Fri, September 20, 2013

Canadian equestrian Ian Millar makes Olympic history

By STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency


Canadian equestrian Ian Millar is competing in his 10th Olympic Games, the most in history. (LYLE ASPINALL/QMI Agency)


GREENWICH, U.K. - Ian Millar was asked if the name 'Hubert Raudaschl' meant anything to him.

"Give me a hint," the Canadian equestrian legend said.

He was given one.

"The Yachtsman?"

Right. Hubert Raudaschl is a guy sitting back home in Austria, probably a bit cheesed off that Millar is here at the London Olympics, and he's not.

Prior to these Games, the Yachtsman and the Horseman shared the record for most Olympic appearances, and now Millar has the new mark all to himself with 10. And for the 65-year-old Millar, breaking the record is ... well, let's just say his heart doesn't bleed for Ol' Hubert.

"Now I wonder," said the Perth, Ont. rider. "I've never done this boating, yachting thing. But I gotta tell ya, I think that's maybe a little easier than sitting on our furry friends over these jumps. So it's a little apples to oranges to compare. But I don't want to hurt his feelings."

Millar's point is that equestrian, and the jumping in particular, is a much tougher pursuit than many people give it credit for, and to compare sailors to equestrians is a bit unfair. Equestrian is as tough a sport as most Olympic events and if anyone questions that, they can look no further to what happened to teammate Hawley Bennett-Awad, who was injured Monday after being thrown from her horse during an equestrian team event in London. The 35-year-old from Murrayville, B.C., was released from hospital on Wednesday after being treated for a concussion, a broken sacrum, a bone at the base of the spine.

Another of Millar's teammates in London, Tiffany Foster, can also set them straight. The Vancouver rider is making her first Olympic appearance against all odds, having broken her back just prior to the 2008 Games while schooling a young horse. The 28-year-old crushed a vertebrae and had two steel rods, a plate, six screws and six clips inserted into her back to hold everything in place. Doctors feared she would never walk again. But she is here and ready to help the Canadian team land on the podium in the jumping event, which begins on Saturday at the beautiful Greenwich Park grounds just south-east of central London.

"I couldn't ride for six months," said Foster. "I had three months where I couldn't do very much at all, and then three more months of slow rehabilitation and then I started riding again, with calm horses."

Foster said there's still pain, but she fights through it everyday. In fact, all veteran riders -- Millar and Eric Lamaze, and the fourth member of the jumping team, Jill Henselwood -- compete in as much pain and as intensely as any Olympic athlete.

Which makes Millar's record all that more remarkable. And as he demonstrated in Beijing by helping the Canadian team win the silver, he's not on some farewell tour. Lamaze is the established star on the team these days, but Millar is always still a threat on the international circuit as evidenced by his win at the North American World Cup League in 2008 and 2009. If he wasn't still competitive, he wouldn't be here. And part of the reason he keeps riding is he enjoys keeping up with the sport and embracing the new changes.

"As we know, all sports evolve tremendously and our sport is no different," he said. "It's really not the same thing at all as it was in 1972 (his first Olympics). It's a different type of horse we're using, the style of riding is quite evolved, the way the courses are built, the material used, it's virtually unrecognizable over this period of time. So many people get locked in a way of doing things and they don't change and time leaves them behind.

"But I've enjoyed the challenge very much of evolving with it and staying with it. And I work with my son and daughter and I must say they keep me young, as does this annoying team."

This annoying team could defend their silver medal, though it will be a tough challenge with the loss of Hickstead, the horse Lamaze rode to the individual gold in 2008. The 15-year-old stallion collapsed and died during the World Cup in Verona, Italy in 2011 and Lamaze is now on a new mount, Derly Chin De Muze, a nine-year-old Belgian Warmblood.

"For me, with the tragedy that happened last year with Hickstead, I'm not coming to these Games really feeling like I'm defending my title," said Lamaze, 44. "Hickstead would still have been in great shape, I'm sure. And having him here would really felt like defending my title. Having said that, I came here with a very, very good young horse, we have a great team and we're going to try our very best."

steve.buffery@sunmedia.ca

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