Ever since she watched the 1986 World Dressage Championships in Cedar Valley, Canada, Roberta ‘Bert’ Sheffield has wanted an Olympic medal of her own.
“I caught the bug aged six and I’m a total dressage geek,” admits the 30-year-old, who grew up in a hugely successful sporting family — her father is a world champion skeet shooter. “I grew up with the sporting mentality of train hard, and you get what you sew.
Bert, who has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis since the age of 15, spent her teenage years showing Welsh cobs, but after university landed an apprenticeship with Gareth Hughes, taking her Welsh cob Calerux Cosmonaut with her.
“It was Gareth who first suggested I try para dressage. Until then I had been aware of the para movement, but I never thought that I would be disabled enough to do it myself. I didn’t realise that I would be classed as a grade III rider — I had always thought of it being more for people with spinal injuries.
“But Gareth told me to try it and I did as I was told — because that’s what you do when you’re an apprentice!”
But as Bert’s para dressage career got underway, it wasn’t to Great Britain that she felt the most sporting affinity.
“I went to watch the London Paralympics and at the time my sporting nationality was British, but at the start of 2013 I made the decision to switch to Canada. I have dual nationality, and I’ve always felt more Canadian than British. I was brought up with Canada being very much the land of milk and honey — it was where we went on amazing holidays and Britain was where I went to school.
“Canada has always been very good for me and I had a tremendously good feeling about it — it was quite an obvious decision in the end. I had been to the final selection for the British world class programme twice and the first time I’d been told I was too old, that I was coming to the sport too late. I realised that was about the only thing about myself I couldn’t change — I could change my gender if I wanted to, but not my age.”
‘It was like being on a conveyor belt’
Bert remains based in Bourne, Lincolnshire, training with Gareth, and now, exactly 30 years after first catching the bug — both dressage and Canadian — in Cedar Valley, she is contesting her first Paralympic Games with the nine-year-old Donnersohn mare Double Agent.
The pair posted 67.52% in yesterday’s grade III team test.
“We had an interesting warm-up pattern as the mare was quite tired after the flight so we kept her work really steady and calm,” explained Bert. “But she’s so fit from lots of interval training on the gallops that it was a case of when she recovers, what’s she going to do?
The first time I put my leg on her since being here was in the team test, and it’s the first test I’ve ever done on her where I haven’t had to use my sticks to back up my legs. My legs are very weak, so when I use them she usually says, ‘Yeah, but you don’t mean it’. But today it felt amazing — she just swept me along and it was like being on the conveyor belt at the airport!”