How Ireland’s showjumpers returned to the top
A new regime has propelled Ireland from the doldrums in Rio to gold at the European Championships
RODRIGO PESSOA is widely credited with rejuvenating the Irish showjumping team, who clinched European team gold despite being one man down.
But the inspirational Brazilian’s appointment as chef d’equipe in March was just part of Ireland’s first, belated attempt at a cohesive senior high-performance structure. It was created over the winter with notable input from the riders themselves.
Veteran Irish commentator Louise Parkes has followed the team’s Nations Cup performances for decades and described Mr Pessoa, his assistant Michael Blake and high-performance chair Gerry Mullins as an “extraordinary trinity”.
“They are driving things forward with a singular sense of purpose,” added Mrs Parkes.
“A lack of trust has long been an issue in the Irish camp, but that has changed and it seems much calmer now, with riders happier in the knowledge that if they do their job right then they’ll get their chance.”
IRISH morale hit rock bottom in Olympic year. Despite having seven riders in the world top 50, Ireland failed to qualify a team.
National governing body Horse Sport Ireland (HSI) was already under pressure before Rio to restructure from agriculture minister Michael Creed. After the Games, Sport Ireland ladled on more criticism, urging “the
adoption of a performance director model, with clarity of roles and responsibilities”.
Meanwhile, riders grasped the nettle and asked HSI for a meeting, which interim chief executive James Kennedy eagerly arranged in November. One outcome was a new riders’ group, in turn represented to HSI by the popular Michael Blake, an influential figure in Ireland’s youth programme.
CIAN O’CONNOR says riders understand sacrifices in personal goals must be made for team glory, and that riders will save good horses for teams when they have confidence that managers have a true understanding of “high performance”.
“It’s the first time I can remember we’ve had someone in charge [Mr Kennedy] who listened to the riders,” he said. “Before, it was like we were the enemy.”
Mr Blake quickly established rapport with senior riders, too, and as acting chef d’equipe led Ireland to two Nations Cup wins on the Florida winter circuit.
After Mr Pessoa was signed, Mr Blake’s contribution was formalised as team development manager. Mr Blake in turn is assisted by Taylor Vard, further eyes on the ground for Mr Pessoa, who is based abroad.
In its new “can do” spirit, Ireland has mustered enough horse power to service 15 Nations Cups already this year. Mr Vard even took an experiment team with two eight-year-old horses to Gijon last week to finish third, two places ahead of Team GB.
Mr Blake said: “Gothenburg was the night of my life. I am so proud of Rodrigo, he is such a genius, and it’s so easy to work with him. For all that he has done, he has no ego; he’s a real nice guy.”
As for the modest Mr Pessoa, he said: “We’ve had this goal since the beginning of the year. We lose together, we win together; they’ve shown a lot of determination.
“I’ve tried to recreate a little bit what I have done with the Brazilian team, to work in honesty and transparency between us, but to keep it light and not to force anything. I want them to be together. They accepted this very well, and gave me the chance to lead them. It will be easy from now, going on.”
‘It’s the first time someone has listened to the riders. Before, it was like we were
The new high-performance structure in Ireland has been embraced by their riders