Ireland’s Olympic eventing team – strength, depth and horse power
Citius, Altius, Fortius. The Olympic motto translates as ‘faster, higher, stronger’, and it perfectly encompasses the efforts and ambitions of every athlete that has ever taken part at any Olympic Games.
Competing at the Olympics is the single greatest sporting honour that any athlete can achieve, and it is often the end result of a lifetime of training, planning, dreaming and incredible sacrifice. For our five Rio Olympics bound Irish eventing team riders, the story is no different. Mark Kyle is contesting his third Olympic Games for Ireland and Camilla Speirs her second. This experienced duo will provide great support and guidance for the three remaining rookie Olympic team riders in Jonty Evans, Clare Abbott and Padraig McCarthy.
The Games of the XXXI Olympiad begins in Rio De Janeiro on the 5th of August. More than 10,500 athletes from every country and every sporting discipline are expected to attend – the highest number ever recorded. First time entrant countries include Kosovo and South Sudan and events will take place at 38 venues across São Paulo, Salvador and, of course, Rio.
This is the first time that an Olympic Games has been hosted by a South American city and it is not without its challenges. The climate and venue conditions are potential concerns and many leading scientists worldwide have warned of the dangers associated with contracting the Zika virus which is spread by mosquitoes. Whilst the Zika virus itself is not particularly dangerous for those who contract it, it can lead to severe birth defects in the future offspring of those affected. It has now reached pandemic status in South America. Rio de Janeiro also has a particularly high crime rate.
Famous for its Copacabana beach and the stunningly beautiful ‘Christ The Redeemer’ statue, Rio has a rich and diverse culture and attracts visitors from around the world. The colourful, exotic carnival tradition and the welcoming atmosphere of the city will surely make the opening and closing ceremonies an experience to remember for athletes and spectators alike.
The Olympic equestrian venue was originally built for the 2007 PanAm games and has been modernised and expanded ahead of horses arriving at the end of July. The horses travelling from Europe will be under full veterinary supervision, as opposed to undergoing an official quarantine period. They will fly from London Stanstead airport and will be in the air for eight hours.
For the five travelling Irish event team riders, achieving selection for the Rio Olympics has been a long process. Finding yourself on a horse capable of competing on the world stage with sufficient experience, a good record and early season form, no soundness issues and at the right age is a rarity in itself. Being in the eye of the selectors for any championship is a huge accomplishment, but it brings with it untold pressure. Being required to consistently turn in high class performances without incident is no mean feat and being selected to represent your country at an Olympic Games is for most people, just a dream. But what does it mean to a person when that dream actually becomes a reality?
Leicestershire based rider Mark Kyle has twice represented Ireland at an Olympic Games. In 2004 he rode Drunken Disorderly at Athens and in 2012 he rode Coolio at the London Olympics. Mark has won medals at junior and young rider championships, so it would be fitting for him to add an Olympic medal to his collection. Amusingly, this is the first championship that Mark has contested where he has not been riding a grey!
Supported by his wife Tanya-herself a 4* event rider – Mark has been selected for Rio aboard Richard and Shelagh Morley’s bay mare Jemilla. By Mill Law, this consistent 10 year old has shown good form this spring and is an exciting prospect. I asked Mark how he is feeling about heading to his third Olympic Games –
“It’s a great honour to be going to Rio and it’s fantastic to be back in the Olympic fold. It’s not quite as overwhelming now as it was the first time, but we have to treat it as any other event and not get distracted by the whole Olympic experience. It’s quite different from any other championship in that you are mixing amongst other athletes from other sports in the Olympic village and I really enjoy that. You see some sportspeople that you do recognize and then others that you don’t – I always wonder what sport they represent. In the evenings, you see some athletes with their medals and others upset because it didn’t go to plan. It’s an interesting experience, just being there.”
Devon based event rider Padraig McCarthy (pictured above) is heading to his first Olympics aboard one of two potential rides. A recent convert from the world of showjumping, Padraig has enjoyed a whirlwind trip from prenovice level all the way up to Olympic selection.
His first ride Simon Porloe is a seasoned campaigner and was produced up to championship level by Padraig’s wife Lucy. This wonderful horse is owned by Sarita and Christopher Perkins and also Padraig’s mother, Theresa McCarthy. Simon Porloe and Padraig have enjoyed a superb Spring together, culminating in winning the CIC 3* at Tattersalls – the final selection trial for the Irish event team.
