Riding for Sri Lanka, Mathilda Karlsson Is Breaking Down Barriers on Her Way to Achieving the Olympic Dream

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ake a look at the starting orders of international equestrian events from around the world. Honing in, no matter the discipline, there’s a long list of riders from equestrian-dominant countries such as Germany, USA, France, and the Netherlands — the ‘usual suspects’ so to speak. But have you ever heard of a show jumper from Sri Lanka? You have now. Meet Mathilda Karlsson.

Mathilda was born in Sri Lanka and adopted by a Swedish family at three months old. Recently, she was inspired to switch her nationality back to Sri Lanka and ride under the flag of her home country. She’s on a mission to be the first Sri Lankan show jumper to compete at the Olympic Games.

A consistent rider on the Longines Global Champions Tour and current member of the Global Champions League (GCL) team, the Hamburg Giants, Mathilda is jumping at the opportunity to make a name for herself in the sport and make her home country proud.

When I spoke with Mathilda, I was hesitant to ask about the fact that she was adopted because I didn’t know if that was getting too personal. However, she answered my questions with open frankness and sincerity as she took a break from riding one of her 14 horses based at the Mediterranean Equestrian Tour (MET) in Oliva, Spain for the spring circuit.

“I don’t think being adopted affected me at all actually. My parents were like every other parent because they loved me just as much if I was blonde. … I felt like every other kid. I felt normal,” Mathilda says.

Mathilda may have stood out from her classmates and friends, but her parents never made her feel like she was different from the rest of the Swedish population. “In Sweden, there weren’t many dark-colored people 35 years ago. I always liked the attention though. I never had any bad experiences so I didn’t mind it at all — I still don’t.

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“I had a super childhood, super parents, super brothers and sisters. I never thought of me being adopted or different.”

Turning a Passion into a Career

Unlike the United States where local little leagues and sporting organizations are dominated by popular pastimes such as soccer, basketball, and baseball, the sport of choice for young children in Sweden is horseback riding. Riding schools are filled with antsy little girls, enjoying their time spent with small, furry ponies.

“Every little girl goes to [these riding schools]. But it’s like a social thing because all your friends go, so you go because you want to be with your friends,” Mathilda explains. “But once I got older, everyone kind of dropped off, and I stayed because I just really fell in love with the horses.”

Not every young person’s passion develops into a professional career, especially as other interests and jobs come knocking. But Mathilda’s love for horses never wavered, and although growing up she didn’t exactly plan to become a professional show jumper, that path naturally presented itself.

“I was never ever thinking of being an international show jumper,” she admits. “I never wanted to compete myself. I just loved grooming and hanging around. Then, obviously, things changed and now I can’t even imagine not showing.”

"Tomorrow is a new day, and a new class."

Supported by a strong contingent of horses and team backing the 34-year-old, Mathilda has a few secret weapons in her back pocket — her GCL teammates and former Swedish Chef d’Equipe, Sylve Söderstrand. Mathilda knows how to use her resources to her advantage when it comes to improving her riding and knowledge of the sport despite beginning her show jumping career later than most. Now in her third year in the GCL league, Mathilda is using those veteran pointers to be a reliable contributor on the Hamburg Giants.

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“I was on the team with Rolf-Göran Bengtsson (last year on Cascais Charms) — he’s someone I look up to a lot. We would walk the course together, and he had so many good tips and advice that I would never have thought of. I learned a lot just by watching [him and John Whitaker] and being around them,” Mathilda says.

“What was really important was that they were very competitive people, but they showed me that every week is a new week and even if you have a bad round, no one is going to think about it except for yourself. I was oftentimes worried about what other people would think, but they taught me how important it is to just let it go. Tomorrow is a new day, and a new class.”

Making the Switch

Raised in Sweden from such a young age, Mathilda says she felt no connection to her birth country until a recent trip that altered her mindset. She is now hoping to bring more attention to the place she now proudly represents.

“I never really felt connected to Sri Lanka, to be honest, because as I said, I have wonderful parents and had a super childhood [in Sweden],” Mathilda explains. “But I actually went back for the first time last year in January and I was amazed by the country. Like, seriously, it is so beautiful. The people I met were so friendly, nice, and super supportive, so I decided this is something I really want to do.”

Supported by the Sri Lanka Equestrian Association, Mathilda made the switch to represent her birth country last year. She debuted under the “Lion Flag” at the Longines Global Champions Tour of Monaco — one of her proudest moments. Now, with fewer than 15 months to go until the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, Mathilda faces the biggest hurdle in her career to date — qualification.

"... never underestimate a rider’s dream."

This can be complicated, so bear with me. There are 200 slots allocated to equestrian between the three disciplines of show jumping, dressage, and eventing for the 2020 Olympic Games. Of those 200, 15 are reserved for individual show jumpers not qualified on a team. These individuals are chosen by FEI Olympic Ranking. From the South East Asia and Oceania region, which includes Sri Lanka, there are only two individual spots up for grabs.

“It will be difficult to qualify, but it’s possible and I think she can do it,” explains Mathilda’s coach, Sylve. “Hard work and a positive environment are important when trying to achieve things. You must be surrounded by people who are positive and supportive and Mathilda is in an environment where she has a strong support. What I’ve learned from my experience as a trainer is to never underestimate a rider’s dream.”

Mathilda will make history for Sri Lanka by competing in the Olympics. Could she be the inspiration behind the establishment of a fully developed team? Realistically, she says, it’s not in the cards for Tokyo, but maybe one day we’ll see Mathilda head up Team Sri Lanka. Right now she’s the only rider from her home country competing on a higher level, but she’s nonetheless received tons of support.

“It is crazy, so many people are contacting me on social media after they heard I made the switch. Even if they’re not into horses, they’re just really proud — it’s really nice. They’re so proud of me, but I haven’t done anything yet!”

Mathilda knows she has a major challenge ahead of her, but she’s all in. “It’s going to be a big task and a lot of pressure, but I am going to do my very best.”

Read this next: I Changed my Nationality, and I'm Not Looking Back.

All photos by Leslie Threlkeld for NoelleFloyd.com.