The first-ever FEI Youth Equestrian Games came to a thrilling conclusion this afternoon on the hallowed ground of Aachen in Germany where South Africa’s Thomas van Rijckevorsel claimed Individual gold ahead of Morocco’s Jed Guerraoui in silver while USA’s Mimi Gochman earned bronze.
The story of this fixture, designed to replace the Dakar 2022 Youth Olympic Games which were postponed to 2026, is already epic, with the 30 contestants from 30 different nations - all aged between 15 and 18 - providing an incredible week of sport. Riding borrowed horses which they must get to know within a few short days, they showed extraordinary skill, maturity and horsemanship against the background of arguably the most intimidating arena in the world.
And today 17-year-old van Rijckevorsel put his name into the history books when taking the individual title with the nine-year-old mare, Lucy 781.
“It was amazing - it hasn’t sunk in yet, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me!”, said the young man who was also part of the Team Africa quintet who claimed bronze in Thursday’s team medal decider.
Top German course designer, Frank Rothenberger, presented them with an even bigger track today with fences measuring up to 1.30m, but 18 of the 30 starters still managed to jump the first course clear.
By this final afternoon most of the relationships between the new horse/athlete partnerships had really gelled, and although the line of fences from the vertical at fence five to the triple-combination at six and the following oxer at fence seven proved the undoing of some, it was clear that those going through to the second-round jump-off were all still highly competitive.
Colombia’s Juan Felipe Gonzalez Cova gave it his all to set the target at 36.95 seconds with the 12-year-old gelding Diacco-Blue when first to take on the new course, but Egypt’s Haya Osama El Borai and the eight-year-old mare Jadzia galloped home more than two seconds quicker when third into the ring.
Then Great Britain’s Claudia Moore and Largo van de Molenhoek reset the target when clearing the line in 33.71 seconds and that looked tough enough to beat. But Germany’s Charlotte Hoing, who along with Moore was a member of the Team Europe silver medal winning side on Thursday, had other ideas when next to go.
Setting off like a rocket with the chestnut gelding Andy’sBoy Bretoniere, the 17-year-old had the home crowd screaming in delight as she raced around the track only to fall foul of the very final fence for four faults in an incredible time of 31.18 seconds.
Next in, Belgium’s Bart Jay Junior Vandecasteele overtook Moore for the lead when steering the mare, Haya, home in 33.33 seconds with real style.
Meanwhile, out in the warm-up ring van Rijckevorsel hadn’t seen any of that because he was busy working on his preparation with his trainer, Dominey Alexander. “Before I went in I just saw his (Bart’s) time and I thought he must have been pretty fast. Dom told me to just go for it and we just went for it - Lucy tried her heart out and it all just worked out in the end!”, he said. It certainly did.
He had established a real bond with the little nine-year-old Lux Z mare, and the pair look perfectly matched as they scorched around the course that demanded serious turning skills and balance, especially on the penultimate bending line from the oxer at what had been fence two first time out and the vertical fence three before winding left-handed for the long run to the final vertical.
Stopping the clock on 31.69 seconds they wouldn’t be beaten, but Morocco’s Jad Guerraoui, whose jump-off ride clinched bronze for Team Africa on Thursday, came very close indeed with a brilliant run with the eight-year-old mare Lady Angeles who broke the beam in 31.83 for silver medal spot while, fourth-last to go, USA’s Mimi Gochman and Merino van de Achterhoek earned individual bronze in 32.56 seconds.
Finishing just off the podium in fourth place was Qatar’s Saad Ahmed Al Saad and DSP Cessy who were just 0.27 seconds slower.
The FEI Youth Equestrian Games 2022 has provided the newly-crowned champion with his first experience of competing in Europe.
“I have three top open horses at home that jump at 1.40m and three young horses as well as a dressage horse”, explained the young man who hails from Johannesburg. He had plenty of support in Aachen this week, not just from trainer Dominey Alexander who himself took team bronze at the African Games in 2007 but also from his parents, grandparents, brother and sister who all travelled to see him compete.
And of course he had the lovely Lucy to rely on. “She’s a great horse - small and hot like one of my horses at home but super careful and just a fighter, so I just got on and clicked with her and she’s been just amazing!”, he pointed out.
Talking about his future ambitions van Rijckevorsel said, “after this week I definitely want to come back and jump at Aachen again - I’d love to have a career in this sport, it’s my life!”
Silver medallist, Jad Guerrouai, said his dream would be to represent Morocco at the Olympic Games. At just 15 years old, and one of the youngest amongst the 30 athletes competing, that seems like a real possibility following his brilliant performances this week. He was also thrilled to make such a significant contribution to the Team Africa bronze medal winning result. That meant a lot to him because “we were not just a team, we were like a family!”, said this talented young man.
And for bronze medallist Mimi Gochman who is no stranger to success on the US circuit and whose jump-off round clinched gold for Team North America on Thursday, claiming her second medal of the week was also super special.
“I’m very grateful and my horse was incredible!”, said the 17-year-old. “In the USA we have a big riding community and it feels amazing to represent them proudly and with my head held high! Now I can go home knowing how incredible it is to ride in Aachen. Not a lot of people get that opportunity so I’m super lucky”, she added.