When para rider Amelia White heard that the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games were postponed, she felt like her life goal, once firmly in her grasp, was slipping through her fingers. When the announcement was made, there were less than 125 days to opening ceremonies and for many it seemed their dreams were finally within reach.
“The goal was so close that you could almost touch it,” says Amelia, who had been shortlisted just a month prior. “And now it’s disappeared off into the distance again. I feel like I just want to sit down and throw my hands up and say, ‘I give up’. It’s one roadblock too many.”
The decision to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Games due to the COVID-19 pandemic came as a shock to the thousands of athletes who had spent a lifetime preparing for the competition. For the first time in history, the Olympic Games were cancelled or postponed for a reason other than war.
It’s particularly difficult for someone like Amelia to have her dreams put on hold - even if only temporarily. She has overcome impossible odds and spent years living on the other side of the world from her husband and family to pursue her dreams. After a devastating car accident ended her career as an eventer, she set her sights on representing Australia in para-dressage. Her determination to compete in the Paralympic Games led her to move to Germany in 2015 to train with Olympian Helen Langehanenberg. In February, she came one step closer to achieving her goal and was shortlisted to ride for the Australian Paralympic team with her 9-year-old KWPN gelding, Genius.
View this post on InstagramIt hurts to smile, but you try to. This has been an incredibly difficult post to write, and if I’m honest, I still don’t feel ready to face it. The news that Tokyo will be postponed is - given the state of the world - unsurprising, but still a shock that I’ve yet to figure out how to deal with. There doesn’t seem to be a single word that can sum up how I’m feeling. I understand the decision, and I don’t disagree with it. But I also feel incredibly alone when I say that I’m not okay with it. Everything for the last 5 years has focussed on reaching Tokyo as an end point. 5 years of living 17,000km away from my family and husband. 5 years of training every day, and struggling to make ends meet. My training program was designed to get us to our peak in August. It’s going to take time to reassess the situation we now find ourselves in. That’s not to say we won’t be aiming for Tokyo next year, but right now I feel completely defeated. I’ve been overwhelmed by messages of support from so many people, and I apologise for not replying to any of you. Today, I sat back on Genius for the first time in a week and we FINALLY got that right canter pirouette. Everything is far from ideal right now, but we won’t give up. We now have an extra 12 months to show the world what we’re made of, and Tokyo is going to be even better in 2021. 💪🏼 🇯🇵 ———————— @beciequicouture @maxwellequestrian @weatherbeetauk @weatherbeetade @ryvlcoaching @myequestrianlifecoaching @hairypony ———————- #horse #horses #dressage #dressagehorse #dressagehorses #horsesofinstagram #horsesofinsta #equinephotography #equine #equestrian #equestrianstyle #equestrianaustralia #ausequestrianteam #WeRideAsOne #RideWithUs #TowardsTokyo2020 #paradressage #paraequestrian #TeamAus #instapic #equestrianlife #horseriding #pferd #dressur #beciequicouture #awdressage #maxwellequestrian #weatherbeetaUK #weatherbeetaDE #teamweatherbeeta
Although she wasn’t surprised by the decision to postpone the Tokyo Games, Amelia is still struggling to come to terms with this new obstacle. She says she feels selfish when she considers the global implications of this pandemic, but at the same time, it’s affecting her in a very personal way. “In the grand scheme of things, a year doesn't mean much. But when you’re at this point and you’ve been preparing for a goal and it’s this close and then you have to wait another year. It seems like an impossible time frame.”
To rise to the top level of sport, especially an equestrian sport, there’s a certain level of risk that the athlete assumes and must live with. Not just physical risk - but emotional risk, too.
“You know it’s a risk that you get injured riding a horse and your career could end that way. The horse that could be the next Valegro may never make it out of the barn because he’s injured his leg in the box. You know that these are certain risks and you go into the sport knowing that this is a risk that you’re willing to accept. And you take those risks when you compete and campaign for an Olympic team position. But Tokyo being postponed, that’s not a risk that, at least until January of this year, I don’t think anyone would have considered that. It throws so many people’s plans out.”
The reality, Amelia tells me, is that you can’t simply continue with business as usual until the next year rolls around. That’s not how horses are trained and primed for an event as monumental as the Olympic Games. Amelia’s training program, which was tailored to have Genius reach peak performance for qualifiers in the coming weeks, has gone out the window.
"Tokyo being postponed, that’s not a risk that, at least until January of this year, I don’t think anyone would have considered that."
Additionally, there’s the complicated factor of qualifications. With competitions cancelled for the foreseeable future, it’s unclear how equestrians will meet their minimum requirements to qualify for Tokyo 2021. Final team selection remains uncertain for many countries. At the moment, there’s no clear target to work towards, so Amelia has dropped her intensive schedule. She is riding less frequently and is focusing on maintaining her horse’s fitness and introducing higher level movements.
Genius has been enjoying this more relaxed schedule, but the lack of routine has been a hard adjustment for Amelia. “I think it's affected me a lot more than it's affected him,” she says. “I’ve been so focused on a goal and had such a rigid training schedule for such a long time. When that all disappears, it’s a nice break for a couple of days, and then you start to miss the structure.”
In the midst of this setback, Amelia is doing her best to see the positives, accept the situation for what it is, and move forward. Amelia and Genius began training together just over a year ago and she sees the postponement of the games as an opportunity to develop their partnership. She says her trainer, Helen, continues to remind her that an extra year can never be a bad thing with a young horse. Reflecting on the progress they’ve made together in the last year, Amelia is confident that an additional year of training will be a benefit. “I absolutely know for sure he will be so much better in a year. We will hopefully have more competitions and a lot more miles under our belts to give us the best possible chance at performing at Tokyo.”
The postponement of the Olympic and Paralympic Games to summer 2021 will likely benefit some equestrians, while others will face challenges and tough decisions. An additional year may be an opportunity for experienced riders to qualify an additional up-and-coming horse for the Tokyo Games. Riders with older horses will have challenging decisions to make. It may be too much to ask horses that were nearing retirement to maintain top level performance for another year. Some horses simply won’t make it to the games due to injury or illness.
For Amelia, her horse’s age won’t hold her back from competing in the Tokyo Games. The largest obstacle for her to overcome are the personal and financial sacrifices she will need to continue to make to pursue her dreams. “Financially, can I keep going at this level for another 12 months? And what does it mean for going home to see my family, can I make that happen?”
As she continues to work towards her goal, Amelia tells me she is drawing on the Olympic experience of her trainer, Helen Langehanenberg. Had the Tokyo Games gone ahead this year, they would likely have been wildly different from previous games. Competing in an empty arena, with no spectators and no atmosphere, wouldn’t have felt the same. While we don’t yet know what the games will look like in 2021, Amelia is optimistic that it will be a more typical Olympic experience.
After hearing how far Amelia has gone to pursue her goals, I asked a question that felt a bit forward, but I had to know. Are all the sacrifices she’s made still worth it? Her answer was clear. Living apart from her family, putting her career as a lawyer on hold, and scraping by financially has been challenging, but worth it to make her dreams a reality. “I absolutely, one hundred percent know that I will never give up pursuing this goal,” Amelia says, “It’s made me even more determined to go through with it and see it through to the end. I think next year it will mean even more to be able to go.”
Written by Alyssa Friesen
Alyssa is an amateur equestrian with a passion for storytelling. A conservation communicator by day, she enjoys riding her thoroughbred Speedy, exploring wild places, and reading good books in her spare time.