SO FAR AND SO CLOSE!
AN EQUESTRIAN DRESSAGE ATHLETE’S FIRST PARALYMPICS
By Garry Angus
She had come so far, and in just three and a half years, made it to the 2004 Paralympics as Canada’s Grade II rider. Were it not for difficulty executing a perfect ‘halt’ during competition (bringing the horse to a complete stop on command), she would be on the podium wearing precious metal. An Athens medal was that close for Lauren Barwick, 27, of Aldergrove, B.C., and her mount “Dior”.
Barwick left Athens maintaining her rank as one of the world’s top ten athletes in her sport.
Barwick’s road to the Greek games began shortly after the June 17th 2000 work-related accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Prior to that date, she had been a professional rider; a competition jumper; a horse wrangler for the movie industry. She had a high skill level on a wide variety of horses. Even though therapeutic riding was available for people with spinal cord injuries, the last thing Lauren wanted was to do was be led around on the back of a horse after the level of mastery she had attained prior to her injury.
“When did I decide to go riding again?” She remarks, “I had wanted never to ride again. I had ridden at such a high level previously, and trained.”
After adjusting to life with a wheelchair, Barwick, took up sailing and boat racing at Jericho Beach with the Disabled Sailing Association of B.C.. The solitary control of the vessel reminded her of what it was like to ride. She tried other activities, such as kayaking and mountain biking, but “nothing really filled that void.” Her passion was for all things equestrian.
Confidence gained from disabled sailing and her innate athlete’s competitive drive set the stage for her comeback to the saddle.
After some initial steps at the stables, she visualized competing again, this time in equestrian dressage as an athlete who just happens to have a disability. While searching for the right equipment to accommodate her in the saddle, she met Sandra Verda, the riding coach with expertise in able-bodied and disabled riders. Verda specializes in coaching those riders who seek independence and competition, because it is her love and passion, and as she puts it, “there really isn’t that opportunity.” She would shape Barwick’s riding, inspire her and support her mentally, and take her to the Athens Paralympic games as a world-class athlete.
Barwick’s saddle was adapted by Verda with Velcro thigh straps, padded knee rolls and elastic bootstraps to keep her legs in place as she rides – all devices designed for a quick breakaway if she needs to fall. With inflatable gel pads strategically placed on her saddle to protect her tailbone and the seat of her spine from pressure and percussive sores, she was ready to train hard.
Being paralyzed and having no sensation from the waist down, she balances on her mount through the use of her abdominal muscles, and where an able-bodied rider would apply leg pressure to guide the horse in controlled movements, she would shift her core weight and use special adapted riding whips.
Barwick was classified by the International Paralympic Equestrian Committee (IPEC) – the regulating body for the sport for riders with disabilities – as a Grade II.3 rider out of four competition grades (Grade I riders being those with the most severe disability). She would ride against athletes in her grade with various disabilities, including amputees and those with cerebral palsy, and thus far, has only competed against three other riders with paraplegia.
Barwick had come so far, so fast, and achieved international standing in her sport. She qualified early on for consideration for the 2004 Athens Paralympics, but, with only three spots available to Canadian riders, there was contention between the Canadian Paralympic Equestrian Team selection committee and the athletes as to who would get to go. By IPEC rules, the Canadian team had to consist of at least one Grade I, and one Grade II rider. It came down to what permutation of grades and number of riders per grade the committee would select for the three spots for Greece. Near the end, almost all riders had lawyers for their seven-hour conference calls with the team selection committee. There were three court case appeals. The team changed three times. But Barwick got the spot as Canada’s Grade II rider for Athens.
At the games, she competed in her grade against the world’s 20 elite Paralympic dressage riders, the top 10 each having over 15 years experience in top-level competition, and her with but two years’ experience. A Paralympic medal was so close, were it not for the elusive “halt” in competition tests.
Perhaps it was the excitement of competition, perhaps nerves and the expanded sensitivity brought out in Dior, but Barwick had difficulty. When she went to stop him in her routines, he wanted to “Piaffe” – dance on the spot. Without the physical use of her legs to push him into compliance, she couldn’t get him to halt. The problem struck twice.
“I had amazing artistic marks and some of the judges gave me second place marks,” Barwick sighs, “but I could not get Dior to halt. And the judges’ comments were ‘such a spectacular ride! Your horse and you go so well together, a pity about the halt.’ That can make you cry. But we needed to do that. We went from mellow and safe to ‘here we are in Athens and we need to take that chance and hit it’. So that’s what happened.”
In her Championship test, Barwick got a total score of 68 (out of a potential 100) and placed seventh. Bronze went to 68.7%. She had individual scores of seven, eights’ and nines (out of 10) in everything but the halt where she got fives. Had she gotten a score of six in the halt, she would be wearing Athens silver. It was that close.
“The thought that I qualified for Athens in two years was remarkable to me,” says Lauren, “because I had such a short time to train, and the thing with dressage is its preciseness. I only had a short time to put together a whole test, and couldn’t go back and make every part perfect. I had to keep moving on. I had to keep learning new stuff so I could at least come to the arena with something.”
Lauren, Dior and Sandra returned to Canada, regrouped, relaxed, and started preparations for the road to the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. Barwick will be at her prime then, and fully prepared to stand with the best in her sport.
“The European championships are this year and the worlds are next year,” she says, “and then Beijing.”