Lauren Billys is the first to say that representing Puerto Rico at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro was far from easy. But not one to let any hurdles deter her, Lauren kept her head down and relentlessly pursued her goals, honoring her grandmother’s Puerto Rican heritage and achieving the Olympic dream in the process with her beloved mount Castle Larchfield Purdy.
That Olympic dream became a reality this past March when Lauren received the official call-up to join the Puerto Ricans in Rio, the only event rider to represent the country at the Games. It was after that call, however, that Lauren hit a mental roadblock she hadn’t expected.
“To be totally honest, I kind of hit a plateau after I got the call,” Lauren said. “I had put so much weight on just getting in (to the Games), that I just had trouble putting my mind in the right place after that. It was something that I really had to work on.”
Looking back, Lauren is grateful to have been able to identify the plateau as an issue early on so that she could formulate a plan to combat it. She enlisted the help of a sports psychologist to up her mental game, which helped her focus on the aspects of competition that she could control, rather than on those she couldn’t.
“It took a bit of time for everything to click in and make sense, that this was just one of the peaks on the way to reaching the summit,” she said. “Rio was the summit. Getting qualified and being chosen to go was not the end goal.”
To get her groove back, Lauren kept pecking away at her prep events, competing in an Intermediate at Twin Rivers in April, followed by an Advanced run at Woodside in May. From there, Lauren traveled east to contest the Great Meadow International CICO3*, her final prep run before Rio.
Rolling with the punches
Great Meadow was not Lauren’s ideal last event leading up to Rio, she recalled. “I was more nervous in my head for Great Meadow than for Rio because I knew that if something went wrong there that I would be really worried about Rio.”
“Purdy” never quite settled in at Great Meadow, and this showed in their dressage test, with their score of 66.1 being the highest they’ve ever earned together. “There were positives to the weekend, but I was bummed that we struggled on the flat,” Lauren said. “He just got in the arena and got too hot. I knew we’d have to work hard on the flat, but I was bummed.”
Lauren kept her focus on Rio, doing her best not to let her last prep event dictate the tone of her next. She spent the interim time between Great Meadow and Rio in Virginia basing at Kurt Martin’s farm.
“It was a great experience to be able to stay in Virginia and travel down to Ocala,” she said. “We just don’t have access to the same types of atmosphere and proximity on the West Coast, so it was a big eye-opener for me. Derek (di Grazia) came out to help me, and it really helped us iron out the kinks. It was comforting to know that what we had experienced at Great Meadow was more circumstantial and not a pattern.”
Utilizing the time away from home to her advantage, Lauren said that taking the time to focus solely on herself worked wonders. “I really got to delve into my insecurities about the Games and really reflect on what got me there in the first place,” she said. “It was an important time for me to prepare so that when we got on the plane I felt we were in the right place.”
For Lauren, representing Puerto Rico carried a heavy weight. “Knowing that I came from a smaller federation, I didn’t want to just be the girl from a small country who just got in. I wanted to be taken seriously. This was probably one of my biggest insecurities, but I had to learn to look inwardly and know that if I was proud of my performance, that everyone else would be, too.”
“It was something I had to confront. Riding for a smaller federation is a totally different game; you have to be smart and strategic and determined. It’s every bit as difficult as going for a bigger team, and it can be tiring. I’m fortunate to have had a lot of people encouraging me, but I wanted to know that I earned my spot just as much as the next person. That was a huge breakthrough for me — learning to look inwardly instead of out at everyone else.”
‘Focus on what you can control’
Lauren arrived in Rio several days before the first horse inspection and immediately set her focus on the elements of the upcoming week that she could control.
“You can’t focus on the parts of the sport that you can’t control; you can’t control what is on the cross country course, but you can control how you ride it. Everything from the time I go to sleep to the time I wake up I try to control because I can optimize my own performance by managing these things. Everything I did with Purdy I did as part of a plan to build into the next thing we did.”
Purdy was back to his normal self in Rio, as if he knew that it was the big dance. “He was fresh and excited, and it was like he knew that this was what we’d been practicing for and building up to. We were able to focus on the task at hand, which was becoming comfortable in a very uncomfortable situation. Especially when you’re riding in the same arena as Michael Jung and Mark Todd, it can be very intimidating,” Lauren said.
“It was good to get there ahead of time. We were able to have two ring familiarizations, and the equestrian venue was in the middle of a very impoverished area, so entering through the armed gates and getting used to that atmosphere was important, too. It gave both of us time to get our minds in the right place.”
