It might not have been a surprise when Great Britain’s Para equestrian dressage team retained its European title at the Longines Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) European Championships in August. That would be expected from a team that is undefeated at Paralympic, World and European level.
But take a closer look.
Of the four-person team, three were making their European Championships debut that August: Julie Payne, Suzanna Hext and Erin Orford. Despite the new team make-up, the debutants’ ability to help their team remain at a high level is No. 31 on the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) Top 50 Moments of 2017.
In the absence of the sport’s biggest British names – Sophie Christiansen, Natasha Baker and Lee Pearson, all of whom had claimed numerous gold and silver medals at the Rio 2016 Paralympics – many thought that this could be the year Great Britain failed to win a major team competition.
However, some fantastic performances from all four team members saw the all-female quartet clinch the gold, ahead of resurging Denmark and Netherlands teams.
Performance manager Sarah Armstrong said at the time: “I’m just over the moon. Every time any of them delivers their best in the arena it increases the thrill and privilege of working with them. To have three of the team at their first Championships and under such pressure, they’ve seriously delivered.”
The team gold was the icing on the cake for both Hext and Payne. As well as that medal the pair also won both individual competitions in their grades – a stunning way to start a full international career.
Speaking three months after her three golds, grade I rider Payne said: “It was just amazing – I enjoyed every second of it. I never dreamed I would compete at that level, let alone with three gold medals. I was at a stage in my career where I just thought I’d never be selected so I just went out to enjoy myself. Getting the call up itself was incredible and it’s been a fairy tale since.”
At the Championships, Payne rode Athene Lindebjerg, the horse who Sophie Christiansen won three gold medals in Rio: “She’s such a fantastic horse and I have the best back up team in the world.
“I had huge footsteps to follow but the judges’ comments were fantastic,” Payne said.
Hext described the experience as: “The best week of my life. I never thought life could be this good.”
With next year’s Longines FEI World Equestrian Games less than 12 months away, both Hext and Payne have their eyes firmly set on more glory. They will have to fight for their place on the squad as both grade I’s Christiansen and grade III’s Baker return from their years off. But, as Hext points out, the Gothenburg, Sweden, experience in August made both of them hungry for more.
“I’ve had a taste of it now,” Hext said. “And now I have the drive and adrenaline to go for the worlds and Tokyo 2020.”
The countdown of the IPC’s Top 50 Moments continues until 31 December.