The grand prix dressage rider talks to Polly Bryan about surviving a brain bleed this year, and why he is feeling more ambitious than ever
Like so many, Juan Matute Guimón started 2020 full of high hopes for the year ahead. The 22-year-old Spaniard had just landed a career-best score with his top horse Quantico, he was on track for a place at the World Cup Final in Las Vegas, and a spot on Spain’s Olympic team looked well within reach for the son of the three-time Spanish Olympian Juan Matute Snr. But while it was the coronavirus pandemic that stole the dreams of sports people across the world, Juan faced a much tougher struggle.
On 5 May, Juan collapsed while riding at home and was airlifted to hospital in Madrid, with a bleed on the brain. Two operations ensued, as doctors battled to save his life, followed by 25 days in a coma, with medics and his family unsure of the long-lasting effects once he awoke.
“I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the day that it hit me, and I’m starting to remember more,” Juan tells me from his base in Spain, as we chat over Zoom, three months after he was first hospitalised.
“I was riding a PRE horse I have at home, doing piaffe-passage – without stirrups actually – and my father was videoing me. I gave the horse a break, then just had this unbelievable pain and felt like I was fainting. I was able to get off the horse and I remember sitting on the ground and shouting that it hurt, I think, but from there it’s lights out.”
Sitting outside his home in the evening sunshine, Juan is relaxed, upbeat and chatty, with just the tracheotomy scar on his neck giving away what he has been through. But he is in awe of what he has overcome, of the way in which his family, friends and medics have stayed strong over the past few months, and of the huge outpouring of support he has received from the equestrian community all over the world.
“The fact I am here today is a miracle,” he says, shaking his head slowly. “But for the person in the hospital it’s not as bad as it is for the family – I can’t imagine how hard it was for them. I know my mum was like a lion trying to fight to help me.
“I get so emotional seeing all the messages I’ve had, too – that’s the beauty of the equestrian world. We fight in the ring but really we’re a family, all pushing for each other.”
He tells me about the moment he first came around from the coma – “I just remember the face of the doctor holding my hand, telling me everything was OK” – and that when asking how long he had been out, he expected the doctors to tell him 12 months had passed.
“The doctors couldn’t believe it – that they were asking me things and I was able to answer them. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps actually.”
Juan made an astounding recovery, sitting up in bed three weeks later and leaving hospital at the start of July. He is well aware of how different things could have been and gestures fervently, showing me the coffee cup he is drinking from.
“Just doing this, holding a cup of coffee – I wasn’t able to do that in June. I couldn’t do anything with my right hand, it was like the whole of my right side had logged out. I was half paralysed for a month and a half, and thought I’d lose the use of my hand, or spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair.”
A high-flying career
With a triple Olympian for a father, Juan was always destined for a high-flying career in dressage, although as a child growing up in Wellington, Florida, after his parents emigrated from Spain, he was keen on showjumping and eventing, too. One of his first riding memories was as a six-year-old, asking to ride his sister Paula’s pony, who kept bucking, and getting on board still dressed in his taekwondo clothing from an after-school class.
It was seeing his father working towards the 2008 Beijing Olympics that inspired Juan Jnr to focus on dressage – as well as being wowed by the growing dominance of Totilas at the time – and he rose through international youth ranks with success, including individual gold at the 2015 junior Europeans and bronze at the 2016 and 2017 under-25 Europeans. The following year, aged 20, he moved back to Spain to campaign for the senior team, and duly represented his country a few months later at the World Equestrian Games in Tryon, on Quantico – his current top horse.
“The idea behind moving to Europe was to be among the best riders in the world, and I’m so happy I did,” says Juan, who holds dual US and Spanish nationality. “I get to fly to Wellington in the winter and compete there, but the rest of the year I’m surrounded by the best and it really motivates me. I like having a foot on both sides, but I feel so much pride competing for Spain – it’s my country.”
Given Juan’s innate determination to reach the top of his sport, it’s hardly surprising that he was back on a horse as soon as possible after returning home from hospital. What is amazing, however, is just how soon that was, and how fast his progress has been since.
“I first got back in the saddle on 31 July, and rode three horses straight off the bat,” he says. “The feeling was unbelievable, although my whole body was so stiff, and it was hard to move my head and neck. I had lost so much strength – my right side was at a 50% deficit.
“But I was riding tempi changes and piaffe-passage again that same week. I was just so worried I would lose the sensitivity, the feeling for the high-level movements.”
With regular rehabilitation work and physio – seeing the same therapist his father once did – Juan has made startling progress, and can now do stable work as well as ride several horses in a day.
“I can even move furniture around now,” he tells me, proudly.
Maturity that belies his age
Chatting with Juan, especially in the context of how much has happened across the world this year, is invigorating. He speaks with a maturity that belies his age, and is charming, eloquent and engaging – making impressive eye contact over video call and using my name frequently in our conversation as he emphasises his points.
He talks about how his ordeal has helped him gain fresh perspective, and appreciate the importance of health and abilities he had previously taken for granted. But, then again, he was always one to embrace opportunities – such as jumping at the chance to present the FEI awards in 2018 and 2019 alongside British Paralympian Natasha Baker.
It’s refreshing to hear that he is also able to appreciate the apt timeliness of the situation and that he has lost none of his ambition or good humour.
“This is the best year for this to have happened,” he reasons. “I actually haven’t lost out on anything.”
I ask about his aims for the next 12 months, but I know the answer before he confirms it. “The Tokyo Olympics is the goal for sure, without any doubt,” he says. “I have so many goals – I’m aiming for the Spanish Championships next month, too. There’s nothing stopping me now – I’m picking up full speed again.”
His Olympic hopes rest with the 14-year-old Fighting Fit gelding Quantico, whom Juan partnered throughout his young rider days. The pair clocked up numerous top-10 finishes at World Cup qualifiers and five-star CDIs last winter, with a plus-80% personal best in December.
“He’s a super-sensitive horse, with lots of character. We’ve had some difficulties in the past because he can get very hot in the arena; he used to carry me round, getting in front of me and I could only steer. But he has improved tremendously,” says Juan, who finished third with Quantico at his last show before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the Doha CDI5* in February.
“The Olympics has been on my mind my whole life – as a little boy I remember wanting to be the best in Spain. I was aiming for the Olympics even then – I wanted to be like my father. I love the pressure of it; nothing drives me more than trying to succeed, to give my best in battle.”
It’s fighting talk and it’s that fighting spirit that has helped keep Juan alive during the toughest battle so far. And, incredibly, he has emerged from it stronger than ever.
Ref Horse & Hound; 17 September 2020