Spirit of Rio 2016 at Longines FEI European Championships 

Longines FEI European Championships 2017 - Para Dressage preview
14 Aug 2017

By Rob Howell

The spirit of Rio 2016 will descend on the Para Dressage arena of the Longines FEI European Championships in Gothenburg next week (21-23 August) when five gold medallists return to top flight international competition since facing off at last summer’s Paralympic Games.

They’ll be joined by a further three Rio silver and bronze medallists, and together with a total of 62 athletes will compete for 30 individual and freestyle medals in five grades.

Meanwhile a brand new British Para Dressage team will head to Gothenburg to defend their nation’s unbeaten record of holding European, World and Paralympic team gold medals since the beginning of time - can they do it, or will Team Netherlands see this as an opportunity to strike?

Rio 2016 Paralympic gold medalists Pepo Puch (AUT), Sophie Wells (GBR), Sanne Voets (NED), Michèle George (BEL) and Anne Catrin Lübbe (NOR) will step back into the arena at a major international competition for the first time since the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games next week as they lead the big names at the Longines FEI European Championships in Gothenburg (SWE).

Austria’s Puch is the current individual and freestyle European champion, and took individual gold in the grade Ib (now grade II) competition in Rio. There he finished ahead of Great Britain’s Sir Lee Pearson and Denmark’s Stinna Tange Kaastrup. Pearson isn’t competing in Gothenburg, so while Puch’s main rival will not be a threat, Kaastrup’s run of strong performances so far this year will make for an interesting contest.  

The grade I contest will see the return of current World Freestyle champion Sara Morganti, from Italy. Morganti was left bitterly disappointed in Rio when her horse failed the initial heath check, which takes place before every competition leaving her unable to compete. She’ll be looking for some solace from that in the Europeans. But competition will come from a relatively new rider on the British team, Julie Payne. In her debut at a major international competition, Payne will be riding Athene Lindebjerg, the horse on which Sophie Christiansen won three gold medals in Rio.

The absence of a number of top riders from grade III (formerly grade II) leaves the field wide open in Gothenburg, where the strongest challenge for medals should, on paper, come from Germany’s Steffen Zeibig, who took bronze in the grade’s freestyle in Rio, and British newcomer Suzanna Hext.

The Gothenburg arena will thump to the beats of dance music during the grade IV freestyle, when The Netherlands’ Sanne Voets is likely to perform to Dutch dance star Armin van Buuren’s worldwide hit This is What it Feels Like. Riding Demantur, Voets narrowly clinched the freestyle gold in Rio to this track, which also inspired her to her first major gold medal at the FEI European Championships 2013 in Herning (DEN).

Voets, who will be riding Demantur again in Gothenburg, said: “My hopes are high, of course, as we have won every competition since Rio. However, in sports, as we know, nothing is for sure. It all has to fall into place at the right time. Demantur is getting better and better in training and I think he has never been as good as he is now. He’s feeling happy, so I am too.”

Belgium’s Michèle George, Great Britain’s Sophie Wells, and The Netherlands’ Frank Hosmar resume their rivalry again in the grade V competition. Hosmar is the defending European champion in both individual titles, while George and Wells shared the Rio gold medals between them with Wells taking the individual title and George the freestyle.

The team competition is one that could prove fascinating too. Great Britain has never not topped the podium in European, Paralympic and World competitions. However, this year’s team, with the exception of nine-time team member Sophie Wells, is made up entirely of newcomers to international competition.

Team GBR Chef d’equipe Sarah Armstrong said: “The competition will allow a number of new combinations to target personal bests on the world stage. The all-female squad has all worked incredibly hard this year for a place on the team among a very competitive peer group. Our final preparation will now sharpen an already focused team to deliver their best performances in Gothenburg.”

The absence of Para Dressage superstars like Lee Pearson, Natasha Baker and Sophie Christiansen hasn’t gone unnoticed among the team’s rivals.

Voets concluded: “This year is particularly exciting as I believe it could be the first time that the Dutch team is seriously in the race for team gold. We have a good team and with the new team medal format (where only the scores of the team test decide the medal), this could be the year we make history.”

To see the full list of definite entries, click here

Great Britain’s Sophie Wells, fresh from her grade IV individual gold in Rio and with London 2012 firmly under her belt, will lead a brand new Team GBR to the Longines FEI European Championships as they look to retain their nation’s unbeaten European, World and Paralympic record. (FEI/Liz Gregg)

Great Britain’s Sophie Wells, fresh from her grade IV individual gold in Rio and with London 2012 firmly under her belt, will lead a brand new Team GBR to the Longines FEI European Championships as they look to retain their nation’s unbeaten European, World and Paralympic record. (FEI/Liz Gregg)

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