September 22, 2013 -- After placing second in last year's Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals West, 15-year-old Olivia Champ (Karen Healey and Michelle Morris, trainers) came back to win it all this year. "This is the most fun day at the horse show and the most amazing final in the entire country," Champ remarked. "This final is really important to me because it really tests you as a rider and it's all about how you can ride a jumper course. Since I want to continue in jumpers and maybe eventually ride for the U.S. team, winning this final was one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had."
It is often said that consistency wins medal finals, and Champ demonstrated that throughout the final on Lamont (Catherine Boettcher, owner). She led the Flat Phase with a score of 90 and held the lead through the Gymnastics Phase. "My dressage training really helped me, especially in the flat and the gymnastics," Champ commented. "It's all about the flat work." As the leader, she had the opportunity to go last in the jumping phase on the grass field and watched as 31 other riders went before her.
The course, set by Guillherme Jorge (Brazil) with input from judges Mandy Porter and Jimmy Torano, asked several questions of the riders who had to navigate a one stride bank, an open water fence, a triple combination, and several related lines. Though most riders and horses handled the course well, the tight time allowed caused time faults for the majority of the riders. "We really wanted the riders to demonstrate their ability to ride and make adjustments," Porter explained. "The course gave some of them trouble, but others showed they'd learned something from the Gymnastics Phase."
After the grueling Show Jumping Phase shook up the placings-for all but leader Olivia Champ-the door was open for Erin Fry (Robyn Stiegler, trainer) and her Whisper to move up from eighth and Julia Nagler (Benson Carroll, trainer) on Vendetta (Sheila Sosnow, owner), who had been in sixth place, to join Halie Robinson (Elvenstar Farms, trainer) on My Boy Balou (Rocking D Ranch, owner) and Champ in the top four for the final phase.
For the final phase of the Talent Search, the top four riders each had to ride a shortened course four times: first on their own horse, then again on each of the other three. All riders went into the last phase with a clean slate, so their final performance would be crucial in determining the overall placing. "It was such an amazing group of talented riders and horses in the top four. All of the horses were so different but wonderful to ride," Champ said. "Once I was in the top four, I just tried to think about going in there and having fun because that's all you can do. I always try to relax and ride tough."
"Olivia was the most consistent throughout the phases without a doubt," Porter explained. "She made no major mistakes in the final phase like the others did." Torano heartily agreed. "She was a real stylist all the way through. She never cracked; she just kept bringing it and getting the job done."
Champ did ride tough and consistently on all four horses, as did Fry who has some experience with riding different horses. "I ride for the equestrian team at the University of South Carolina," Fry explained. "It is pretty difficult to switch horses, especially at this level, but I think it helped to have the experience of riding on the team. We ride a lot of different horses in lessons and in competitions."
"Erin had a little trouble on the first horse she switched to, but she got better and better throughout the phase," Torano commented. "She had a nice style on the flat. We think she'll be one to watch once she gets some more experience."
Robinson and Nagler rode the final phase well, but each made major mistakes that placed them third and fourth, respectively. "We loved Halie; she's a very good rider and was another who kept coming in and getting the job done," Porter added. "We gave her the highest score of the day on Lamont, which was a 90. It was unfortunate she had a cross-canter on Whisper, which dropped her down."
Fry was thrilled to win second place. "This was my first year doing this class, so I was really looking forward to it," Fry elaborated. "It just means everything to me and I'm so excited to win the reserve championship. Whisper went through an injury and came back so beautifully and to get to do this with him and have it go so well was unreal."
Fry has had Whisper for three years and the two have worked through a lot together. "I've come such a long way with him. He was my first 3'6" horse and I had a difficult time with him at the beginning," Fry recalled. "But as the years have gone on, I've gotten to know him better and now we know each other inside and out."
Though she didn't know Lamont well, Champ was grateful to ride such a talented horse. "Lamont was literally pulled out of a field in Europe, and Catherine, who used to ride with Karen, brought him over about a month ago. He's never done anything remotely close to this," Champ explained. "He is the most willing horse. He will do whatever you ask him to."
"Lamont was definitely the best horse in there, so we gave him the best horse award," commented Torano.
It was Lamont's calmness on the grass field on LEG's Jumper Schooling Day after Gold Coast 6 that convinced Champ to ride him in the finals. "I actually brought my jumper and Lamont to see which horse would take better to the grass field. My jumper was really sensitive about it, so I went with Lamont. I advise anyone who does the Talent Search Final in the future to definitely go to the schooling day because it's the best way to see if your horse will react well to the grass field."
Champ had planned on riding her own horse Le Prince in the Talent Search finals, but his recent injury meant she had to find another horse. "I would have so loved to do this final on Le Prince, but I have been so fortunate to be able to ride so many nice horses the last couple of weeks and throughout my career as well. I think that also helped me to adapt to all the different horses during the final round."
Her win was a triumphant finish to a difficult year. "It's been a year of ups and down. I was trying to qualify for young riders and it didn't work out and then my horse got injured," Champ enumerated. "Karen has been so supportive the whole way through and I can't thank her enough for everything she's done for me. She is the most dedicated trainer on the show grounds and is an amazing person."
Watch Phases III and IV On Demand on the USEFNetwork.com presented by Smartpak; http://www.usefnetwork.com/featured/2013USEFShowJumpingTalentSearchFinals/