This is what you came for
Before she knew it, Lauren and Purdy were through the first horse inspection and preparing to go into Deodoro Stadium to contest their first Olympic Games. It was a surreal moment for Lauren, who said that perhaps the most emotion she felt came as she went down the ramp into the ring for dressage. “For me, it was so emotional to be trotting down that ramp and feeling like my horse and I were truly a team. I’ve never quite felt so one with my horse, and I couldn’t help but smile.”
Lauren and Purdy danced their way through their dressage test, earning a 56 from the judges, but it wasn’t the scoreboard that Lauren cared about most on that day. “I knew I had showed up and done everything I could to put my best test in. I knew the judges were favoring forward tests, so I did my best to ride forward and fluid while still taking my time to set up for each movement,” she said.
“I felt like Purdy really took his time and thought his way through the test, too. We’ve never had clean changes, and we got all of our changes clean in that test. I knew that when I looked at the scoreboard that I may or may not have gotten the score I wanted, so I decided not to look up at it and just enjoy the moment. I had a big cheering section of friends, family and all of Purdy’s owners, and it was amazing to perform in front of all of them. I knew I’d done the best I could, and that really helped put me in the right frame of mind for the rest of the weekend.”
Being one of the less experienced riders in the field in Rio, Lauren knew she had a big challenge coming up on cross country day. Rather than let the difficult questions intimidate or sway her, though, Lauren set about formulating a plan that would get her and Purdy home safely.
“Walking the course for the first time, I saw a lot of things I hadn’t seen before. In that moment, I leaned on the expertise of Derek and Bea (di Grazia). I heard Mark Todd walk up to Derek and comment on how it was the hardest Olympic course he’d walked in recent memory, and I knew it was going to be a battlefield,” she said.
“I wanted to come up with a plan that matched my prep. I knew I was one of the more green riders out there, so I needed to ride the way I knew I could. There were several questions I hadn’t seen before, so I planned to take the option. Why would you come to a championship and try something new? The option is there, and it was something I knew I could do. I made a plan based on where I knew both Purdy and I were. I was very thankful to have Derek walking with me; to have his level of experience and his eye was invaluable.”
Come cross country day, Lauren sat in the viewing tent before her ride, analyzing the early riders and how the course was riding. “In hindsight, I wish I would have watched a bit more. Purdy and I had a runout at the angled brushes after the up bank, and I think had I watched more I would have seen that a lot of horses weren’t reading the question very well. I would have taken the option there, but I think those decisions will come more naturally to me with more experience.”
Out on course, Lauren had the time of her life. It wasn’t the clear round she had hoped for, but Purdy jumped his heart out, and her mind felt sound as she tackled every question Pierre Michelet threw her way. “The mistakes I made came from a lack of experience and seeing new things,” she said. “I think Purdy and I both gained a lot of education out there and more motivation to keep trying the hard stuff so that we can be better prepared next time. We could have ended up heartbroken, but it was just the right ending.”
Lauren was tasked with the unenviable job of going first in the show jumping ring on the final day of competition. Not knowing for certain how the time would ride, Lauren did her best to ride the horse she had that day.
“I honestly probably left a stride out of every line, which likely confused all of the other riders!” Lauren said. “But Purdy likes to jump from that open gap spot, and I was trying to ride forward with a soft rein. I had two down, which I didn’t know at the time would actually end up being a pretty good round. In that sense, it was fortunate to go first because I didn’t have the pressure that other riders did. I do think that Great Meadow really helped prepare us for show jumping in that stadium with that type of course.”
‘It really sealed my fate’
As Lauren landed off of her last fence, officially completing her first Olympic experience, all she could think was that she was unequivocally addicted to the sport, even more so than she was before. If there was ever any doubt that this was her calling in life, it was erased as Lauren took in the scene at Deodoro before exiting the ring for the final time.
“When I came through those flags, I knew this was a lifetime deal for me,” Lauren said. “The Olympics have been a goal for so long, it’s hard to think about what comes after. But that moment settled it for me. I just couldn’t stop thinking about how lucky I was to be able to do this with this horse, and it really sealed my fate. I will be back.”
Not one to sit on her laurels, Lauren is already making preparations to return to the Olympics, aiming next for the World Equestrian Games in 2018 and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. She has another horse, Marseille, coming up through the levels and who she hopes to also qualify for the 2018 WEG.
As for Purdy, Lauren plans to head to Kentucky next spring to contest Rolex for the first time and also would like to travel overseas with both of her horses to gain more experience and optimize her performance for her next major championships.
“I would ideally love to take them both to Europe in the fall,” she said. “I just think we’d be that much more prepared from going over there. I came home hungry, and we’re ready to just keep training and moving forward. We have a lot to look forward to.”