they were running for the endocarditis, they discovered I had cancer,” she said.

    “So I had open heart surgery, and once I had pretty much healed from that, I had to have five weeks of chemo and radiation. I think I very much underestimated what chemo does to your body.”

    Philippa, who won double gold in Hong Kong, explained how she spent the time forming a bond with the 11-year-old Fidertanz mare.

    “Not being able to ride for seven months meant I was able to become a kid again,” she said, adding she has only been back in the saddle for the past three months.

    “I could go into the stable and cuddle my pony. And that’s all I could do. I couldn’t groom her, I couldn’t do anything [with her], but I could cuddle and kiss her and give her carrots. I think that made an amazing connection between us.

    “You get so caught up in the training, the goals, the competitions and life takes over. You’re teaching, you’re riding the horses and you must do this and do that – then you just have time.”

    Philippa said the reason she is in Tokyo is down to the team around her.

    “I’ve got an incredible osteopath, who helped me,” she said. “I don’t know how she put me back together and how she put up with me, because every time she would fix me I’d run into a wall yet again.

    “My incredible trainer Chris Haazen’s wife Jeanette was riding [Just In Time] while I was sick. Chris never let me lose faith,” she said.

    “He nursed me through it and told me not to rush, to take my time. Without their support, it would have been impossible.

    “You know in Afrikaans there is a really lovely word, ubuntu. It means you are who you are because of the people you have around you. And that describes it in one word for me,” she said.

    “Riding into that arena, it was that power that I got from all the amazing people that have helped me through this journey. It was ubuntu.”

    Philippa added she was “absolutely thrilled” with the mare, adding her main aim of the Games was to qualify for the freestyle.

    “That’s only the second kur we’ve ever ridden together,” said Philippa, who scored 71.56% for her routine to the sounds of Eloise and Can’t Hurry Love. “The first one was beyond disastrous and this was just amazing.

    “She was with me, we were spot on the music and she felt amazing. I was a little bit disappointed in the score, I thought it would have been more. But we made it to the freestyle, that was our goal. She gave me the most spectacular ride, so I can’t be happier.”

    Philippa, who has no strength in her right arm and limited strength in her right leg following a car accident 23 years ago, found Just In Time through a Belgian dealer and admits she was less than wowed by the videos.

    “We really weren’t that interested in her,” she said. “Then we went along to the dealers and they said, ‘Oh, we’ve got that amazing horse from Brussels coming for you to try today’. I thought, ‘well why not?’”

    Her first impression of the mare in the flesh were similarly lukewarm, until she felt what she was like to ride.

    “I got off and I said ‘that’s my horse, I’m completely in love’,” she said, explaining she had the same reaction when she first sat on her Beijing gold medal-winner, Benedict.

    “It was exactly the same feeling and connection. I love all my horses, but it’s a connection that’s completely apart from anything else. It’s like meeting somebody you’ve never met before, but you’ve just instantly got that click. You know that you’ve known them for 100 years.”

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