The Things I Saw in Tokyo That Will Inspire Me Forever
I grew up watching the Olympics on TV. Some who know me may not realize that I grew up in a fairly broken home, with a mother who suffered from severe mental illness and, as a result, took out her ongoing pain and frustration on me, her adopted daughter. I don’t speak much of this time now, though I’ve worked for many years to make peace with this upbringing and the scars it produced. But every few years, when the Olympic Games cycle through my newsfeed, I’m hit with memories - both good and bad - of watching these sporting heroes reach unimaginable heights in front of the world.
I’m transported back to the long days spent in my room alone, watching endless hours of figure skating in the winter or track and field and equestrian in the summer. I’d identify any athletes of Asian descent and latch on to them, hungrily following their every move and making note to send a fan letter after the conclusion of the Games. I’d write little “reports” in my diary of the day’s events, offering up my pre-teen analysis on who I thought would or should win the gold medal. Through the Olympics, I found an escape that took me far away from home.
What I never expected, sitting alone in my room all those days, was that I’d one day nab my very first Olympic reporting assignment that would take me to the other side of the world, to witness what I had held so dear, for so long, in the flesh.
Thomas Heffernan Ho and Tayberry
Of course, getting to the Olympics in the midst of a global pandemic is a feat worthy of its own set of medals. I was to be the reporter on assignment for Eventing Nation, where I work as the Managing Editor. The sport of eventing is our bread and butter, and with an all-star team supporting remotely I knew we were in for an epic week of sport and journalism. But the logistics - the logistics! With the heavy amount of organization required just to make these Games happen, it should be no surprise that all media heading to Tokyo would also be subjected to strict regulations and protocol.
Luckily, I had a few media acquaintances also making the trip, so with a gargantuan effort from all to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s, I soon found myself boarded on an eerily empty plane to Tokyo and hardly able to believe I was about to embark on my biggest work assignment yet.
The days spent covering the eventing portion of the Olympic equestrian competition were some I will never forget. It would be nearly impossible to sift through every memorable moment or story uncovered, so to spare you from having to read 10,000 words, the following are some of my best takeaways from my first trip to the Olympics.
If you followed any of my reports on Eventing Nation, you’ll see a common thread woven throughout is that of the fantastic numbers of participation from smaller countries, particularly those in Asia. For the first time, both China and Thailand fielded an eventing team for the Olympics. Japan, the host nation, also sent a full team, and riders from Hong Kong and India - not to mention many other countries that wouldn’t exactly jump off the map as eventing hubs, such as South Africa - all participated in their first Olympic Games. This increase in participation comes on the heels of a format change for Olympic equestrianism - a smaller number of riders on each team makes way for more nations to participate. And while the new format was met with mostly mixed reviews in terms of its effect on competition and the podium, one huge benefit is hard to ignore: more diversity, more representation and, with any hope, more kids who can finally see themselves represented on the world stage.
Weerapat Pitakanonda with Carnival March Jog
Sometimes, all you need is a little heart.
It wasn’t the winning weekend of dreams for every rider competing in Tokyo, but some of the best stories came from off the podium. For example, Hong Kong rider Thomas Heffernan Ho completed his first Olympics on a 20-year-old horse named Tayberry. Despite his small, pony-like stature and relative inexperience at the Championship level, this pair left no questions unanswered and finished their weekend solidly. Tayberry wouldn’t necessarily turn your head in warm-up or cause the dressage judges to perk up in their seats - but the beautiful thing about equestrian sport is that so much success is built on partnership, not fanciness. Thomas and Tayberry proved this in spades.
Social media can be a brutal place.
The week was marred by the very dark mark of losing Swiss rider Robin Godel’s horse, Jet Set, after the 14-year-old gelding irreparably tore a ligament in his right front leg after a cross country jump. As horsepeople, the only thing we want is for our horses to come back to the barn safe and sound after competition. 22-year-old Robin did not get to experience this - and what added more pain to his darkest day was the abuse he endured on social media in the aftermath of Jet Set’s euthanization. It’s a timely reminder that the words we write on the internet affect real people. Please think before you comment.
When life hands you an opportunity, put the phone down and soak in the moment.
It’s second-nature for most of us to grab our phones to document a memorable moment. I experienced this urge many times while watching Germany’s Julia Krajewski win the first-ever individual gold medal earned by a woman in Olympic eventing history. But as I looked around the beautiful Baji Koen Equestrian Park main stadium, desperately devoid of any spectators save a few grooms and coaches gathered for the prizegiving, I recognized the opportunity to soak in the moment with gratitude.
Weerapat Pitakanonda and Carnival March
After all, we all - in our own, individual ways - had made it to the Olympics. It may not have looked how we initially thought - some of us may have thought we’d eventually be riding in the Olympics, others may have been all systems go before an untimely injury saw them sidelined - but it is so easy to forget that this moment, right here, is all a former version of yourself would have dreamed of.
Thomas Heffernan Ho and Tayberry
I found myself revisiting my lonely, 12-year-old self, sitting in her room and glued to a tiny, 14-inch TV screen. Behind me, a corkboard sighed under the weight of the magazine and newspaper clippings and sketches I’d collected over the years. If I could, I’d tell that version of myself to hang in there, to keep writing, to keep following the sport I knew I loved despite never riding a day in my life at that point.
Because it’s funny how life can shake out sometimes. And isn’t that one of the most beautiful things about the Olympics themselves - the representation of so many hopes and dreams? So, despite the gold medals and incredible scores on the record, the best learned lesson from my trip to Tokyo is this: every challenge is surmountable, and every dream is worth holding on to.
Happy dreaming. Now, over to you, Paris! See you in 2024.
Photos by Sally Spickard