H&H exclusive: showjumping legend Rodrigo Pessoa on his Olympic ambitions *H&H Plus*

  • Brazil’s 2004 Olympic champion Rodrigo Pessoa talks to Pippa Roome about giving up his Irish performance management role to return to the competitive fray and target Tokyo

    “I hate it. I hate it. From day one, I hated it.” Rodrigo Pessoa’s sudden intensity takes me by surprise. Until now, sitting chatting in the VIP area at the Palm Beach Masters in Florida, having just been third in a class, he has seemed a laid-back kind of guy.

    But when I ask the Brazilian’s thoughts on the new Olympic format of three riders to a team, which will be used in Tokyo next year, I can see the passion which has made him one of the best riders in the world – world and Olympic champion, three-time winner of the World Cup Final and more.

    “Our sport is not like any other. Things happen with horses. The drop score has proven over and over again that it’s the perfect format for a team competition,” he says.

    “You’ll have drama in the new format, because if anything happens you’re out, but after four years, something happens to someone else [on your team] and there goes your Games. It’s much harder on selectors because there’s no margin for error.

    “Maybe one weaker team will be lucky and get three mediocre scores [and claim a medal]. And because some German or American or Brit slips in a corner or stumbles, they’ll be out. I predict that we’ll have major upsets and it’ll just be a shame.”

    Part of the reason for dropping teams to three was to bring in more nations from around the world, but after the well-documented issues with qualification for Tokyo, Rodrigo does not believe that was wise.

    “We saw some countries had such an easy way to qualify and teams from Europe had a very hard way – it’s totally not even and the qualification process is totally wrecked,” he says. “We brought more flags and brought in people who don’t have the level to compete. That’s just levelling the sport through the bottom and that’s never a good way to do it.”

    A renewed focus

    Rodrigi, 47, has a renewed focus on the Olympics as a rider now, having given up being Irish high performance manager last autumn to pursue his own competitive ambitions.

    He took on the role in 2016, disillusioned after missing out on selection for the Rio Games.

    “The disappointment of not participating in my home country was really painful,” he says. “The job came at a perfect time when I really need to do something else and focus on something other than riding.”

    Success came quickly, with Ireland’s team gold at the 2017 Europeans – the nation’s first senior championship team medal since 2001.

    But then it was a hard slog to achieve Olympic qualification, with a couple of missed chances. The Irish finally picked up their ticket when they won the 2019 Nations Cup final in Barcelona, their final chance to secure a slot.

    “It gave a fantastic boost to get gold the first year, but then we took the long road to the qualification. It went down to the wire going to Barcelona, but in the end we did it and did it in style, so that’s what matters,” says Rodrigo.

    What did he try to change in the Irish programme during his tenure?

    “They were all talented riders and individually had a lot of success, but when it came to championships, they could never pull it together for some reason,” he says. “We tried to create a fantastic team atmosphere and to give them tips for better focus at shows – to try to focus on one thing at a time.”

    Team managers in showjumping are up against a constant battle in persuading riders and owners to jump top horses for their nation rather than prioritise lucrative Global Champions Tour prize pots.

    “For sure, nowadays with the purses offered, it’s difficult to get people to commit, but Ireland is special for that – the boys want to ride in the green jacket, which is fantastic for the chef d’equipe,” says Rodrigo.

    “We had some clashes of calendar, but that’s part of it and I understand their obligations as well to make money. Obviously, in a job like that, you can’t please everyone all the time, but I think we did the best we could to give everybody a fair chance.”

    Rodrigo thinks he will return to team management in the future.

    “I did enjoy it. The human aspect is special, to get to know everybody much deeper than you know them at shows. It was interesting,” he reflects.

    The decision to step down came because Rodrigo was offered the chance to ride for an outstanding owner, Jim Clark of Artemis Farms. He had bought two horses for the Brazilian to ride at the start of 2019 and then decided to move four more from Markus and Meredith Beerbaum to Rodrigo for 2020.

