Making a team debut at an Olympics? No problem. Polly Bryan speaks to riders whose first championship experience has been on the biggest stage of all
THE Olympics are widely hailed as being unlike any other championship. The pinnacle of sport, and the coming together of athletes from all walks of life – riders across the disciplines spend their lives dreaming of representing their country on the biggest sporting stage of all. For those select few who do make it, the Olympics is invariably a highlight of their career.
But what about those whose championship career kicks off, not with a European Championship or World Equestrian Games (WEG), but with the big one – an Olympic Games? While some riders collect multiple caps, and even medals, before making it to an Olympics, several top riders’ team debut happened to coincide with an Olympic year.
British dressage rider Spencer Wilton made his team debut at Rio in 2016, riding Super Nova II, with whom he went on to compete at the 2017 Europeans and 2018 WEG.
“The gravity of being on an Olympic team is a life-changing experience, and I was probably slightly oblivious to that at the time because I was a newcomer to the team,” says Spencer, who came away with a team silver medal.
“Looking back, any change here or there in the selection process and my life could have taken a very different path. There was so much at stake – it’s probably a good job I didn’t quite grasp that at the time! The Olympics are career-changing in a way European or World Championships are not.”
Going from team newcomer to Olympic medallist in the blink of an eye is what dreams are made of. British-based New Zealander Jonelle Price is another to have reached an Olympic podium on her first team performance, helping New Zealand secure bronze at London 2012, riding Flintstar.
“The Olympics is certainly more special than other championships because every single person in the world associates with it, whereas worlds or Europeans are sport-specific,” says Jonelle, who credits her laid-back nature with helping her take the magnitude of the occasion in her stride.
“I saw it as a great opportunity to rise to the challenge,” she says. “New Zealand didn’t have a huge number to select from and I knew I was the number five on the team and would probably go out first. I was under no illusion what my job on the team was, and I just took it on.”
By claiming bronze in 2012, New Zealand edged Sweden out of the eventing team medals, but finishing fourth does not tarnish Ludwig Svennerstål’s memory of his first championship, where he rode Shamwari 4 to finish in the top 20 individually, aged just 21.
“The Olympics are, without a doubt, the most important and inspirational sporting event of all time. To be a part of that at such a young age was unbelievable,” says Ludwig who, like Jonelle, recalls that as a championship rookie, he didn’t feel the weight of expectation in London, but rather during the build-up.
“When I moved from Sweden to England as a junior, the Olympics was my goal, and it was all I thought about for three years. But it was only afterwards that I realised what an achievement it was.”
“As a fourth member I didn’t feel under as much pressure as the other three, but the build-up to selection was probably the most stressful thing I’ve ever gone through,” he says.
“For an Olympics, the build-up doesn’t just begin that year, but starts in your own mind, privately, three or four years before. By the time I was actually selected for the Rio team I was so relieved and overcome with emotion, and I was determined to enjoy the Games once I got there. It turned out to be the most fun, exhilarating experience I’ve ever had in my life – I can hardly put it into words.”
BRITISH showjumper Ben Maher may credit London 2012 as his Games highlight – winning a euphoric team gold on home soil – but it was four years earlier that he became an Olympian aged 25 on his first senior championship call-up.
“At the time I had nothing to compare it to – I was young and naïve with no expectations – but an Olympics really is its own world,” says Ben, who rode Rolette in Hong Kong alongside the seasoned trio of Nick Skelton, Tim Stockdale and John Whitaker.
“Of course, it is incredible to ride for your country at other championships, but a Europeans, for example, still feels like a horse show. The Olympics doesn’t feel at all like a horse show – it feels like an Olympics, and you really feel that you’re part of something much bigger than your sport.
“Another part of it is that Olympics are often in parts of the world where you’ve never ridden before, whereas most other championships are at venues we have competed at previously.
“My most vivid memory of the 2008 Games was actually the first night we arrived,” adds Ben. “Because the equestrian events were in Hong Kong, not Beijing, we were in a hotel rather than the Olympic Village, and I was awake at midnight because of the time difference so I went for a walk in the city on my own. I’ll always remember walking through those streets: the people everywhere, the smells, the smoke, the whole vibe of the city. I had never experienced anything like that in my life.”
FOR Spencer, the experience of being part of the wider Team GB is one of the main things that sets an Olympics apart from other championships.
“I’ll never forget the day they officially announced the team and we went to the press conference in all our new Team GB kit,” he says.
“I left my phone with my ‘civilian’ clothes and when I went back to it two hours later I’d never seen anything like the number of messages. My phone continued pinging for about eight hours afterwards – it was both surreal and incredible.
“Being part of the wider national umbrella, with such a massive support team, made me feel really humbled.”
Ludwig, on the other hand, points to the mainstream press interest as being unique to an Olympics.
“We are used to just equestrian media at events, especially in Sweden, but in London there was suddenly a lot more attention from the mainstream media,” he remembers. “We were getting so many different interviews and were really under the spotlight; it was a massive step for Swedish equestrianism, and opened up lots of opportunities. Everyone was interested – even people I had gone to school with who weren’t horsey at all!”
Indeed, for riders, used to living and competing within a “minority” sport, being thrust into a thrilling potpourri of sporting excellence can be overwhelming, even for those with previous championships experience.
“The Olympics is such a different environment, for example sharing an apartment with your team members in the Olympic Village,” adds Spencer. “It means it’s hard to be alone and to find a moment of peace in the way that at other shows or championships you might go to your hotel room or horsebox to chill out.”
But all the riders agree that it’s this Olympic bubble that gives a Games its truly unique atmosphere, where the likes of Usain Bolt might casually stroll past during breakfast in the “unbelievable” food halls
or, as in one memorable moment for the British dressage riders in Rio, Andy Murray might accidentally walk into your apartment one evening.
“The village is incredible, full of athletes of all shapes and sizes,” says Jonelle. “You look around you and just know that every person you see is at the top of their game. You can’t help but try to work out what game that might be.”
A medal-winning debut
Becoming an Olympian on your championship debut is one thing, but winning a medal is another. Check out these team rookies who took home medals from London 2012 and Rio 2016:
● Germany’s Sonke Rothenberger (Cosmo; pictured) – dressage team gold
● Britain’s Spencer Wilton (Super Nova II) – dressage team silver
● USA’s Alison Brock (Rosevelt) – dressage team bronze
● USA’s Kasey Perry-Glass (Goerklintgaards Dublet) – dressage team bronze
● Britain’s Scott Brash (Hello Sanctos) – showjumping team gold
● New Zealand’s Jonelle Price (née Richards, Flintstar) – eventing team bronze
● Germany’s Dorothee Schneider (Diva Royal) – dressage team silver
You can also read this feature in the 13 May issue of Horse & Hound magazine.
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