“If nothing else happens in my life, this has just been the absolute pinnacle.”
As championship debuts go, Great Britain’s Suzanna Hext and Julie Payne have had dream experiences at the Longines Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) Para Equestrian European Championships, which ended on Wednesday (23 July) in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Both won gold medals in their individual and freestyle competitions, and played key roles in helping Great Britain continue its unbeaten run in the team competition.
Grade I athlete Payne was riding Athene Lindebjerg, the horse that fellow Brit Sophie Christiansen rode to three gold medals at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Fresh from taking the grade’s individual gold on day one of the three-day competition, Payne entered the arena late Tuesday afternoon knowing she needed a score of 75.000% or more to prevent a Danish quartet from taking the top spot. Payne and Athene scored a massive 78.107%.
Even with three of their four members making their international debuts, Great Britain still remains unbeaten in Para equestrian team competitions at European, Worlds and Paralympic level since major international competition started in 1996.
“If nothing else happens in my life, this has just been the absolute pinnacle,” said Payne. “It’s an absolute dream and now I’m going to cry.”
The Brits beat an inspired Denmark into second place by just over three points, with the highly fancied Netherlands team taking the bronze.
In the individual competition Payne took individual title ahead of Germany’s Elke Phillip, with Rihards Snikus of Latvia taking the bronze – his first medal at a major international competition. He went one better in the freestyle, taking silver, with Philip taking bronze. Snikus’ medals represent a real breakthrough at major international level, after years of consistent finishes just outside the podium places.
In the grade III contest, Hext rode Abira to finish ahead of Germany’s Claudia Schmidt and teammate Erin Orford in the individual competition. She won the freestyle too ahead of Germany’s Rio 2016 bronze medallist Steffen Zeibig who took silver, with the 17-year-old Danish debut rider, Tobias Joergensen, picking up the bronze.
The Danes had plenty more to celebrate, with two individual gold medals alongside their team silver and a share of individual bronzes too. Crowd favourite Stinna Tange Kaastrup returned to the top of the championship podium for the first time since 2011 when she won the grade II freestyle contest, riding Horsebro Smarties. She also picked up a bronze medal in the individual class, which was won by Austria’s defending European champion and Rio 2016 gold medallist Pepo Puch on Fontainenoir. The Netherlands’ Nicole Den Dulk made a welcome return to the grade’s podium as well, picking up the silver medal in both contests.
Kaastrup’s teammate, and Rio 2016 silver medallist Susanne Jensby Sunesen, won Denmark’s second individual gold of the tournament in the grade IV freestyle. Riding CSK's Que Faire, she beat home favourite Louise Etzner Jakobsson into second place and silver, with the Netherlands’ Sanne Voets taking bronze.
There was a better result for Rio 2016 gold medallist Voets in the grade’s individual test, however, in which she won the gold medal. Belgium’s Manon Claeys won the silver in that event, with Jakobsson taking the bronze.
Grade V is always one of the closest fought grades at a Para equestrian competition, with the rivalry between defending the Netherlands’ European individual and freestyle champion Frank Hosmar, Great Britain’s Rio 2016 double gold and silver medallist Sophie Wells, and Belgium’s world and Paralympic champion Michele George.
This time round the honours were shared between Hosmar and Wells. Hosmar took the individual title on Alphaville N.O.P., with Wells picking up the silver, while Wells danced her way to the freestyle title on C Fatal Attraction, ahead of Hosmar. Switzerlands’ Nicole Geiger won the bronze in both events.
Speaking afterwards Hosmar said of his rivals: “To beat them is always what gets me out of bed. We see each other in the stables, say hello and kiss-kiss so it’s not like we hate each other - but it’s fun to beat them.”
Full results can be found on the FEI’s website http://www.longinestiming.com/#!/equestrian/2017/1380/html/en/longinestiming/index.html.