Mon, September 23, 2013

Oxford Mills show jumper hopes to return to Olympic podium

By AEDEN HELMER, QMI Agency


Jill Henselwood takes George over a jump during the Enbridge Cup on Day 1 of Spruce Meadows National in Calgary, Alta., June 6, 2012. (LYLE ASPINALL/QMI Agency)

OTTAWA - For most athletes making final preparations for the Olympics, booking airfare to London doesn’t rank as a particularly taxing priority.

But for horse and rider, like Oxford Mills’ Jill Henselwood and George, travel is anything but an afterthought.

“The challenges are huge, and in a perfect world where all you had to do was prepare, you get your preparation done in good time, rest and get there. This way, it feels like you’re on a portage,” said Henselwood, in between last week’s final preparations at Alberta’s Spruce Meadows — “that’s 45 hours (back) on a truck for a horse,” — and Sunday’s departure for New York City, where a hotel waits for Henselwood and a quarantine facility welcomes George.

Then, it’s off to London in the morning.

“You get out of the canoe and train a little, then you get back in and go the next place, and finally you’re there and you’re just hoping the fitness level and the health, the mentality and the energy (are) going to be perfect for the four days of competing.”

Henselwood and the rest of the Canadian show jumping team are well prepared for competition, with Olympic veterans Ian Millar and Eric Lamaze also returning from Beijing’s silver-medal finish.

“Last time it was somehow like we were on a magic carpet, everything was going our way,” Henselwood said.

Where experience is lacking is in the other half of the team, following the sudden death of Hickstead, Lamaze’s longtime partner.

“He was our Wayne Gretzky,” said Henselwood, who has her own new steed to ride after retiring Special Ed, who was 14 in Beijing, already several years past his show jumping peak.

Ten-year-old George “lacks some experience, and you almost wish you could cram another year’s experience in there — in the next week.”

But since the Olympic course designer only reveals the course challenge one hour before competition, “it’s not like you can rehearse the exact challenge that you’re going to face.”

Henselwood admits it takes time to groom a relationship between a horse and handler.

“It must be similar to the figure skater who has a great partner who they came up through the ranks with, and they just know each other. When they get a new partner and they’re doing new tricks, a percentage of the time something goes wrong, they didn’t sense something was coming. It’s the same with horses,” said Henselwood, adding the only solution is “logging a lot of hours together.”

One advantage the team will have this time around is the “certain comfort” England brings and London’s “very friendly crowd.

“When you’re in China, or other (non-English-speaking) places, you feel like you’re a long way from home,” she said.

When she and Special Ed won gold at the Pan-Am Games in Brazil, ten months before the 2008 Olympic silver, “the crowd was silent. You could hear a pin drop. I didn’t know if I won or not.

“It took them a long time to get over their national athlete not being No. 1. I don’t think you’ll see that in London, if a Canadian wins they’ll cheer.”

THE HENSELWOOD FILE

Age: 49

Sport: Equestrian

Born: Ottawa

Resides: Oxford Mills

World stage: 1 Olympic medal, 3 Pan Am Games medals

Education: Studied phys-ed at University of Ottawa

aedan.helmer@sunmedia.ca