The music will play and the horses will dance as the Rio 2016 Para-dressage competition reaches its melodic climax on Friday (16 September). All five grades will compete for the freestyle medals at the Olympic Equestrian Centre in Deodoro.
Unlike in the team and individual tests, in which riders all perform the same set routine, the freestyle allows riders to devise and choreograph their own tests (including a number of movements they have to include), which they then perform to music.
The top third of riders (or a minimum of top seven) from each grade will progress to compete in the freestyle, and all five medals will be decided Friday.
Competition starts with the grade III first thing in the morning. Norway’s Ann Cathrin Lubbe will be looking to add to her individual gold, and possibly repeat the double gold success she enjoyed 12 years ago at Athens 2004. Denmark’s Susanne Sunesen will want to stop her though, and also expect strong challenges from South Africa’s Philippa Johnson-Dwyer and individual bronze medallist Louise Etzner Jakobbson. The Netherlands’ Sanne Voets and Denmark’s Anika Lykke Dalskov Risum will also be in contention.
In the grade IV contest, Belgium’s Michele George will be looking to defend her London 2012 freestyle title against Great Britain’s Rio 2016 individual champion, and London 2012 silver medallist, Sophie Wells. Both riders have incredible freestyle tests and the competition between them will be fiercer than ever.
Similarly tight will be the contest between Austria’s Pepo Puch and Great Britain’s Lee Pearson in the grade Ib competition. Puch won the individual title here in Rio on Wednesday (14 September), with Pearson taking the silver. Puch is also the defending champion, while Pearson already has three freestyle Paralympic titles to his name (Sydney, Athens and Beijing). And there won’t be a dry eye in the house if Denmark’s Stinna Tange Kaastrup repeats her individual success and gains a place on the podium too.
Both Great Britain’s Sophie Christiansen and Natasha Baker will look to defend their London 2012 titles in the grades Ia and II freestyles respectively. A win for Christiansen would give her a hat-trick of freestyle golds, having also won in Beijing 2008, while Baker will become a two-time double Paralympic champion following her win in the individual test on Thursday (15 September).
Christiansen’s team mate Ann Dunham will provide tough competition in the grade Ia, however, as will Singapore’s Laurentia Tan, Germany’s Elke Philipp, and home favourite, Brazil’s Sergio Oliva. Oliva scored a hugely popular bronze medal in the grade’s individual test on Thursday. “For me it means gold,” he said.
Baker, meanwhile, will have to see off competition from The Netherlands’ Demi Vermeulen and Rixt Van der Horst if she is to add to her Rio 2016 gold medal collection. It will be a poignant day for Baker whatever happens, as it will be the last time she competes at a major level with her horse Cabral. “He’s been in every team since 2011,” said Baker, “and we’ve come home with a gold medal from every competition that we’ve gone into. You can’t ask for more than that from a horse.”