    Rodrigo explains: “I had the opportunity of Mr Clark wanting to back another rider. He said, ‘If you want to do it, let’s go.’ I can always go back to the coaching, but the riding was an opportunity I could not give up.

    “If you want to do something well, you have to focus on one thing. When I was training the Irish, I was still riding, but just to keep in shape and my calendar was very secondary – the number one priority was them. You can’t do the two things well.”

    He believes the experienced Michael Blake is “the perfect person” to have taken over from him as Irish high performance manager.

    “I wish them the best and hope it goes well,” he says.

    Target Tokyo

    Rodrigo’s Olympic hopeful is the 11-year-old Quality FZ. His previous riders include Jur Vrieling and Eric Lamaze and he already had five-star experience when Rodrigo took him on early last year, which was what Rodrigo and the Clarks needed to target Tokyo on what was originally such a short time frame.

    “We didn’t have time to get something young and produce it,” says Rodrigo. “It’s difficult to buy horses of that quality and level, so you can’t be too picky. You have to be able to adapt as well. He’s a sweet horse, careful with a lot of power, but he’s still a little bit tense and not 100% in different environments. But he has a lot of potential.”

    Rodrigo and his wife Alexa moved to Connecticut three years ago. They have two children – Sophia, nine, and Luciana, three – and Rodrigo also has a 15-year-old daughter Cecilia with his ex-wife Keri Potter. It was through their children of a similar age that Rodrigo met the Clarks. Cecilia does not ride, but Sophia and Luciana do.

    “We don’t push them. They have a pony and they ride a bit, so we’ll see what happens,” says Rodrigo.

    He usually jumps the Florida circuit for three months in the spring, enjoying the opportunity to be based in one place and “get out of the cold for these three months”.

    Shows in Europe should have followed from May onwards this year, until coronavirus interrupted plans.

    “I’ve been lucky to go to six Olympic Games and, if you have a horse that’s able to do it, that’s where you want to go because that’s the biggest thing you can go to,” says Rodrigo. “But I don’t want to go just to compete, just to put in scores. I want to go if I can help the team do well. If I feel the horse is not up to par, I won’t force myself on – I’ll be reasonable. That’s where experience comes into play. You are more sensible when you have done this for a while.”

    But when he has good horses, Rodrigo says “the thrill of competition is just fantastic”.

    “I enjoy that and being able to come out and compete. It’s just the best feeling in the world.”

    Rodrigo on…

    His first championship horse, Special Envoy

    “He put me on the map. He taught me to be competitive, forgave my mistakes. We were able to win a lot of grands prix and he took me to the Olympics and World Equestrian Games when I was a teenager, even though it was tough for him because he didn’t really have the power to do it.”

    His three-time World Cup final winner Baloubet Du Rouet

    “He was the horse of a lifetime and a freak of nature, a horse who had everything you want from a showjumper. He had the power, was careful, intelligent.

    “I don’t expect that I’ll come across another one like that. Everyone who’s had a horse like that – whether it’s Shutterfly, Hickstead or Ratina Z – you always think that’s the best horse of all time. We’re just fortunate to be able to cross paths with horses like that.”

    Growing up with three-time Hickstead Derby winner Nelson Pessoa as his father

    “His being a professional facilitated a lot of things. I already had a structure in place. But with that came the pressure and expectation – and the critics, which is always difficult. But I was able to take it and make the situation as encouraging as possible. I was fortunate to be in that position.

    “My father takes more of a back seat now, but he’s still passionate about the sport. We talk every day about the horses.”

    His idol, Ludger Beerbaum

    “He was the person I chased from the beginning because, as a 19-year-old, I saw him win the Olympics after breaking his rein. I thought, ‘Jeez, that takes a lot of determination.’ He was the man to beat in that moment, the bullseye for me. Even so, he was always generous with all his support and advice; he was a great person to idolise.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 23 April 2020

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