Olympic dream comes true for Motueka rider
Story by: FRED WOODCOCK - Photo by: Photosport
Motueka eventer Jonelle Richards can't quite believe she'll be riding for New Zealand at an Olympic Games alongside her childhood idols Mark Todd and Andrew Nicholson.
Richards was the big winner after some late selection dramas, as a relatively straightforward process turned into a tricky one for New Zealand's Olympic eventing team selectors.
The five-strong team looked to be set in stone, with Nicholson, Todd, Caroline Powell, Jock Paget and Clarke Johnstone – the five 2012 high performance squad members, and the best-performed Kiwis in recent years – expected to get the nod.
But a late injury to Johnstone's mount Orient Express, after his other two Olympic-qualified horses had already gone down injured, opened the door for Richards.
The 31-year-old edged out Lucy Jackson for the fifth spot, and will ride 12-year-old New Zealand-bred bay gelding Flintstar in her first Olympic Games. Jackson is the reserve.
The ex-Motueka High School student headed to Britain in 2003 with the Athens Olympics in mind – she was a non-travelling reserve for that team – but had to wait until last year to make her senior New Zealand debut, at the World Equestrian Festival in Aachen, Germany.
She has been based in Britain since moving there, and lives with her fiance, fellow Kiwi eventer Tim Price, in Marlborough, where they have 20 eventing horses.
"I feel very fortunate to have got the nod," Richards said.
"Flintstar and I are a proven and reliable combination, and I know we add a very strong fifth link to a serious team.
"I have been training with Mark [Todd] since December, the horse is looking a million dollars, and I feel everything has just fallen into place."
Last night, she described her callup as a "dream come true".
"As a child, I used to get up in the middle of the night and watch the Olympics on TV.
"Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I'd be riding on a team with them. If they were normal human beings, they wouldn't still be riding."
The other Olympic debutant is Paget, 28, a former bricklayer who has had a meteoric rise in eventing.
He has had several top 10 finishes in big four-star events during the past two years, which has seen him rocket to No4 in the FEI world rankings.
His Olympic horse, 13-year-old bay New Zealand-bred thoroughbred Clifton Promise, is a proven performer, finishing seventh at the world championships in 2010.
Todd, 56, and Nicholson, 50, will create history by becoming the first New Zealanders to compete in seven Olympic Games, while Powell, 39, will attend her second, having finished 14th at Beijing.
Todd will ride German-born 11-year-old bay gelding Campino, while Nicholson will ride Spanish-bred 12-year-old chestnut gelding Nereo, his most consistent performer in recent times and a bronze medallist at the 2010 world championships.
"The pinnacle for me is an Olympic gold – that is at the top of my list," said world No2 Nicholson, who has won Olympic silver and bronze in the teams event.
Double Olympic champion Todd needs no introduction. He's won four Olympic medals in all, the last of which was individual bronze, when he was 44, at the Sydney Olympics. He's also a four-time Badminton winner, a five-time Burghley winner and the event rider of the 20th century.
Powell will ride 2010 Burghley winner Lenamore, her 19-year-old pocket rocket that should be well suited to Greenwich Park.
New Zealand eventing high performance coach Erik Duvander believes all riders are capable of both individual and team medals.
"All champs are slightly unpredictable, and things have to go your way on the day, but the quality is most definitely there," said Duvander.
He felt a strong mentoring system had been evident within the team since the high performance programme was moved to Britain in 2010.
In the equestrian world, they say horses are heartbreakers, and in 25-year-old Johnstone's case, they've also broken his Olympic dream.
"Absolutely gutted to say that we are out of Olympic contention due to Blue suffering a leg injury," said Johnstone, the 2011 World Cup series champion, who moved to Britain in the middle of last year to focus on his preparation for London.