The reigning Olympic team show jumping champion, Normandy rider Pénélope Leprévost helped the French team qualify for the Tokyo Games. For her, the postponement by one year is above all an opportunity to prepare her horses well and give herself even more choices when she goes to defend her title in the Japanese capital.
On 17 August 2016, Pénélope Leprévost, Kévin Staut, Philippe Rozier and Roger-Yves Bost won the team show jumping gold medal at the Rio Olympic Equestrian Centre. But there were so many stories to tell from before this exploit, and so many emotions for the Normandy rider. Everything started badly at these Games. “My mare Flora de Mariposa fell ill,” Leprévost recalls. “Quite seriously, in fact. It was almost dangerous, and we didn’t know if she would survive. She was suffering from colic. We hoped that she would be able to unblock the ‘knot’ she had in her colon, most probably due to stress, travel, change of temperature, etc. We spent whole nights walking her to keep her moving, horrible nights.”
There was no question of having her operated on and missing the events, as the French team had already lost one rider, Simon Delestre, whose horse had injured itself in its box in a way that was “totally improbable”, Leprévost says. “After 48 very chaotic hours, we didn't jump during the traditional warm-up event, as Flora was a rather emotional mare. So we went straight into the individual event, which also counts towards qualifying for the team, and there she proved to be wonderful, fantastic, a real pro! And then... she tripped when landing after an obstacle and I fell. The most unimaginable thing, which had never happened to me in my life. I injured my thigh, but I didn't even think about it at the time. I had to stop for a while after the Games, and I still feel embarrassed today, four years later,” she reveals.
And she continues: “I was like, ‘No, it's a nightmare, I’m going to wake up!’ But the next day we went back for the team event, and there Flora achieved the decisive clean sheet. The next day in the second leg, after my three team-mates had also achieved clean sheets, the gold was won, and in the end I didn’t even need to ride. Which was really great for my mare, considering all the effort she’d put in. It was good to be able to spare her, so she didn’t have to ride again. My team-mates were absolutely perfect and made sure we didn't ask too much of Flora!”
After winning the gold medal, Leprévost’s feelings were mixed, given all the events that preceded this triumph. The loss of Delestre, Flora de Mariposa’s illness, the fall in the individual competition. “It was tough in every way. So, yes, we went home and said ‘We’re Olympic champions,’ but it was an incredible emotional rollercoaster.”
An extra year to prepare the horses properly
At the end of August 2019, during the European Championships in Rotterdam, the French riders obtained their qualification for the Tokyo Games. “We had a young team, with new horses. I rode Vancouver de Lanlore, who had never done a championship before. The goal was to obtain the qualification for the Games, which we did by finishing fourth; but at the end we were still disappointed because we were really close to the podium. But for one mistake, we could have done even better. We always want more, but that’s athletes for you!”
Since then, in her stables at Lécaude in Normandy, Leprévost has been preparing her mount for the Games, her third personal participation in this global sporting event. She is heading there with confidence. “Vancouver is still young, but he had a fantastic European Championship. He was just reaching maturity. Like all athletes, he can’t jump every weekend. To protect him properly, I had decided to give him a holiday from December 2019 to March 2020. I had planned a very precise programme to get him back into it. The first competition we entered was in March, and we won. It was perfect. So I said to myself ‘the horse is ready, it’s all systems go.’ But then, with the lockdown, we had to stop everything again. In short, in eight months, my stallion took part in just one event and won it.”
“What was different for me during lockdown,” she continues, “was the rhythm of my weeks. Usually I work in my stables from Monday to Wednesday or Thursday, then there are the events, which start on Friday. I travel, I take the plane, the car or the train, and I go to meet my horses, which are already there for the competitions. The lockdown didn’t change my daily life at home: I was very busy, I was working normal days, with many horses to ride, lots of projects. I had very full days in an extraordinary environment.”
“What was amazing was the fact that, in the evening, at 6 or 7 p.m., I’d finished! No need to organise trips, no need to organise the horses' programmes, nothing special with the owners, as the horses weren’t doing anything special. This change of life felt odd because I’m a hyperactive person; but the advantage was that I could spend two months with my daughter Eden, whereas usually I see her only at the start of the week and she sometimes comes with me to competitions. I was able to do things thoroughly... But in terms of rhythm, I wasn’t tired any more; I could go to bed early; no need to travel at night; no need to arrive at 3 a.m.; no need to get up at 4 a.m. The rhythm had changed completely, but I worked normally in my stables during this period.”
When Leprévost heard about the one-year postponement of the Games in Tokyo, she could deal with it. “It’s nothing serious. I tell myself that my horse is young. Next year, he’ll be in good shape. It doesn't change much as far as I’m concerned, and next year, I may have other horses that have the potential to go to Tokyo that were not yet ready. Personally, it's not a problem to have it postponed for a year. The decision was clearly the best one to make, and given what we’ve been through, it wouldn’t have been feasible. If someone had told me that, I would have said no, it's like something in a film! That gives me a year to prepare Vancouver de Lanlore, and there's Excalibur, who has a lot of talent but lacks experience. As I have a stable of horses which have great potential but are still a bit young, giving me another year is anything but a problem.” For her, competitions will start again at the end of June, and the international events will then follow one after another.
A title to defend in Tokyo before Games on home soil in 2024
In Tokyo in 2021, there will be a team title to defend, and individual results to improve as much as possible. “You have to go there with your horse ready; don’t do too much, but don’t do too little either, because the horses have to be ready to go. Then you give it your all on each course. The team competition means even more pressure, because it’s not just down to you. It’s an odd feeling. You have to give it your all, and if you end up with an individual title, it’s even better! But I don’t even think about it. I’ve never come close to doing anything good individually at the Games, as I didn’t make it to the final in London or Rio. So if I could do better, that would be perfect!”
And then, three years later, there will be Paris 2024, for which the Olympic champion rider says she is particularly motivated. “We're already motivated when the Games are held on the other side of the world, whatever the temperatures or the context; so obviously this feeling is even stronger when you’re on home turf! We experienced the 2014 World Championships in Normandy and the atmosphere was unbelievable, so imagine what the Games will be like! I’m definitely planning to be there. The advantage of our sport is that experience makes us better, and we can have a 30-year career.” She still sees herself competing on her horses at the age of 60.
Leprévost competes on all the world’s stages in the most mixed of sports, because by definition, it doesn’t matter who is on the horse and, as she points out, “a coach chooses the couple that will perform, whether it’s with a man or a woman. In fact, I don't even realise it; I’ve been immersed in it since I started, I feel that I’m ‘a rider’ like everyone else. Woman or man, it makes no difference; we’re truly equals.”
A lover of horses and her sport, and a competitor at heart, Leprévost concludes by explaining what makes riding so special to her: “We are with the horse, listening to its personality. Between one horse and another, we don’t do the same thing. Some like to be ridden in a particular way, and what I find great in my sport is to be able to team up with the horse and encourage a 600kg animal to do exactly what you want. Weighing between 50 and 60kg, I have no problem riding it as long as the communication is good. Just giving the best horse to the best rider isn’t enough to make it work. It’s really an alchemy that is created within the couple. And that’s where we women are good, because we listen [laughs]!”