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THOMPSON: Dressage athlete faces challenges on road to Olympic dream

March 19, 2018 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


I first met Corine Smith more than six years ago. She was riding a horse…something she’s done most of her 27 years. Corine is a dressage professional…a career choice she made early on and pursues today with a tenacity that belies her petite frame. She is fit to be sure…more or less a spine with muscles…but it is her mental toughness and drive that distinguishes her.

I am far from being a dressage expert…as in Vancouver is far from Toronto. But I’ve watched my wife, Bonnie, ride three or four times a week, attended countless dressage competitions and absorbed the conversations of both riders and judges for six years. And, I’ve watched Corine ride a few of our Friesian horses. Even so, Vancouver remains far from Toronto.

Dressage is, according to Equine Canada - the nation’s top sport and horse organization - “the ultimate expression of horse training and elegance.” Further, it is an extraordinary event that blends the artistry of ballet with the athleticism of sport. And unlike most athletic events, it requires exceptional talent and skill from both a human…and an animal. It is a special relationship that spans art and science and sport…with subtleties galore.

Like many endeavours, you can pursue dressage as an amateur or as a professional. You can ride dressage your entire life and never compete…or you can match your skills against the world and set your sights on winning an Olympic gold medal. Corine - born and raised here in the Okanagan - has chosen the latter.

Image Credit: SUBMITTED

As you read this, Corine is in Florida on a visa that allows her to ride and train with Anne Gribbons, a woman of boundless energy who has trained sixteen horses to Grand Prix…the highest level of dressage. Gribbons, a Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) Five-Star Judge, an international dressage competitor, breeder, educator, trainer and coach, was inducted into the United States Dressage Federation Hall of Fame in 2013.

You don’t just show up at a dressage legend’s horse farm and say, “Teach me everything you know.” You are chosen…and few are chosen. Gribbons chose Corine. So that you understand, it would be like Jack Nicklaus choosing me to spend a year with him to learn how to play golf…the right way. But, I digress, this is about Corine.

She comes from good Canadian stock…a product of caring parents who - like most good parents - sacrificed for their children. No telling how many family vehicles aged and passed on from countless rides to and from horse barns and horse shows. But she is in no way spoiled…having worked since childhood at home and in so-called real jobs since becoming a teenager.

Truth be known, Corine is like a hemoglobin shot that revives when you tire of life’s absurdities. She has a quick wit…and a wide-ranging sense of humour. She is intelligent - Mensa-smart - with wisdom and depth far beyond her years. Before committing to dressage, she considered astro-physics as a career.

I learned how special she is early on...in a way that might seem insignificant…but is telling. Corine - not quite 21 at the time - traveled with Bonnie and me in our motor home for a three-day dressage competition in Vancouver.

Knowing we would have some down time after dinner each night, she offered to bring some movies. Like an old man too set in his ways, and not yet knowing her very well, I envisioned “Hot Tub Time Machine 2” or, God help me, something even worse…as if that even existed.

She turned to me - almost like a child excited about possibilities but still seeking permission - and asked, “How about ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ or ‘Roman Holiday?’” She bridged the generations that otherwise separated us just that simply. It was - in an instant - like finding a long-lost daughter. We spent the evening talking about cinema…delivering lines from classic movies to each other…only to have the other rejoin with a following line.

I admire people who possess traits that differentiate them from others. As a marketing and public relations professional, I sought clients whose products and services set them apart from the competition. They were winners.

Corine’s devotion to horsemanship and an unwavering focus on what she wants in life define her. Corine is a winner…even though she might be years from her goal. She knows how difficult her path forward is…and it will continue to be.

Life offers up challenges for all of us. Corine battles fibromyalgia - a disorder characterized by widespread and intense musculoskeletal pain - which is treatable but incurable. Those who suffer from fibromyalgia experience amplified pain, according to Mayo Clinic researchers, who say the brain processes the signals differently. Chronic lower back pain and arthritis that worsens with age are common. Not ideal ailments if you ride horses for a living.

Image Credit: SUBMITTED

Corine gets treatment…massages, stress management and special exercises…but mostly she lives with it…stoically. She perseveres better than most…evidencing a black humour not unlike a favourite actress, Betty Davis, who once admitted, “Getting old ain’t for sissies.”

The good news is that Corine’s goal of riding dressage and winning in the Olympic Games - unlike many events that put a huge premium on youth - can be attained in her 50s or 60s. The bad news is that being a great rider and having a great horse aren’t enough. It takes resources - trainer, coach, veterinarian, logistical support, physician - and that means money. If you don’t have a sponsor…someone or some organization willing to pony up a million dollars or so…your chances are not much better than pulling the handle on a casino slot machine and expecting the grand prize.

But Corine can’t worry about all that right now…one battle at a time. Win one battle and prepare for the next one. Win enough battles and you win the war. So, six days a week she’s riding half a dozen great horses…up early…up late. Listening intently to one of the greatest teachers to ever enter a dressage ring. Eating right…trying to get the rest she needs. Never losing faith in herself…and the horses she rides.

Paulo Coelho de Souza - a Brazilian lyricist and novelist - wrote in The Alchemist, “Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.” Corine has a tattoo on her side with that quote and an anatomically correct human heart…no Hallmark card version.

Bonnie and I believe in Corine…and hope to see her in the Olympic Games one day. Meanwhile, I buy a lotto ticket almost every week. And if I ever win millions, I’ll take care of Bonnie and myself, of course, and our extended families. I also know a strong young woman who rides dressage who’ll have a sponsor…one less battle.

– Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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