Back in time: my visit to the London Paralympics and the horizons it broadened

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The dressage arena at Greenwich Park

It may be important to try not to dwell on the summer plans which "should" be happening this year, but it remains nothing but strange that there should be an entire Olympic Games, followed by an entire Paralympic Games, unfolding before our eyes right now. Instead of excitement and achievement many years in the making, being able to access sporting facilities after months of hiatus is superlatively exciting; being back at RDA certainly was for me. 

I'm seeing lots of "Olympic throwbacks" on social media platforms, and although we aren't quite level with what should have been the on-schedule version of the Tokyo Paralympics, I felt moved to write about my own experience of London 2012: a defining, sun-drenched September day in the first year of my RDA journey.

One of the Para Equestrian flags at the entrance to Greenwich Park

I spent a lot of my first year with my RDA group having my eyes opened, whether it was in regular lessons, at Nationals, in conversations with parents or more experienced volunteers, or by experiences like this one. I was very lucky, really, that I came to RDA for the first time eleven months before the Paras came to town: there was such momentum for the world of disability sport simmering away in the background as I worked things out and got swiftly drawn into my new world. I hadn't been lucky in any of the Olympic ticket ballots I'd entered, and was away for the first two weeks of August anyway, so when the opportunity to get a ticket to the final day of Paralympic dressage presented itself through my group, there was no way I could've turned it down. 

It was a big team undertaking: three coaches full of volunteers, participants and their families left our yard in Oxfordshire on a clear September morning, one of which ended up in a field due to a navigational error, and one, possibly the same one, broke down on the drive home. (I was largely unaware of this, and the subsequent delay to our entire hired fleet, because I had performed a highly efficient "stop, drop and nap" on the back seat of my coach, and slept through most of the excitement.)  It's testament to what an otherwise perfect day we had that both of these incidents have always been referenced with humour, rather than the visible angst and anger which are wont to be attached to most tales of coach travel incidents (I'm looking at you, 2009 study trip to Normandy). 

I know I wasn't alone in feeling that more was made of the Paras in the media in 2012 than any previous games. I think my heightened interest in the games and in disability sport as a whole came as part of my new interest and emotional investment in RDA, but I had never found it so easy to access information on how the different sports worked, or the athletes who competed in them. Paralympians are much more visible post-2012 in places like equestrian magazines, or even in mainstream press. I knew people who went to the Paras who had no previous experience of any sort of disability sport, and 3.8 billion people worldwide watched the television coverage. Having visited RDA Nationals for the first time two months previously, I had been primed (relatively) in terms of standards and competitiveness. One of the first things I always say about why I enjoy Nationals so much is the fact that it's a proper competition, and disabled athletes don't just get a pat on the head and a trophy for showing up. Watching the games in London was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but appreciating disabled athletes' skill and talent as one would their non-disabled peers is something that lasts. Taking my seat in the stands, facing down to the judges at C and the city skyline behind them, was the first time I properly felt that, and felt that everyone else was there to watch and appreciate the same thing.

This phenomenon was one of the forces behind the huge atmosphere in that arena. I've been a spectator at a fair few international events before, but the buzz of the Paras was something I've never felt before or since, even if I went with only an elementary understanding of what I was about to watch. The setting was so visually striking it didn't quite feel real, right down to the picturesquely clear late-summer sky, and in the breaks between classes Mexican waves went up and down the three sides of the stands (I've tried to replicate this in the marquee at Nationals, but it never caught on in the same way). It is a deeply moving experience to feel the excitement of thousands of other people with your own as you watch achievements unfolding on one of the world's biggest stages. The atmosphere that day fanned the flame of interest in RDA I had already kindled: there was a lot to be excited about.

Deb Criddle in her silver-winning grade 3 (current grade 4) freestyle

If I were to choose one stand-out memory of the day (the final dressage day, which included the freestyles for all grades), it would be watching Sophie Christiansen in her winning freestyle test. (I've linked to the video on Sophie's YouTube channel as I have no photos of my own; I was much too engrossed in the action to take many decent pictures that day.) Eight years on, I've got to know Sophie's then-coach, Clive Milkins, who in an interview for this blog earlier this year described my spectator's highlight as his "perfect coaching moment". I loved the test's original floor plan and quirky soundtrack; I've only just started organising freestyles for my own riders, but these two qualities continue to be what I most enjoy watching and creating. I was also particularly compelled by the "limitations" of the grade 1 test (then grade 1a): walk, with the option for a tiny bit of trot. 

The coaches I worked with in the earliest stages of my RDA career did a good job of teaching me to understand the physical effort which goes into riding for many disabled athletes, and to appreciate that a walk or walk-and-trot dressage test would require effort above and beyond what a non-disabled rider needs for a prelim test or above. Even though I was well primed for appreciating the lower grades, I don't think I'd ever seen walk ridden quite like I did in that freestyle. Being part of a home crowd also made the experience of watching the test, and all of the other British riders we watched that day, unconditionally inclusive. I remember the parent of a younger rider commenting that her son rarely sat through any event or performance quietly, but that day was completely transfixed by the horses and riders. It felt like a scaled up version of the crowds at Hartpury during Nationals weekend: everyone wants to see a decent competition with standards higher than the previous one, but simultaneously wants to celebrate the achievements of the athletes entering at A. 

The other defining memory I have of my experience of London 2012 was an overwhelming sense that in that moment, anything was possible. Sophie Christiansen and fellow Paralympian Natasha Baker both grew up with South Bucks RDA, attending the same regional RDA competitions as my own group's riders not all that long ago. I observed some of our competitive young riders dreaming and wondering as they watched. I did my own wondering too: what were these riders' and coaches' stories? What could I learn from them? And how far, in my own, smaller-scale capacity, could I help my own riders go?

I've never forgotten that "anything is possible" feeling, but experience in the years that have passed since 2012 has kept my feet on the ground and my head in the right place. I'm OK with the idea that I am very, very unlikely to be a Paralympic coach; even if a potential Paralympian ended up in one of my classes, there would come a point where the skill, time, and horsepower I was able to provide them would fall short of what was needed for their goals. It also remains that not every disabled athlete will have Paralympic potential, and even those who do won't necessarily end up riding for their country. I do think that the media still needs to improve the way it celebrates grass-roots para and RDA achievements: we don't see headlines about the winners of the local under-11s football league aiming for the World Cup, so why do at least three quarters of news stories I read about para riders claim that they are "aiming for Paralympic gold"? I am desperate to experience live Paralympic dressage again at another games and am hoping to make it work for Paris; now I have read, seen, and done more than I had in 2012, there is so much more I would go looking for. 

I choose to use my memories of London 2012 as a reminder that RDA is an empowering organisation, and as a coach I am directly involved in empowering others to find their own "best". If a promising young rider gets as far as first place at Nationals and placings at a couple of para competitions, that is still a big deal. If another rider takes ten years to win themselves a qualifying place at Regionals, that's a big deal too. For others, riding for a full hour or riding at our annual Fun Day is the biggest deal going. This isn't just an RDA thing, or even just a disability sport thing: any kind of activity which involves learning a skill should have the capability to empower those who do it at a level which works for them. Effort and achievement are never not worth celebrating (and there are stages of all sizes for the purpose), and we should never underestimate what anyone can learn from a para-equestrian at the top of their game.