It’s been a six months since Karen O’Connor became coach of the Mexican eventing team, and she and her riders have been busy ever since preparing for next month’s Pan American Games in Toronto. The squad is here in The Plains, Virginia this weekend to complete their final prep run at the Land Rover Great Meadow International, and Karen kindly took some time yesterday during their lessons at High Acre to talk about Team Mexico.
Mexican eventing is currently experiencing a rebirth as the country looks to return to the Olympics, a goal that’s eluded them since the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. With Karen taking up the position of team coach in January, her immediate goal became to qualify as many riders as possible for Toronto to give the team a shot at sending a team or individual riders to Rio de Janeiro.
“With any program in its inception, you need patience to produce the product. Any program will take time to develop, and I’m very lucky that there is a good infrastructure in Mexico City now at the army bases, where they have quite a large pool of talent for riders. We’ve produced enough two-star horses to have a full team for Toronto, and the riders are really excited about being in the United States for their final preparation,” Karen said.
“They are working really, really hard. Their learning curve is very steep. I’ve been able to introduce the foundation of flatwork carrying through into the jumping phases, which is a new concept for them. It’s producing great results, and I’m really happy with the progress.”
Meet the team
The Mexican Pan Ams team is made up of three riders from the Mexican Army — Abraham Ojeda, Guillermo de Campo and Enrique Mercado — and Daniela Moguel, a civilian rider. Alan Triana was on the team until last week, when his mare was unfortunately injured at Seneca Valley Horse Trials, so Enrique and his horse have been called up from the reserve slot.
Daniela qualified for the Pan Ams thanks to a ninth-place finish at Ocala Horse Properties CCI2* with Cecelia. A former ride of Leslie Chelstrom, the 12-year-old Thoroughbred mare is owned by Aurelio Quinzaños and Luis Miguel Alonso. Daniela also has Agave, a 15-year-old Thoroughbred gelding owned by Aurelio Quinzaños and Maribel Alonso, as her personal reserve horse.
Abraham will ride Obusero, an 11-year-old warmblood stallion with whom he won the Perote CCI2* in Mexico City in February to qualify for Toronto. Guillermo’s ride is Quelite, a 9-year-old warmblood stallion; they finished third in the CCI2* at Perote. Enrique Mercado qualified with a fourth-place finish at Perote on Romana, an 8-year-old mare. All three horses are owned by the Mexican Army.
Preparing for Toronto
The team horses flew from Mexico City into Miami on April 25, the Saturday of the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, and then shipped to Raylyn Farms in Frederick, Maryland, where they’ve been based ever since. The riders competed at Fair Hill and Virginia this spring and were meant to compete at Bromont earlier this month before a paperwork delay ultimately denied the team access into Canada.
“I have a very strong expectation for the program and for the future. Certainly we are very well prepared, and these riders have been very consistent with their results. We took a bit of a hit when they were denied entry into Canada to go compete at Bromont. I’m really disappointed about that, and I thought that would have been a great opportunity. Having said that, I was very happy with the results at Seneca,” Karen said.
“We’ll know a lot more about who we are and where we stand after Great Meadow. I know my riders will be modifying their cross country because they ran last weekend at Seneca. I’m not sure any of them will run the entire course, but for sure they’re going to get out there and have a good school and get a good preparation for the Games.”
As for her hopes for Toronto, Karen said she knows there are a number of strong teams they’ll be going up against, from “the U.S. juggernaut” to Clayton Fredericks’ Canadians and Peter Gray’s Guatemalans to Mark Todd’s Brazilians. But she is confident her team is well prepared and that they’ve trained hard.
“They’re all in the hunt in the dressage, and make no mistake about it — these riders are brave cross country, and their horses reward them for that,” Karen said. “Their show jumping background is stronger than their eventing background for a lot of the riders. We’re in with a chance.”
