Three medals from Tokyo freestyle finale

Sunday, 29 August 2021

After the intensity of yesterday’s team competition climax, the riders and horses were grateful for the chance to let their hair down for one final turn in Equestrian Park’s inspirational arena. Sophie Wells gave her all with Don Cara M but it wasn’t to be a third medal for them, while Natasha Baker, Lee Pearson and Georgia Wilson all repeated their individual test performances for silver, gold and bronze respectively.

Sophie Wells and Don Cara M

The Grade 5 competition was the first class with a Brit in action for ParalympicsGB, but it wasn’t to be a final day medal for Sophie Wells and Rowland Kinch’s Don Cara M. However, the rider from Nottinghamshire can feel satisfied with a job well done on a horse who was named as her reserve and was taking his first steps onto the global stage.

‘Donnie’ is quite noise sensitive and, despite Sophie selecting music she though would help, it just didn’t pay off because he took exception to the speakers and didn’t work with the confidence and expression of which he’s capable. However, their test showed lovely moments of harmony and the judge’s rewarded them with a score of 73.56%, which left them fourth overall and around three percent off the medals. Gold went to Michele George from Belgium with Best of 8, who topped the 80% mark.

“He was a little bit tricky in there,” said a rueful Sophie afterwards. “He’s not such a fan of music, so he just didn’t like all the speakers around the arena. Good luck to the judges marking my simple changes because I didn’t know what leg I was on, so I just thought I’d do another one because the others have been pretty poor. He could have done that all week, though, that’s the thing with him – he’s got a bit hotter as the week’s gone on. I can’t be disappointed at all because he’s done amazingly and we’ve got two medals, and we did it on the day that counted for the team test. It is what it is with the freestyle and that’s horses, you know. It’s nice for everyone else to see him and for Regine to get a bronze, that’s amazing.

“It’s been an amazing experience having Donnie here. Three weeks ago, Jorge [C Fatal Attraction] wasn’t right and withdrawing him was a hard decision – we’d spent all year rehabbing him and with my veterinary team through the World Class Programme, Rachel Murray and Matthew Barlow, we’d done everything to try and get him to be fit enough and time just wasn’t on our side, so that was really disappointing. Coming here, I wanted to get through to the freestyle – not that the freestyle was the one I wanted to do, but I wanted to be in the top eight to qualify. I’m thrilled with him, though, I couldn’t have believed a couple of weeks ago that we’d come away with a gold and a silver, not at all.

“We’ll start prepping for Paris now – it’s only three years away – and the Worlds are next year. I’ve got a couple of other horses at home, too – my seven-year-old, who was also nominated for Tokyo, and a really nice five-year-old, so I’ll go home and do the Nationals on her. I’m just going to keep enjoying it and bringing the horses on. Coming into this Games, it’s been so nice and relaxed and non-pressured, just to go in and enjoy it – we had no expectations – so it would be quite nice just to carry on like that.

“I love training horses – of course I’m competitive, that drives me to keep getting better with the horses – but I love training and I don’t see that stopping any time soon. If I’m lucky enough to be on the team in three years’ time, that’s amazing, but I’ve had a great Games and that completely wasn’t expected, so I’m thrilled.”

And what impact does Sophie hope that these unique Games, and the success of herself and her fellow British athletes, will have on equestrian sport as a whole?

“There’s so much that horses can give back to humans in everyday life, and it’s top sport and being in the limelight that will make kids at home think ‘oh, maybe I could try that’ and so we’ve got to keep it at the top to keep it feeding through,” she mused. “It’s hugely important and British Equestrian has had an amazing Olympic and Paralympics, so hopefully that will keep pushing the sport into the limelight, keep getting the kids into it and keep changing lives.”

Natasha Baker and Keystone Dawn Chorus

Riding her Grade 3 freestyle was always going to have a touch of nostalgia for Natasha Baker because her music score incorporated some of melodies from London and Rio with her five-time gold medallist Cabral.

Having claimed individual silver earlier in the week, Natasha had high hopes of a follow-up medal with her dancing partner Keystone Dawn Chorus, or ‘Lottie’, who she co-owns with Joanna Jensen, Christian Landolt and Phil Baker. Their test looked a picture – active, expressive and accurate – and the judges awarded 77.614%, but it was apparent that the previous days had taken a bit of sparkle out of the mare who’d given her everything. It wasn’t quite enough to take the title, which instead went to Tobias Thorning Joergensen and Jolene Hill with an impressive 84.347%, but was enough for another silver.

“I’m absolutely over the moon – I’m so sweaty right now, it’s boiling and she was really, really tired going into that test, so I had to work three times as hard as I did on the other two nights. I’m overjoyed with the outcome, it’s been such an incredible Games,” explained Natasha.

 “I’m so proud of the way that she went in there and handled it – she’s grown in confidence each day. I lost a bit of sparkle and in hindsight I should have really reduced my warm-up. On the other two nights she felt full of go, but tonight she genuinely felt exhausted. Just the way that mentally she’s handled this whole situation, though – she’s never been out of the country, this is her first every championship, and I’m just overjoyed with her maturity and her professionalism. She’s just been an absolute star.

