by Suzanne Bush
The United States Para-Equestrian team will head to Aachen, Germany on August 15 for two weeks of quarantine prior to moving on to Hong Kong for the Paralympics, which use the same venue as and follow the Olympic games.
Two Pennsylvania equestrians are on that team, and they're currently training with the team's coach, Missy Ransehousen, at her Blue Hill Farm in Unionville, PA. For Rebecca Hart of Erie and Keith Newerla of King of Prussia, these days are full of anticipation, nerves and once-in-a-lifetime excitement.
Hart was a member of the USEF Para Equestrian Team that participated in the 2003 World Championship in Belgium, and the winner of the 2006 USEF Para Equestrian National Championship. Although she has competed internationally before, Hart says this is an event unlike any other. "This one is different because this is the big one."
She says that representing your country overseas adds pressure as well as a degree of personal pride that is hard to describe. "It's a really odd experience," she says. "You work so hard to get there and then suddenly it's 'wow! I made it." Once the team selection was complete, Hart and her colleagues were immersed in the details of actually getting to Hong Kong.
Para-Equestrian competitions, for disabled riders, were first recognized by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) in 1991, and the sport was governed by the International Paralympic Equestrian Committee until January, 2006. At that time, the sport became the eighth discipline governed by the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI). Part of the FEI's mission is to encourage the growth of equestrian sport for able bodied as well as disabled athletes. Para-Equestrian sports joined the Olympics, and debuted at the 1996 games in Atlanta.
The Paralympic Games use the same venues as the Olympics, and begin after the closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games. For the Para-Equestrian team the schedule of travel, training and quarantine prior to the actual competition holds several clues about what it takes to achieve this level of performance. Hart and her fellow team members won't return from Hong Kong until September 19. They'll be out of the country, and away from jobs and school, for a month.
This group of athletes is made up of true amateurs, who train and compete while working or going to school. Hart will be returning as her senior year in college begins. She took a year off to prepare and to get more competition under her belt. "I competed in Florida on the Winter Circuit," she says. "It was a really neat experience, and I gained a lot of good experience."
The experience was better than good, although Hart is too modest to reveal just how good it was. "Our Becca is a star," says Jessica Ransehousen, of Blue Hill Farm in Unionville. "She rode at the CDI *** in West Palm Beach (on the Winter Circuit) and had the highest score in the able-bodied division on Friday."
Ransehousen, herself a legend in international Dressage competition, and a member of the United States Dressage Federation's (USDF) Hall of Fame, praised Hart's competitive spirit and her talent. Ransehousen's daughter Missy is the Dressage coach for the Para-Equestrian team. Hart, Newerla and Barbara Grassmyer of California have moved their horses to Blue Hill Farm to maximize their training experience. Missy Ransehousen began coaching the paralympians for the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia.
Even as Hart and the other paralympians focus on Hong Kong, there are pressing financial issues that need attention. "Everyone has been asked to fund-raise a little," Hart says. Pam Lane, the United States Equestrian Federation's (USEF) International High Performance Director for Para-Equestrian and Vaulting, says that the United States Olympic Committee does provide some funding for the team, but not enough to cover what it actually costs to get this team, the personal caregivers that some riders require, the horses, the coach and the veterinarian to Aachen and then to Hong Kong. They're planning a free-style demonstration for sometime in July, Hart says, but the venue and exact date have not been set.
For now, Hart's days are consumed with riding and fitness. "I ride about two or three hours a day, and we're on a fitness program for Hong Kong. It's going to be such an intense climate change," she explains. She works out with a personal trainer at a local gym as part of her regimen to gain maximum fitness for the Paralympics.
As for the move from Erie to the rolling hills of Chester County, Hart has had few problems adjusting. "I love this area and working at this facility," she says. As she gives her horse Norteassa--whose barn name is Pippin--a hug, she recalls how easily she fell in love with him. "I was pretty comfortable right from the start. But to get a real understanding of him, it took six months to a year." The 16-year-old Warmblood has taken to Blue Hill Farm as enthusiastically as Hart. She won't have anyone from her family cheering for her in Hong Kong, she says. "It's too expensive of a trip, but they'll be rooting for me from home."
When Para-Equestrian sports debuted at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, riders from 16 countries participated. The field has grown significantly since then. In 2004 there were Para-Equestrian teams from 29 countries competing internationally.
The USEF's Lane says that contributions to help with expenses for the Para- Equestrian Team can be sent to the United States Equestrian Team Foundation, earmarked for Para-Equestrian, PO Box 355, Gladstone, NJ 07934. The team includes:
Robin Brueckmann, of Summerfield, North Carolina with Radetzky;
Barbara Grassmyer, of Placerville, California with Mibis;
Hart, of Erie, with Norteassa;
Newerla, of King of Prussia, with Walk on the Moon;
Lynn Seidemann, of Coppell, Texas, with Toltein.