A dynamic duo
Vickie Wiley has played a large role in giving Mexico a fighting chance. An upper-level Mexican dressage rider who competes with the lovely Quinquenio, she’s also become the official translator for the Mexican eventing team to help Karen and the riders conquer the language barrier. While Karen speaks a little Spanish and the riders speak some English — Dani is fluent in both languages — it became apparent very quickly that they would all need to find a way to effectively communicate.
Born in Evanston, Illinois, Vickie’s parents moved to Mexico when she was 3 months old, and she’s lived there ever since. She’s represented Mexico in international dressage competitions, and while she said she had watched some eventing before at big events like Aachen, serving as a translator for Karen has been an entirely new experience.
“I’m learning so much about cross country and the eventing scene. In dressage, we know about eventing. But now that I’m involved, I’m thinking, ‘Wow, what a wonderful world,'” Vickie said. “Seeing the top level riders has been eye-opening — seeing how wonderful they ride and how brave they are.”
Karen and Vickie have worked together to delay the relaying of instructions as much as possible. “I see it, I say it, Vickie says it, the rider hears it and then there’s a reaction,” Karen said. “We’ve had to become very clever about how to get the point across as quickly as possible. We use fragment sentences and quick phrases. We’re both speaking Spanglish.”
Just as she’s been since Karen took up the coaching role, Vickie will be by her side all weekend here at Great Meadow as Karen trains and coaches her riders at their final prep event for the Pan Ams. Vickie will also go to Toronto to continue her translator role if her credentials are approved in time — fingers crossed!
A life-changing experience
From creating a program from scratch and learning a new language to finding a new love for teaching and a renewed sense of purpose after the accident that ended her riding career, Karen said she’s enjoying every minute of coaching the Mexican eventing team.
“It’s been life-changing for me. It’s been a really rough road for me the last couple years, between breaking my back and being told your career is over,” Karen said. “At the same time, David became coach of the USA, and I came off all the U.S. committees I had been on due to a perceived conflict of interest. My services in the United States were no longer required, so I’d been really been lost.”
Karen said she’s found a new joy in coaching the Mexican team, and the riders are equally thrilled to have such a highly decorated coach at the helm. Pan Ams team rider Guillermo de Campo said, “It’s a dream,” not just to be here competing at Great Meadow, but to have Karen as their team coach. Karen said the feeling is very much a mutual one.
“After all of my years of being a crazy competitive person, I’m now taking that competitive side and putting it into those riders. I want Mexico to win just as much as when I was riding and I wanted to win. It’s a really fun thing for me,” Karen said. “Now I really enjoy teaching, whereas before I always loved competing and riding, and I filled the rest of my day with teaching. For sure my love was for competing, and now it’s to help these riders.”
‘It takes a village’
Karen said there are a slew of people to thank for helping the Mexican team get to Great Meadow and ultimately the Pan Ams. She is especially grateful to Ray, Lynn and Marilyn Little for allowing the team to be based at Raylyn Farms this spring, as well as to Col. Francisco Javier Montejano, who has spearheaded the renewal of the Mexican eventing team.
“It takes a village, and there are a lot of people that made this happen. Col Montejano is the mastermind behind the riding program, and none of this would be happening without his influence,” Karen said. “He’s responsible for raising the budget and getting the high ranking officials in the Mexican Army to back this financially. I’m very grateful to him and all the people who work under him that they wanted this to happen.”
Whatever happens at Great Meadow this weekend and the Pan Ams next month, Karen said she is excited for the future — to keep building this program and to help the Mexican team accomplish their ultimate goal of returning to the Olympic stage.
“If you look at the world picture, I’m not doing too much for the U.S. right now, but I have signed on to a program for one of the countries that hasn’t competed in the Olympics for a long time. If I was able to qualify an individual or even a team from Mexico for the Olympics, maybe next year or in four years, that’s a big step forward in eventing for the world.”
We couldn’t agree more. On a personal note, the Mexican riders and their support crew are just about the loveliest, nicest bunch of people you will ever meet. They are thrilled and honored to be here, and the EN team would like to extend them the warmest of welcomes. Best of luck this weekend. Viva Mexico!