Tokyo 2020: Lee, Georgia and Sophie make a dream start
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What a start our heroic riders have given us on day one of the Tokyo Paralympic Equestrian competition. The action kicked off with two medals in the Grade II including a momentous 12th Paralympic gold medal for Sir Lee Pearson and a debut bronze for Georgia Wilson. In her third consecutive Games, Sophie Wells then followed with an emotional silver in the Grade V.
Grade II Individual
Georgia Wilson was first up for ParalympicsGB and if the 26 year old from Conwy was nervous as it was her maiden Paralympic test – plus having had a last minute call up and her equine partner Sakura being just seven – it certainly didn’t show. Having her trainer and mentor Sophie Wells arena side as is permitted in para dressage certainly would have given her some reassurance but she rode with great confidence. A flowing, accurate and consistent test with Sakura, which aptly translates as cherry blossom from Japanese, belied their inexperience together.
Scores from the five-strong judging panel ranged from 6.5 to eight showing the consistency, with the three required halts a particular highlight. The final confirmed score was given as 72.765% - a new personal best by 1.4% for the duo.
Georgia, sporting her cheeky smile as always, said after her test; “Everyone said it was going to be the hottest day so far in Tokyo and I thought ‘oh gosh, I’m on really early’, but it was okay – I put it to the back of my mind and focused on what I needed to do. I got there in the end.
“I do feel nervous, but when I’m on it’s fine, then when I speak to Soph, who’s in my ear [via a radio headset] until I’m going up the centre line, it really calms me down.”
It gave the duo the lead at the early stage which they held until veteran of the grade, Pepo Puch stamped his authority with 73.441% riding Sailor’s Blue to edge into gold position.
Second last to go was the rider we lovingly refer to as ‘the Godfather of dressage’ Lee Pearson, making a sixth straight Paralympic appearance and bidding to make history. His partner this time was his own homebred and produced Breezer. At just ten, the Bacardi-sired gelding is still learning his job and he’s also a very sensitive horse so Lee knew he’d need all that experience today.
It was a masterful performance – just the right balance between power and grace, expression and explosion! Breezer was certainly on his toes but Lee gave him the perfect ride and but for the tiniest of jogs in walk, it was a clear round. The judges awarded 76.265% and the lead belonged to the Staffordshire rider. The final rider couldn’t better the score – gold medal number 12 belonged to Lee and debutant Georgia claimed the bronze.
Lee said; “I was very happy- actually crying at the end as it was emotional. It’s been a long journey with a homebred horse and on top I’m a dad now which has made me more emotional! Loads of emotions come and with no family here too. To say he [Breezer] has been with me since he was hours old at my parents does make it extra special,” said Lee afterwards.
He continued; “Genuinely, I was happy to survive the test before hand and medal of any colour would have been a dream. Our last outing at Hartpury we didn’t complete our last test due to his sensitivity so that was on my mind. But he didn’t let me down today.
“He’s coped brilliantly here. I’m genuinely proud of him as he generally has been very brave – but I guess hacking out in Stoke on Trent helps! I hope the end of the test hasn’t upset him for the team test but it’ll be a different day and if he’s as calm as he was today I’ll be over the moon.”
And was young Georgia intimidated by competing alongside Sir Lee Pearson? Of course not; “It’s nice to compete against Lee and it’s nice to have that super athlete to be in the same class and to try and get to his level, and hopefully try to be as successful as him one day!”
“It’s definitely healthy competition and it makes you want to give that extra little push to keep improving him. It’ll make you a better athlete in the long run, so it’s really nice that he’s my competitor and teammate. He’s very funny, so he takes all the pressure off and makes it fun, “she beamed.
Grade V individual
Often billed as the hottest classes of any championships, Grade V is packed full of friendly rivalries, fierce competition and an abundance of quality. Today was no different and didn’t disappoint. Michele George has been a dominant force in the Grade V ranks but in Best of 8 she had a new ride so there was just that bit of added pressure. The Belgian rider certainly rose to the challenge to post 76.524% and take a lead that would be hard to beat.
Dutch rider Frank Hosmar and Alphaville have claimed medals at every championship level and were the next biggest threat - 73.405% was their score – close but Michele held firm and those positions remained for much of the 14 strong class. That was until Sophie Wells entered the arena.
Sophie had hoped to partner Charlotte Hogg’s C Fatal Attraction at her third consecutive Games but a niggling injury took time to get over and ‘Jorge’ just wasn’t quite ready to contest the challenge of Tokyo. So, at the 11th hour, the honour of representing ParalymicsGB fell to Roland Kinch’s Don Cara M, a horse she’s had a relatively short time but has been expertly produced by Amy Woodhead.
With the added pressure that comes with holding a high standard in any sport, Sophie had admitted that she’s felt the stress during her preparation for Japan. However, Sophie puts a great deal into covering all angles in her search for perfection and her learnings paid off with a test which impressed. She rode ‘Donnie’ with great sympathy but without dampening the Don Jovi- sired gelding’s energetic paces and attitude. There was a miscommunication in a simple change which resulted in a wrong canter strike off and there was tension in the collected walk but the potential was there and 74.405% was the confirmed score – and into second place with two left to go.
The podium places remained that way and Sophie claimed her seventh Paralympic medal, a silver and perhaps this one has an extra special place in her heart knowing what’s she and Donnie had achieved and overcome.
Sophie said; I’m so overwhelmed with emotion! I came into this having absolutely no expectations and just a little bit of fear what he could do in there but also belief in him that if he relaxed and was with me, I knew he could medal. This horse has never been abroad, he’s never competed abroad, he’s never done a championship, he’s so green, even at 12. He’s such a sensitive person too and he’s an anxious horse, not so much in his environment, but in himself. I was hoping he’d go in and trust me whatever happened and I’d genuinely be happy with that. It’s weird for me to say coming from a position where all the previous championships I’ve ever done, I’ve only wanted gold medals. So to come into this Games without C Fatal Attraction who would have had the pressure to win gold, I’m overwhelmed."
She continued; “I so much believe in this horse, I know he can do it and I’m so grateful to his owners Roland and Maria Kinch. Tracy and Amy Woodhead gave me the ride and they just went with it, having never been involved with para before and they’ve just been amazing. I know this is just the beginning for him which is so exciting.
“This means the world to put him on this stage. To show the judges what he can do is so exciting. I’m not at all disappointed by the fact we were leading and then dropped; if he’d have made a mistake a couple of weeks ago he would have lost the plot. He overtries and overthinks so catastrophises it in his mind. For him to come back from that made me proud.
“As a horse, he doesn’t really have a weakness. He’s got a great walk, trot and canter and he can’t do flying changes which was one of the reasons he came to me, as for para he doesn’t have to, so he was a bit of a write off in able-bodied. His talent is there and the future is exciting.”
With a complete collection of gold, silver and bronze medals, Great Britain top the Para Equestrian medal table after day one. Tomorrow it’s the turn of our final combination, Natasha Baker and Joanna Jensen, Christian Landolt, Phil Baker and her own Keystone Dawn Chorus in the Grade III individual. They ride at 12.36 BST – best of luck!
All photos © British Equestrian / Jon Stroud Media