For pressure that by his own admission was almost too much to bear, Andres Rodriguez performed admirably in the Individual Final of the 2015 Pan American Games on July 26th in Toronto, Canada. The 30-year-old Venezuelan rider jumped off with American McLain Ward for Individual Gold, and while a dropped rail turned his medal to Silver, it still meant history for Venezuela, which had never stood on the podium in Pan American show jumping before.
Neither has Venezuela ever qualified a team for the Olympic Games, and while the Pan Ams team missed out on that goal this summer in Toronto, Rodriguez’s placing meant qualification for a Venezuelan individual next year in Rio de Janero, Brazil. In that way, the Pan Ams were a professional high point for Rodriguez, as well as a personal one. Read on to find out why it meant so much to him when Rodrigo Pessoa met him in the warm up ring before the biggest jumpoff his career, how he found his Pan Ams partner Darlon Van Groenhove, and who supports him most on the days he wins and loses:
Q: What was your overall state of mind going into the Pan American Games?
A: For me, I could hope that I could prepare for the Games. Because this was really the horse show where I felt the most pressure of my career, not because of prize money, but because of two things. First of all, I have a good group of horses now, and I have a good group of supporters. So this was the time to qualify for the Olympics. And this was the only chance to qualify.
Also, I’d been in championships before, but really I didn’t consider myself to be a contender at the time. It’s different when you believe you can get something out of it, than when you’re just going for experience. It is the time to get it done, otherwise it is another four years, and it really was a lot of pressure, almost to the point of too much, and to end up delivering a result like that, that has never happened in my country, it’s pretty amazing.
Q: Talk about that pressure you felt, especially going into the Individual Final:
A: The Final is a very very hard class, because the championship all comes down to a two round grand prix with jumpoff. So if you go and have one bad round, you can’t recover from that. In a championship, when everything accumulates round by round you might catch up with the pack at the end, but [at the Pan Ams] if you had one bad round you might not even make it to the second round.
The day that I was feeling the best was on Sunday, I worked my horse in the morning and he felt great, I was thinking something good could happen.
Q: Can you take us through that jumpoff, when it was just you and McLain in the jumpoff for the gold medal?
A: I know what McLain is capable of and I had to make a plan and come up with what I thought was best. With my trainer Eddie Macken and also Rodrigo, we said he’s very likely to get my time, so I have to go as fast as I can and leave him in a position where it can go either way.
When I left the ring I was a bit upset because of the rail I had down, but we planned that if I had a fence down, the time had to be good because then he would have to really try. When McLain was coming to the last three fences, I knew he couldn’t catch the time, so if a rail came down, I was going to win, and on the last fence he had a big rub and I had my hands on my head. . . but it was amazing. It was a little bit of a different feeling than if we were jumping off with five people. I really did enjoy everything leading up to the jumpoff because I knew I had a medal and I had the qualification already.
Q: So you qualified for the Olympics as an individual, but your country didn’t qualify a team (Venezuela finished 7th in team competition.) How will Venezuela move forward?
A: We didn’t perform at our best that day, and I hope that we can get the team more organized, and work hard in the next four years, and not take it as a failure, we try to turn it around and make it better, and improve and get better horses and come back in four years and try and qualify a team. We have talented riders and if we do everything right, we could try and get the qualification through the WEG. I think we should aim to get in the top ten in the next WEG, and if we don’t get there, but we make a big effort, we’re going to land better than where we are now.
We’ve always been a nation without so many riders, so we need to find the way to get the fourth and fifth rider on better horses, so we don’t get ourselves caught in this same situation.
Q: Much was made about the significance of your silver medal, not just for your country
but for the immediate effects it will have on your career (one of the rewards of a podium finish at an international championship is pre-qualification for the grand prix at any show for the next four years.) Can you talk about that?
A: Yes, it’s the fact of knowing that you are going to go to the show and you are going to jump the grand prix, I believe it’s going to help me. I really always had to work very hard to qualify for the grand prix. But the group of horses I have now, it suits them [to be pre-qualified], and personally, the biggest thing to me is it’s very gratifying to know not only that you did it, but that you’re capable of it. In my head all the time, I’m thinking ‘am I good enough, can I do it, can I do it?’ To know that you are good enough to go there and be competitive at that level is amazing.
