EN Exclusive: A USA Homecoming for New Coach Erik Duvander

Erik Duvander at the Puhinui International Three-Day Event. Photo by Libby Law Photography.

A new era for U.S. eventing is set to begin with Erik Duvander at the coaching helm. The USEF announced last Friday that Erik has been hired as the new U.S. Performance Director for Eventing. He officially stepped into the position on Monday, Oct. 16.

Erik comes to the U.S. High Performance program following a tenure with the New Zealand Eventing Team that spanned a decade. He did not put his name forward to renew his role as High Performance Coach following the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, where the New Zealand team finished fourth, and his contract with the team expired in October 2016.

The New Zealand team enjoyed a surplus of success under Erik’s tutelage. He served as a team trainer from 2005 to 2008 and took over as High Performance Coach and leader of the team in 2009. Under Erik’s guidance, New Zealand won team bronze medals at both the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Lexington and the 2012 London Olympic Games. Andrew Nicholson and Nereo also won an individual bronze medal at the 2010 WEG.

Erik’s new appointment as head of the Land Rover U.S. Eventing Team is a homecoming of sorts, as he was born in Chicago and spent his early childhood in America. His family moved when he was 6 years old from the U.S. to Sweden, where he started his eventing career.

Erik moved to the UK when he was 22 to work for Mark Todd. He represented Sweden at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, where he finished 57th individually, and at the 1994 World Equestrian Games at The Hague, finishing 15th. His pinnacle career achievement came when he rode on the Swedish team that won gold at the 1993 European Championships at Achselschwang, Germany.

After retiring from competing, Erik transitioned to coaching, working with the Japanese, Swedish and New Zealand eventing teams. He now takes over the role of U.S. team coach from David O’Connor, who served in the role from 2013 to 2016 before transitioning in December to USEF Eventing Technical Adviser, a role he was meant to hold through the 2018 World Equestrian Games.

David resigned from the role in May to focus on advancing safety and global risk management in eventing. The USEF opened the application process for U.S. Performance Director for Eventing in July, and Erik was unanimously recommended for the position by the Eventing Sport Committee’s appointed search group.

Erik Duvander at the Kentucky Horse Park with Lucy Jackson in 2012. Photo by Samantha Clark.

A new era

Erik kindly spoke exclusively to EN about his new appointment from his home in New Zealand. “I’ve always been a great admirer of the American team,” he said. “What really struck me was when America won the World Championships at Burghley in 1974, both team and individual gold medals. I was a young boy then and learning about the sport, and I saw America as a great powerhouse in eventing.”

After deciding not to put forward his name to renew his role as New Zealand’s coach, Erik went on an extended teaching tour, spending six months in the U.S. this year and traveling from coast to coast to teach lessons and clinics.

“I’ve met many of your top riders and the next generation of top riders, and I believe you have top horses in this country. I met with enthusiastic owners, and there are wonderful people backing the riders,” he said.

“I feel ready to work with the U.S. team from the experience I’ve had coaching in the past. I love a challenge. After this year being away from High Performance, I am ready to get back into it. I love the sport. I love the horses. It’s the environment I thrive in. When the opportunity came to apply for the job, I had to go for it.”

Erik is back home in New Zealand now but will be traveling to Kentucky later this week to check in at USEF Headquarters in Lexington before hitting the road and going around the country to continue the process of getting to know the riders and horses.

“The next step is to go out and see the riders. I need to listen to their needs and hear them and try to create a picture of where we need to go from here onwards. People have asked me, ‘Will you do what you did with the New Zealand team?’ I don’t believe you can. I think you have to be respectful for the history of the country, the culture and the experience the riders have had to get the best out of them.”

Erik began working with the New Zealand Eventing Team in 2005 as a trainer, and the program started to truly thrive when he officially took on the role of High Performance Coach in 2009 ahead of the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Lexington.

“I had five goals when I became New Zealand’s coach. First, I wanted to create the best team culture where the organization, trainers, leaders and riders worked together to achieve results. When I took over the New Zealand team it was in disarray. I switched it from everyone working as individuals to creating a culture where everyone worked together in harmony and drew on each other’s experiences,” he said.

“Second, I set a goal to win team medals, which we did at the 2010 World Games and 2012 London Olympics. I wanted to be a part of New Zealand winning team medals, but my third goal was to see Andrew win a medal individually, which he hadn’t done up until that point. He’d been the backbone of the New Zealand team for such a long time and made sacrifices for the team. My role is about setting it up to make that possible,” he continued.

“My fourth goal was to develop the next generation of competitive riders for New Zealand, which we did with Tim Price, Jonelle Price, Lizzie Green, Jock Paget, Jesse Campbell and Clarke Johnstone, who all won three or four-star competitions while I was coach. The fifth goal was to win CCI4* events. I’m very proud that we were able to win 10 CCI4* competitions with five different riders.”

Erik Duvander with Andrew Nicholson. Photo by Samantha Clark.

Returning to the podium

As for his goals for the U.S. team, with the 2018 World Equestrian Games at Tryon less than a year away, Erik said his immediate focus in his new role will be leading the team to the best possible performance on home soil.

“It’s a short time to make big changes, and you wouldn’t want to make too many changes. The focus will be more on improving the detail in the last 11 months going in. During this period of time, it’s about reading the landscape and understanding the bigger picture and where it needs to go. I’ll be trying to grasp that before WEG and then roll out a longer term plan.”

Ultimately the pinnacle goal will be to return U.S. eventing to the podium. The U.S. last won a medal at a major championships when the team took bronze at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. The team last won a World Equestrian Games medal in 2002 at Jerez. The USA has not completed a team at a major championships since the 2012 London Olympics.

Does Erik feel that pressure to return the U.S. team to the podium? “I feel pressure every day, and I always put a lot of pressure on myself. I am competitive by nature. It’s a good motivator. It’s very important at these big competitions that a nation does well, so it is important now that I’m attached to the American team,” he said.

“The goal is to create an environment where riders can develop and thrive. It’s a tough sport. There has to be enough joy in it. There are a lot of knocks on the way. It has to be an environment where they enjoy working and can develop and the horses can develop.”

As for whether Erik will move to the USA, that decision is still up in the air. Erik, his wife Stephanie, who is a native New Zealander, and their three children currently live in Auckland after moving back from the UK, where the New Zealand team and coaches relocated in 2011 in preparation for the 2012 London Olympics. Their children, Luca, 15, Finn, 13, and Stella, 11, are attending excellent schools in Auckland.

“Our kids are thriving here in their new schools. They had moved around quite a lot in the UK and then back again to New Zealand. We need to see how this first year goes up until the World Games. If we felt ready to move to the USA then there is a high chance. They are open-minded and excited about the possibility.”

The EN team would like to send our heartiest welcome to Erik, who you will be seeing out and about in the U.S. very soon. He will also be leading the USEF High Performance sessions at the USEA Annual Meeting & Convention in Long Beach, California in December, and as always EN will be bringing you all the latest High Performance news from the USEA Convention. Go Eventing.