September 2016 - Letting It Rip In Rio
Written by Lauren Billys
Thursday, 01 September 2016 05:30
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Trusting our training, cheesy smiles, cherished accomplishments and let’s do it all over again!

by Lauren Billys

Sitting at home and watching the Olympics on my television, it’s hard to believe a week ago that I was there in that very place vying for my own Olympic moment. To even begin to unpack the meaning of what just took place is a struggle.

After five years of planning for those moments, sacrificing in every part of life, and working to facilitate that opportunity, I know I wouldn’t have it any other way than the exact way it worked out.

For the four weeks before I left for Rio de Janiero, I traveled to the East Coast in order to cut down the travel for my horse, Castle Larchfield Purdy. While on the East Coast, we trained at some of the most historical facilities in the United States. In the midst of being present in these places, it was a good time in a quiet place to remember who I am, why I ride, and what my goal was during the Games: “To ride my personal best every day.” To be honest, in the last week before we were to leave, I was itching to get on the plane and pull the trigger on this goal.

So as we finally boarded the flight, I could have questioned whether or not I was truly ready for what was to come. Instead I focused on trusting my preparation and diving into an environment in which none of us truly knew what to expect.

The Olympic Village was nothing short of inspirational. It was beautiful and each building held the best athletes the world had to offer. Sitting at the dining hall and looking at the number of people eating just pasta and chicken was insane. This was accompanied by the fact that I realized in that moment that Olympic athletes come in all shapes and sizes and it wasn’t that farfetched to be a 5’ 4” tiny Puerto Rican horseback rider sitting amongst them. Now I got to be one of these people.

Going to the venue was also surprising because, as we drove around the surrounding areas, it became obvious that the Olympic Equestrian Center at Deodoro was a complete anomaly. We were in a bustling suburb of Rio de Janiero with stray dogs and graffiti, but the moment we entered the Center gate we were at a facility with grazing areas, multiple arenas and a green grass cross-country course. None of it made sense to me at first because it was completely out of the ordinary, but as each day of preparation went by, Purdy and I became more acquainted with our surroundings and it felt not that farfetched that we could be competing in these Games.

It was more than just the neighborhood that we had to get used to. Even in the arena during practice and in the bus on the way to the venue, I learned to keep my head down because it was amazingly easy to get distracted. Doing ring familiarization with Michael Jung, jump schooling next to Mark Todd and riding to the village in a bus with William Fox-Pitt became as normal as eating rice and beans three times a day. 

Opening Ceremonies

When it came to opening ceremonies, the feeling of pride I had walking into the stadium was unlike one I could ever have imagined and, at the time, I had no idea how it would ever be replicated. It was every bit of the three words “We Made It!” that I could have imagined. It reminded me that we came here to write history and give the world joy through sport. Fortunately, the reason I ride is because it gives me joy and so sharing this with the people I love who were watching from home wasn’t too far off from what I hoped would come from this experience. If anything, after opening ceremonies in this unfamiliar place surrounded by amazing athletes, I felt like this was my journey. I wasn’t just looking at my television watching these people. I now was one of these people and it was time to own it.

This realization couldn’t have come a moment later because within the next 36 hours I would be entering the dressage arena for my Olympic debut.

The days of competition were a complete whirlwind of focus and trust in my horse. As we dropped down the ramp into the dressage arena for our first Olympic ride, I couldn’t help but smile. I know this sounds so cheesy, but it is true! When I look at my photos from that day, every photo contains that smile. I just remember knowing that Purdy knew this is what we came for and he was all in, just like me.

I trotted around the outside of the ring happier than I have ever felt, and when the bell rang I knew we were ready. Each movement he completed was exactly as I could have asked him for. He kept his composure in a ring that was nothing short of electric with magic. When the test was over, all I felt was a matching and magnified feeling of what overcame me during opening ceremonies. Not only were we in the Olympics, but I was on a horse I truly admired and with a support staff made of those I consider to be some of the best people in my life. It all was such a joy.

Cross-country day at this year’s Olympics was one for the history books. The first time I walked the course, I knew it would be. Many of the combinations on course were similar to what we had done before, but I had no direct comparisons for a handful of them. To amplify this tension, I knew my fellow competitors in the barn felt the same way.

We all squeezed our way into the viewing tent before the first rider left the box for the start of cross-country. In a tent containing roughly 20 televisions marking every part of the course and full of every all-star rider and their coaches, we commiserated over victory and defeat through each combination of horse and rider that went on the course.

After watching my second rider make it around the course, I took a much-needed walk and decided it was time to wait it out until the time I would make my own mark on this course. I knew as I got on Purdy that there was no more I could do to be ready for this moment. It was time to trust our training and let it rip.

As we left the start box, I calmed my mind and reacted to each instinct. I can say with certainty that it was the hardest course we had come across, but as soon as I finished I knew I wanted to do it again. By coming through those finish flags after 12 minutes of laying it all out, thinking about what was best for my horse, and working as a team to fight until the end, I knew we had just signed up for another try at the Olympics. In that moment and even now, I am so proud of Purdy and all the heart he gave. What an amazing horse and an unshakable partnership we had out there.

Mission Accomplished, New Goals Set

The final day of competition was a true finale. Purdy and I were the first out on what turned out to be a tricky show jumping course that rattled the standings of the final outcome of the competition. When we took the ring one last time, I kept my focus on Purdy and rode to have another unforgettable ride in this amazing arena.

Finishing the show jumping, I couldn’t help but throw my hand in the air and pat my horse as that cheesy smile was ever-present on my face. We made it! We did it! And we competed our very best. After the round, I went the stands with my family and friends and relished in the moment that we all were able to share together.

After those emotional days, where our journey began in dressage, where just finishing the cross-country was an accomplishment, and in show jumping, where we were reminded it isn’t over until the finish flags, I could not shake one thought: “I want to do that again.”

So as I am now home, rested and more hungry than ever, I look forward to what the next four years have to offer. I can proudly slam the cover closed on that chapter in my life knowing it has shaped who I am and where I am going. For the past five years I have been solely focused on this dream and making it a reality. Now that I know how to make that happen and how to be successful, I want to sharpen my skills even more, gain more experience and come back even more fierce in four years.

In the meantime, I am looking forward to settling my roots here in the Monterey Peninsula and sharing my focus on my passion for teaching horses and riders. I want to build a business that shares this passion and fire that I have been so fortunate to experience with others who love horses.

Thank you so much for joining us in our Rio Olympics journey! If this is what we could do our first time out, I can’t wait to see what is next.