Q: And what of your horse, Darlon Van Groenhove (Quibelle Van Groenhove x Heartbreaker)? Where did you find him?
A: We bought Darlon two years ago through Steve Guerdat. I was visiting my girlfriend at a show in Switzerland, and Steve said he thought he had a horse that would suit me. So we got in the car, drove two and a half hours to go to the horse, and I rode the horse in jeans over a few jumps. I quite liked the horse but we didn’t expect him to be this good. When we got him, he just turned out to be better and better. Last year in the Nations Cup in Arezzo he was double clear, and from that we started to think that this might be something. This year in Kentucky he was very good, he won a grand prix, and then he got to Calgary and won one of the biggest classes in the first week, the Queen’s Cup Grand Prix.
This horse was sending all the right signals that he was ready [for a championship], so we gave him a chance at the Pan Ams, and now I think it will either be him, or a new mare that we just bought who will probably be going to the Olympics.
Q: How did Nelson and Rodrigo Pessoa influence your career?
A: In Venezuela, being a professional show jumper is not a common career. Growing up in Venezuela, when I said I wanted to do show jumping, everyone asked how I could make a living at it. And all throughout school, when I was trying to figure out a way to do it, the biggest name in show jumping was Rodrigo Pessoa, especially in South America. We all rode in Pessoa saddles and he was just the biggest thing.
When I told my parents that this was what I wanted to do, they didn’t quite agree. My mother supported me more, but my dad really wanted me to work with him in his business, an industrial painting company. But when he gave me his support, he said, if you’re really going to do this, you’re going to do it with the best people. And the best is Rodrigo Pessoa. So with the help of Leopaldo Palacios and Doda Miranda, I got connected to Rodrigo and Neco, and in 2002, right after high school, I started training with them.
At the time, the best horses in the world were at that barn; Baloubet was there, Bianca was there, so it was going from national level in Venezuela to the top. It made me realize that I was very, very far away from that level. But I learned so much, especially with Neco around the barn because Rodrigo was very busy showing every weekend. I was able to go to some shows where there were junior classes, and I was able to walk the courses with Rodrigo and learn from him.
For the jumpoff for the Final at the Pan American Games, Rodrigo walked over to the schooling area and helped me at the practice fence. I thought it was a really nice gesture for him to do that. It was pretty cool to have started my career with them, and then to have Rodrigo there to help me at the championship where I won my first medal.
Q: What about the current team that you have around you?
A: My team is amazing. My trainer Eddie Macken has made a big difference in my career. When I started training with him three years ago I was in the 300s in the world, now this month we’re probably going to be in the top 50. He’s helped me in every single part of what it takes to be a top-level show jumper.
The person who organizes pretty much everything is Carmen Barrera, she makes sure that when we get to a show everybody has a car, a hotel, a place to eat and you can just focus on competing. Then Danielle Burns and Penelope Pommier are the two main people in the barn. My blacksmith is an Irish guy named Paul Tracy who has particularly done an amazing job on Darlon. He stands on his toes and Paul has managed to make his hooves grow in a really nice way. At the beginning of the year I was really stressed and I was trying to give him directions in how to shoe a horse which I have no idea about, and Paul looked at me and said ‘why don’t you focus on riding and let me worry about shoeing.’ He was right because I really don’t know about shoeing! My vet Jorge Gomez has been amazing too; it all came to a point where everybody knows each other, and knows who to go to. And after Paul said that I let everybody do their job and things run much better!
“In this sport, you end up losing more than you end up winning, so there are a lot of frustrating days. And Clementine is amazing in that every single day she’s there to support me.”
Q: And in your personal life, you’re also planning a wedding at the end of the year! How does your fiancé Clementine Goutal support you?
A: Clementine and I both enjoy the sport. In this sport, you end up losing more than you end up winning, so there are a lot of frustrating days. And Clementine is amazing in that every single day she’s there to support me. When we have a good day we try to celebrate it as much as we can.
She rides also, and does a really good job, she wins a lot of amateur classes and we really just enjoy the sport together, even when I drive her crazy showing her horse videos!