On the 10th of August 2014, Lorette Knowles-Taylor and I embarked on the most incredible journey I have ever experienced. After two nights in a pre-departure camp near OR Tambo where we met the rest of Team SA, all 54 athletes (representing 14 different sporting codes), 19 code managers, 2 physiotherapists, 3 doctors, our young ambassador and our Chef Demission were en route to Nanjing, China for the 2nd Summer Youth Olympic Games.
After a 14 hour flight from Johannesburg to Hong Kong, and then another 2 and a half hour flight to Nanjing, a very tired, but excited Team SA had arrived. From the moment we hopped off of the airplane, hundreds of enthusiastic volunteers (also known as ‘the minions’) were very eager to ensure we knew our way around. Lor and I were supposed to make a technical meeting at the equestrian venue on the day of our arrival, but, due to our flight from Hong Kong to Nanjing being delayed for 1 and a half hours, unfortunately we were unable to make it. Nonetheless, we were determined to see the equestrian venue before making our way to the Youth Olympic Village.
After seeing the beautiful venue where I would be competing, I couldn’t wait to meet the horses and the rest of the competitors the next day. Lor and I headed to the Olympic Village to meet up with the rest of Team SA as well as the over 4000 athletes and coaches who were also in the village for the next 3 weeks. I don’t think Lorette and I have ever been so excited to sleep before! Each country had their own building with many apartments inside. In my apartment, there were 3 rooms, with two rooms having 2 beds, and the other (which was my room) having 3 beds. I shared with a golfer and a cyclist and Lor shared with the very old, but very sweet shooting coach.
The next day, the equestrian competitors were off to a very early start with both the vet check and the draw of the horses happening. Due to us not being familiar with the bus schedules and the Nanjing early morning traffic, we made sure we caught an extra early bus so that we were not late (and so that we could grab a free cappuccino from McCafe on our way out of the village!). Our very clever plan helped us well in advanced because after a very long drive of being stuck in traffic and experiencing the horrendous Chinese drivers, we just managed to arrive on time! We met up with the 29 other riders and coaches and then we all watched the vet check. Seeing as though most of us had never seen or heard of the horses before, Lor and I decided to write down notes about what we thought about the horses. After the vet check, we all met for a meeting where we did the horse draw. My name was the first to be picked out of the box and I drew a horse called Dominand. He was a chestnut Belgian Warmblood. A very excited Lor and I were extremely curious to see what we had written about him from the vet check. To our surprise, we soon found out that the notes we had written about Dominand were ‘big, fat, and, squiggly behind.’ Nonetheless, I very eagerly ran to his stable to meet him where I immediately fell inlove with his extremely loving nature.
The following day was our first training session. There were 2 warm up arenas and the main competition arena. We were allowed 15 minutes in each and a total of 6 jumps only. We trained in continents, which also made up the teams for the intercontinental competition. Dominand was a little stiff, as well as ‘squiggly behind’, but I was determined to do the best that I could on him. Lor and I were told by the trainer, Lars, who was from Germany that we should keep Dominand’s work to a minimum as he wasn’t as fit as the other horses.
It was after this training that I had ‘misplaced’ my phone and everything that took place the next two days seems to have been a bit of a blur… However, I did manage to steal Lor’s phone and take plenty of pictures off of hers – very paranoid that I would lose hers too!
On Saturday the 16th of August 2014, 105 countries, as well as extra spectators gathered at the Olympic Sports Centre for the Opening Ceremony of the Youth Olympic Games. I was completely mind-blown for about 2 hours. The 22 000 minions that were involved in the whole ceremony (and the games) danced in the pouring rain for about 45 minutes, whilst they were announcing all of the participating countries, without losing their incredible enthusiasm and their excitement that they had for the games that were being held in their country.
The Sunday after the Opening Ceremony, we were able to have another training session on our horses before the warm up competition took place on the Monday. The training sessions had not gone according to plan because Dominand was very numb in the mouth and I basically had no control around a course. It was at this point where I became very frustrated with myself as I wasn’t able to figure him out easily. Although he was a very big horse, he didn’t have much of a stride and I knew that if I didn’t see a perfect distance into the first jump of a related distance, I wouldn’t be able to make the correct striding in between. However, after saying this, the other half of the time he would end up running through the distance after he would grab the bit and decide to be a racehorse. Now this was the part that frightened me a bit!
On the Tuesday, we had our first competition day, which was the first round of the intercontinental competition. Before every competition, I would arrive extra early so that I was able to warm Dominand’s back up with a hot towel under the vet’s guidance. He told us that Dominand had been quite sore before the competition and a warm towel would relieve the pain slightly. Team Africa, which consisted of South Africa, Morocco, Egypt, Senegal and Zimbabwe, were competing against Europe, South America, North America, Asia and Australasia. After the first round, which was jumped over 1.20m, Europe was well in the lead with sitting on 0 penalties. The following day, we jumped the same course just slightly bigger than the day before which saw Europe taking the Gold, North America taking the silver, South America taking the bronze and Africa, just missing out on a podium finish, finishing fourth overall.
