With Sir Lee Pearson and Natasha Baker giving ParalympicsGB a strong start yesterday and at least eight countries in with a podium chance, the final day for the team medals in Tokyo was perfectly poised for a nail-biting finish.
Sophie Wells and Don Cara M
There were two remaining grades to complete today – four and five – and it was the latter that went first. The anchor rider duty fell to Sophie Wells due to the timetable, but there’s no better rider to take on that mantle. Riding Roland Kinch’s 12-year-old Don Cara M, who’s never experienced a competition on this scale, let alone such a pressured test, Sophie needed every ounce of her experience to coax out the marks after a rather spooky transition into the Equestrian Park stadium.
A few reassuring pats and a trademark forward trot around the outside of the arena got ‘Donnie’ listening and a bit more on-side, but it wasn’t the start Sophie had perhaps hoped for. However, the eye-catching black gelding began to settle into the job at hand and Sophie expertly guided him movement by movement. The relaxation looked fair, with great suppleness, and the transitions were crisp and obvious – any difficulties Sophie was still feeling were well disguised.
For a horse who’s not keen on flying changes, Donnie did pop one in where it wasn’t required – perhaps a sign of his anxiety – but Sophie calmly picked up the canter lead she wanted and continued the counter-canter movement. A final extended trot across the diagonal was stunning and was matched with a final four-square halt at X.
With the final rider from their main rival still to send out their final rider, it was a case that Sophie and Donnie just needed a score as high as they could possibly manage – they had to set the target for the Netherlands to match. As a combination, their previous best mark in the team test was 73.884% – could the score match that? After a few adjustments, the final score on the system was confirmed as 75.651%, meaning a new personal best and, more importantly, another few bricks in the wall the others had to climb to beat the Brits.
Sophie said after her test: “I’m so relieved to have survived! He warmed up amazingly and felt awesome, but when he came in here, I think it was the shadows because he just span round. He’s just not that sort of horse! From there, the team score just went out of my head and I thought ‘I just need to complete the test so we have a score’! That was stressful. It was hard to decide what to do around the outside, but I had to trust in him.
“When I had my mistake with the change, I just thought ‘don’t panic, pick him up, move on’. The simple changes have a double co-efficient and I was riding on eggshells, on a bomb – but an awesome bomb, don’t get me wrong! He was amazing, but I don’t want that again!
“I feel it was a miracle that we did the test and he came back to me. I went in and he calmed down and settled, but I wasn’t going to ask for anymore. I got more the other day, but I’m so pleased what I got today, I’m thrilled. Something really scared him in there and the pressure was on without a drop score.
“To get that score with what I felt I had just shows what a horse he is. It gives me faith that as a rider I can ask for less and still get plenty, which is amazing. I’m thrilled for the team – we came with no expectation, just hope.”
A nervous wait
The British riders had done all they could. Their final tally was set at 229.905% and now it was down to our rivals to better it. Alongside Great Britain, the teams in medal contention were USA, the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium – all with their final riders to come in Grade 4, so it was to be an agonising wait with the calculators out.
Kate Shoemaker for the USA got the Grade 4 underway with Solitaer 40 and their score of 71.825% was enough to keep them in the medal hunt, which would be a historic first Paralympic team medal for the country who hosted para-dressage for the first time at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics. It was then a case of what could the riders from the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium do.
For Dutch team, current World and European Champions, hopes of adding the Paralympic title fell to the vastly experienced combination of Sanne Voets and Demantur. Their test was relaxed and polished, so it was going to be close – the score need to match Britain was 78.856%. After an agonising wait, Sanne’s score was confirmed as 78.200% – the Brits kept their noses in front by just 0.656%.
The final rider for Denmark needed a near 73% to shake the podium places, but Susanne Jensby Sunesen fell short with 72.250%, so it was only Belgium who could make an impact. A score of 75% or better was the target, but the final score of 73.775% from Manon Claeys put them fifth behind the Danes.
And so, against the odds, it was gold for our intrepid trio, with the Netherlands in silver and a historic bronze for the United States. It was a touching moment in the medal presentation when Sophie put the gold medal around Lee’s neck – a 13th Paralympic gold medal for a man who has done more than anyone to progress the sport since 1996.
“I don’t think any of us expected that in a million years,” said Natasha after the medal ceremony. “We’re just so exceptionally proud of everything that our horses have done over the last few days – the way they’ve dealt with it so well and been such professionals. We were hoping to come and challenge for a bronze medal, that’s all. It’s unbelievable when you think what we’ve been through these last few weeks – one of our horses is a reserve! It’s actually been quite nice because, previously, we’ve had that expectation at every Paralympics and that pressure. This has been more relaxed and we’ve been able to enjoy it. It’s been the most incredible experience and we’ve all cried so much!”
“We had no expectations but knew anything was possible,” added Sophie. “In the most realistic way, we all have horses that have never been and done it, not competed against anyone else. The Dutch are so strong, so established, so secure with those horses and we’re not! Not having so much pressure gives things a different dynamic – it’s more relaxed and we just went in and did our jobs, which is what we always do. This time we didn’t go in fighting for it because we didn’t think we were in the mix. It just shows that maybe a different approach is good, especially for me on this horse. I’ve had to use every bit of my experience and it’s taken great resilience to even get here, but we have such belief in each other.”
Lee summed it up: “We don’t have a horse on the team who’s done a championship before and two have never even been abroad. We didn’t think we would win gold and weren’t expected to. The team behind the scenes have been incredible, we couldn’t have done it without them. To even get us here is amazing, and to keep me under control too! To be here, to compete and do as well as we have is a fairy tale. The Selectors have put great faith in us riders to send these young horses, which shows they do believe in us as riders to get the best score, and we’re grateful for that.”
Team Leader Georgina Sharples summed up the team effort: “These guys are undefeated Paralympic champions, but in a whole new context. It’s been a whole recalibrate and you’ve heard about our inexperienced horsepower, but I just think you should never underestimate these guys. The job they did out on the field of play used every ounce of their experience gained over years and years. You will not find a more dedicated bunch of riders, grooms and support team.
“We’ve had a brilliant vibe coming into the Games and came in without the expectation, but with massive belief. That was real talent out there, and it’s amazing that the sport has taken off in the way it has. It’s fantastic to have such nail-biting sport, but it takes nothing away from what these guys have just achieved on inexperienced, up-and-coming horses. I’m truly delighted for them all and it’s a privilege and pleasure to deal with them – most of the time! We have an open and honest approach and they’re an amazing group of individuals, but even more incredible team.”
The riders and support team arrived in Tokyo with limited expectations. Despite the hurdles of young horses, last-minute changes and a challenging time in preparations, they will come home Paralympic team champions for a seventh time and remain unbeaten at the Games.