This may be Philippa Johnson-Dwyer’s fourth Paralympics, but she is as excited about being in Rio as though it was the first.
“It still gives me such a buzz. I’ve come to the conclusion that Paralympic Games are like potato chips — you can’t stop at one!” laughs the grade III rider, who partners her London ride here, the 11-year-old Lord Louis.
“It’s almost more exciting now because at my first Olympics, in Athens, I was so naïve. My eyes were on stalks — the horses all looked so much bigger than I expected. With my Athens ride, Benedict, I would sing to him if he was nervous — a Cher song — and on my first day in Athens I rode round all day singing that stupid Cher song just to calm me down because I was so terrified.”
A ‘genetic misfit’
Born into a showjumping family in South Africa, Philippa calls herself a “genetic misfit” because her first love was always dressage.
“My mother was a ballet dancer, so I’ve always said that if you put a ballet dancer to a showjumper you get a dressage rider.”
Philippa competed as a able-bodied dressage rider until a car accident in 1998 caused her to lose all strength in her right arm, and 60% of strength in her right leg.
“After my accident, having been competitive all my leg, I wanted to get back into riding competitively. But in South Africa at the time, riding was only offered as a therapy, and there was no competitive riding for the disabled.
“It was Britian’s Debbie Criddle who started my journey. She had contested the ruling about having two hands on the reins at all times in able-bodied dressage and she won. So I went to the South African federation and asked if I could compete in able-bodied competitions with one hand. That was the start.”
While competing in Belgium in 2002 Philippa, who is now based there, met Benedict, with whom she won double silver at Athens in 2004 and double gold in Hong Kong four years later.
“Para equestrian has grown exponentially,” says Philippa, who is married to Irish para rider James Dwyer and also competes another horse, Verdi, up to inter I. “Riders are seen as athletes now, not cripples bobbling around on horses. That was my biggest learning curve — at my first disabled competition I was thinking ‘I have to ride against cripples?’ but those cripples wiped the floor with me. I had never seen riders like this in my life — not even the able-bodied riders back home were this good. It really put me in my place and gave me so much respect for people with a handicap.
“My dad says, ‘if as an able-bodied person your want to feel disabled, go to a disabled competition. Everybody’s doing everything for themselves and there’s no whining or bitching. It’s just such an amazing atmosphere.”