Padraig’s second ride Bernadette Utopia moved up to 3* level in early 2016 and has shown some excellent form so far this season. This mare is particularly special to Padraig and Lucy because she was sourced by Caroline Creighton and Padraig’s father in law Hendrik Wiegersma, who have both since sadly passed away. Caroline was the backbone of the operation at Warren Farm for many years and her knowledge and expertise have provided the perfect foundation for the successes enjoyed today. Owned by Caroline, Hendrik, Pearl Chaffe, Padraig and Lucy, this mare is a shining example of a genuine team and family effort making it happen at the highest level. Padraig’s excitement at being selected is palpable –
“I am pinching myself! I have only been in this sport for such a short time and I just can’t believe it. I keep going to the diary to plan events and seeing ‘Olympics’ written in for August – it’s surreal. We have worked hard for this all year, but the fact that I have been selected is an incredible bonus during an already successful season. Everything at Warren Farm has been geared towards this for the last thirty years and I owe so much to my wife Lucy, to her late father Hendrik and to the late Caroline Creighton. They have helped and encouraged me all the way. I do feel for my owners as we are unsure which horse will be selected to travel. Simon is in great form and he traditionally peaks around Barbury. He will contest the 2* there as a nice confidence boost. Bernadette Utopia will contest the Event Riders Masters 3* class at Barbury, to continue building her experience at this level.”
Hillsborough based Clare Abbott has been selected for the Olympics for the first time with the ebullient chestnut gelding, Euro Prince. Now 13 years old, the son of Lougheries Quiet Man has been competitive at 3* level all season. He finished 6th at Tattersalls in the CIC 3*, impressing the selectors. He is owned and was bred by Cormac and John McKay, who breed sports horses as a hobby around their careers as doctors. Remarkably, Euro Prince is the second horse that the McKays have bred that has made it all the way to the Olympics. Their previous Olympic produce was the stallion High Scope, ridden by Trevor Smith at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Clare is a maths teacher and with the enormous support of her mother Catherine, her owners and her back room team at home, she is living her dream.
Clare says – “We are celebrating this achievement as a family and as a team. For me, it is the accumulation of so much work and effort from so many people. My mother in particular is such a huge support. She drives, she helps with everything and she has always encouraged my ambitions. I’m thrilled for the horse, for his owners who have made this possible and for the team here. I am quite level headed about it all and I am treating it as any other championship or 4* event. The Team Ireland support team is excellent and I have no fears or worries going forward.”
Cotswolds based Jonty Evans has been selected for his first Olympic Games aboard Cooley Rorkes Drift. The bay gelding is owned by Fiona Elliott and Ann Nobbs and he has been turning many heads in recent years. Standout performances this season at Fontainbleu (11th) and Chatsworth (10th) were built upon at Tattersalls, where they finished third and booked their plane ticket to Rio. Jonty has a wonderful partnership with the 10 year old Irish Sports Horse and tantalisingly declared that they were ‘only on half-power’ at Tattersalls.
Jonty has a strong support team behind him – his wife Jane, head girl Jane Felton and his wonderful and loyal owners are helping to make dreams become a reality. Jonty is typically humble in his response towards his selection – “So many sporting heroes, and then little old me in amongst them!” But the accumulation of so many years of sheer hard work and determination is now beginning to bear fruit. I asked Jonty just what this means to him –
“I am on one of the best horses in the world and I am so delighted that he is going to get the chance to show off on the biggest stage in the world. There isn’t another horse anywhere that I would rather be on to go and have a go at it. I am so excited about being a tiny part of what is the greatest sporting spectacle on the planet. I am also beyond proud to be representing Ireland – the greatest of equestrian nations with the biggest of hearts – and I will do everything In my power to justify the faith that has been placed in me.”
The team travelling reserve is Kildare based rider Camilla Speirs, with her wonderful campaigner Portersize Just A Jiff. Rio will be Camilla’s second trip to the Olympic Games as she also contested the London Olympics in 2012.
This combination are a real crowd favourite within the eventing world – together they have contested Junior and Young Rider European championships, the World Young Horse Championships, senior European Championships, World Equestrian Games, several 4* events and also London. Portersize Just A Jiff is one of the smallest horses competing at world and international level-he stands at just 15.1hh in his shoes. This season saw Camilla and ‘Jiff’ produce the performance of a lifetime at Badminton 4* in May. A brilliant double clear resulted in an 9th placing that could not be ignored, and they will be ready to travel at the end of July. Approaching her second Olympics as a reserve is quite different from being the third line rider at your first Olympics. I asked Camilla how it feels this time around –
“It’s a totally different situation this time and as such, I feel quite differently about it all. I was so young going to London and it was quite overwhelming, even though I was very focussed and determined. The Olympic stage is truly global – for example, a 4* isn’t really recognised outside of eventing circles, but everyone is watching at the Olympics. It is a massive honour to be selected and to be amongst the best of the best in world sport. You are out of your comfort zone a little bit at an Olympic Games, you are removed from the familiar eventing world and from the people who normally surround you which can be difficult, but I am looking forward to travelling to Rio.”
The Irish event team has phenomenal strength and depth and the five travelling team members were selected from a pool of ten in-form horses and riders. With so many talented combinations, their loyal owners, enthusiastic supporters and a world class High Performance support team, Irish eventing is building and growing all the time. With an eye on the long game, the future looks brighter than ever and Team Ireland are well on their way to achieving consistent top level results and championship success. Olympic fever is alive and well in the Irish eventing camp.
TÁdh mór oraibh
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Article by Christa Dillon.
Images with thanks to Louise O’Brien Photography.
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