After the intercontinental competition, we had two days off before the individual competition. On the Thursday, Lor and I headed off to the venue to walk Dominand in hand rather than ride him as we decided that it was the best thing to do due to his back being very sore. We were then left to have the rest of the day off to ourselves so Lor and I, and a few of the other competitors decided to hop off of the bus at the Olympic Sports Centre and walk across the road to the Pizza Hut. I have never been so relieved to eat ‘normal’ food, and it was just so great to experience something different to what was served in the village. After arriving at the Pizza Hut, we were told that there was a 40 minute waiting queue, but shortly after the waiter had left walked away, she came running back telling us that she had a table for 12 all of a sudden. This was when we had all figured out that we were celebrities in these peoples’ beautiful city, and no matter where we went, as long as we had our accreditation on, we were offered very special treatment! Once we were back in the village, I would always meet up with the other competitors, especially Emily Fraser from New Zealand, whom I knew before YOG. There was plenty to do in the village and we had to participate in the cultural activities that were set up around the village and get them signed off on our YOGGER to earn points. The YOGGER was a little USB device that we carried around with us all of the time. Before arriving at the games, we all had to go online and set up a profile for our YOGGER and once we arrived in the village, they were registered. The YOGGER was an unbelievably clever idea because every time you met a new person, you would touch your YOGGER with theirs and after a green light would glow, they would have your information and you would have theirs.
For those of you who don’t know, on the 20th of August, my dad, whilst having lunch, saved a lady who fell into a river. Shortly after he had sat down for lunch with my mom and Emily’s parents, he had seen someone fall over the bridge about 60 meters away from him. He immediately jumped up and ran across a very busy road, whilst my mom was screaming how mad he was and that he must come back immediately! My dad, being a male, obviously didn’t listen to her and continued to run to the river leaving a trail of his socks, shoes and belt behind him. Once he had rescued the girl and put her in the recovery position, he saw that she was going to be okay. He then left quickly without making a scene. The next morning, there were pictures all of the newspapers of my dad saving this lady and the police were looking for him to commend him with a Good Samaritan award. He had to attend a press conference at his hotel were about 30 different reporters interviewed my dad, mom and myself. They were very interested in me as I was competing in the games, and especially because they weren’t too aware of what equestrian actually is. My dad was seen as the local hero!
The next day, being Friday, we were once again off to a very early start for the second vet check, which took place before the individual competition. This time, the competitors had to do the trot up with their horses. Once again we had to make sure that Dominand was warm enough before the vetting as if he had failed that vet check, there was no way for me to pull a reserve horse. Luckily, everything went well and all of the horses were fit enough to compete the following day. Shortly after the vet check, we had the draw for the individual competition where I drew number 11. This was an awesome number for me because I had been number 2 and 1 to go in the team competition! We all headed back to the village again and off to bed early.
After a good nights rest, we were ready to tackle what the day had in stall for us. Dominand was feeling the best he had felt all week and I was really confident going into the first round of the individual competition. Unfortunately I had four poles down, putting me on 16 penalties, which were carried through to the second round of the competition. After I finished my round, I had to get off of my horse and walk to the press area where I was interviewed. The questions would usually start off with one or two of them being about myself and how I felt about my round, and the other 10 would be about my dad! I would have reporters following me around so that they could get a photo of my dad and I together.
On the day of the finals, I was rooting for my very good friends, Emily, from New Zealand and Jake Hunter from Australia who were both sitting on 0 penalties going into the final round. I had 8 penalties on the Sunday, which was a personal best for Dominand and I. Besides the fact that there were only 8 jumps as opposed to 12 on the previous day, Dominand and I managed to end the competition off on good terms. Thank goodness there weren’t more jumps! I was extremely ecstatic when Emily jumped a fast clear round in a four-way jump off to give her the well-deserved gold medal. Jake had an unfortunate four penalties in the jump off to take home the bronze medal.
Going into the final round of the individual competition, I couldn’t stop thinking about how blessed I was to have experienced the most incredible few weeks. Although I didn’t have the most talented horse, he taught me many things that a ‘jump on and go horse’ wouldn’t have. He taught me that winning isn’t everything, and that being chosen to represent my country at the Youth Olympic Games is an achievement that no one could ever take away from me.
Once the adrenalin had died down a day later, we had time to go and complete our cultural activities in the village as well as the ones that were planned for us outside of the village. We were also able to watch the Team SA hockey boys play in the semi-finals against Australia and explore Nanjing.
On the 28th of August 2014, the so-seemed fantasy world that I was living in had come to an end. Once again, 105 countries, as well as extra spectators gathered at the Olympic Sports Centre for the Closing Ceremony of the Youth Olympic Games. After being able to swop clothing with athletes from many different countries and after quickly grabbing our last Frappuccino from McCafe, Lor and I headed back to South Africa.
I cannot even begin to thank everyone who has supported me and helped me to achieve my biggest dream and goal in my life. You all have shown me that anything really is possible. To my parents, my sister, Lorette and Barry Taylor, my sponsors – Nissan SA, Jin Stirrup and Greg Wharram for always believing in me and supporting me in what I love doing. A further thanks to Yvonne Bolton and Karen Keller who have both stood by me since I was 8 years old.
When I was younger, I always remember people asking me what moment in my life I would want to go back and relive. Well, if someone had to ask me that now, I would say that I would like to go back to the 16th to the 28th of August 2014 and relive all of those moments and memories that I experienced over and over again.