“Lottie was really, really tired and as soon as I sat on her, I could just feel it. It’s all such a learning curve, though – I didn’t know how she was going to come out. We gave her a complete day off yesterday and only did hand grazing in the paddock, and I thought that might give her a bit more energy, but it didn’t.

“I’ve never done a competition where I’ve had a day off in between, it’s always been successive days, so it’s one for the memory bank. To do that under those circumstances and still come out with a silver medal is just beyond belief.”

Reflecting on the week, Natasha said: “I can take so much confidence from the fact that she has gone in that arena and every single day she’s just felt more relaxed. To know that she can handle this kind of environment – I could not be more proud of her.

“My owner Joanna [Jensen] sent me the sweetest message earlier – she was like, ‘I am so proud of you that you could just go in there, stand at X and do a bit of disco dancing, and I would be happy for you’. Lottie has exceeded every single expectation – if you’d have said to me a few weeks that I was going to win two individual silvers and a team gold, I would have said you were lying because I just never imagined that any of this would be possible.

“We can really grow on the experiences that we’ve had here. She’s just going to get better and stronger and our relationship is just going to develop so much more. I just couldn’t be more proud of everything that she’s achieved and everything that she’s done for me.”

Lee Pearson and Breezer

The Grade 2 was the final class with British representation and it was a chance for Sir Lee Pearson to complete a Games hat-trick of gold medals, just as he’d done previously at Atlanta, Sydney and Beijing. Riding his own home-bred Breezer, Lee has been honest about the 10-year-old’s sensitive nature and, given that they had to retire in their last freestyle start, today could have gone in any direction.

The stars aligned, however, and the duo danced with real cadence and presence to a spot of ‘Kung Fu Panda’, which wowed the judges who awarded 82.447% – an over eight percent improvement on their previous international best. Breezer certainly looked more at home in that arena tonight.

After his performance, Lee said: “Deep down, I thought we’d perhaps be leaving the arena retired, but then a little bit deeper down, when you dig really deep, I just thought he has brilliant power, he has brilliant paces – and if I don’t muck up, then I thought he had a chance of a gold.

“But all of that was underneath believing that we may have to retire tonight, and I’ve been speaking to my team and saying, ‘If I do retire tonight, I still love him and he still is amazing’. That’s the horseman in me, it still overrides the desire to win a gold medal and I was still really proud of him – but I’m a little bit more proud of him now he’s won a gold medal.

“Breezer can’t help being sensitive, I can’t help being disabled, but we’ve done as much as we possibly can to get him in different environments. You can’t just have a button to say, ‘Don’t be more sensitive, but do be more powerful’ – he was like a baby lion in there.

“I’m twice over the moon – I actually didn’t care if I won a medal, that horse gave me his heart in there. He was braver than the team test, braver even than the individual test a few days ago. He still was nervous in there and we had a tiny little spook before I entered and I just half halted to say, ‘Daddy’s here’ and just kind of said, ‘Come on, we can do this’. Then, halfway through the test, I nearly started enjoying it and then I remembered I needed to get to the end before I enjoy it – he was amazing.”

It was then a case of the waiting game with three horses to go. One was Lee’s long term rival, Pepo Puch with Sailor Blue, and they had a determined ride to score 81.007%, just behind Lee.

Georgia Wilson and Sakura

The final combination to go in the Grade 2 was our bronze individual medallists, Georgia Wilson and her seven-year-old Sakura. Having sat out the team round, bar ‘Suki’ standing in as Breezer’s friendly horse during his test, the duo was fresh and ready to challenge for medals. Despite their inexperience together – Sakura having only joined the Wilson family less than a year ago from the Eilbergs, who bred her – they were a picture of harmony and posted a final score of 76.754%, shaving 0.709% off their previous personal best. This gave them a second bronze medal at their first ever Paralympics – and her mentor and trainer Sophie Wells couldn’t have been more proud.

Georgia explained; “I couldn’t do it without Sophie. She calms me down a lot and the training is just invaluable. To be on the podium with Lee [Pearson] and have an incredible athlete like him in my grade, it’s so special.

“I just can’t thank everybody enough for their help, and all the team around us and the people that play National Lottery!”

On Sakura she said: “So it hasn’t been very long and she’s the kindest mare ever – I could take her anywhere. She could probably come into a hotel and sleep next to me!”

That result gave Lee Pearson Paralympic gold medal number 14, which, for the time being, makes him third in the overall table of British Paralympians and a fourth Games hattrick.

Over and out from Tokyo

So, the para equestrian comes to its end and for all four British teams, the Tokyo adventure is complete. A heroic eight medals by Lee, Sophie, Natasha and Georgia added to the five claimed by dressage, eventing and jumping a few weeks previous makes a total of count of 13 medals on the world’s largest stage. Our horses and riders have impressed, our owners have been amazing, the grooms have gone above and beyond as always, the support personnel have been outstanding and our supporters have made the difference – thank you all.

Only two years, ten months, three weeks and four days until Paris 2024 Opening Ceremony – we’ll see you there!

For results and how to watch, visit our Tokyo Hub.