There’s a party going on in Paso Robles, California (and Fresno, Carmel Valley, and Puerto Rico) and it involves a lot of bubbles — both the sparkling kind and the wrapping kind.
Lauren Billys and the Purdy Syndicate’s Castle Larchfield Purdy are going to Rio.
“Are you breathing?” I asked her first, having been in touch with Lauren the past weeks. She laughed. “It’s hard to believe. I’m kind of breathing!”
The journey hasn’t been easy, but Lauren and her team rose to the occasion, and all the hard work and sacrifice is paying off.
“I’m not going to lie, it was hard, and there was sacrifice.”
Lauren, now 27, took the step back in 2011 to begin representing Puerto Rico as an athlete when she represented them at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara with her mare, Ballingowan Ginger.
As an American territory, Puerto Ricans are considered Americans, but not all Americans are considered Puerto Rican. While they can vote in presidential elections, they have their own government.
Firmly ensconced in the Latin American tradition with their ties to North America through their government, Puerto Rico is a special place, and one that Lauren is thrilled to have part of her heritage. “I still have family there,” including her grandmother, and ascribes her love of spicy food to her Puerto Rican heritage (along with her sass!).
When she was 19, Lauren began riding on the weekends with Bea and Derek di Grazia, traveling to Carmel Valley from Fresno State, where she managed to compete at the upper levels, teach and build a business, as well as double major in Enology and Chemistry.
That important coach-rider relationship continues to this day. “They are the best,” Lauren said. One of her major decisions this past year was to uproot from the Central Valley and move to Carmel Valley where she currently manages a small horse farm, teaches lessons, and has her horses in work. “I see Bea and Derek pretty much every day. It’s been a incredible.”
But that meant she had to leave behind a successful business, students, clients, her blood family and her barn family. Lauren officially made the move in January of 2015. That same month, Lauren made the difficult decision to sell Ballingowan Ginger, her first upper level and team horse, to young rider Jordan Horowitz. And then news came that she also sold her younger mare, Jitter Bug, to Hannah Sue Burnett’s long time supporter, Jacqueline Mars. Hannah Sue Burnett Gets the Ride on Jitter Bug.
Qualifying as an individual rider for the Olympic games is a much different process than team selection. This is partly why it was so important to win at the Pan Ams last summer for the U.S.
The selection season began March 1, 2015 and continued through this weekend. Cumulative points throughout that span decide who fills the three individual spots for non-team countries. In other words, in order to qualify as an individual not from the U.S., Canada or Brazil, you need to be one of the top three riders in the entire Western Hemisphere. No pressure, right?
Purdy, as he is affectionately known, was imported by Hillary Bates and was Beth Mahon Temkin’s barn before pairing up with Lauren. Beth moved him up to Intermediate in 2014, and Lauren put together the Purdy Syndicate in order to get her hopeful partner for Rio.
After almost two years together, Lauren and the 14-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding have made easy work of cross country courses across the U.S. and Canada. In fact, since being imported from England in 2013 (Purdy started in Emma Castle’s yard), he hasn’t had a single cross country jump penalty.
Last year was a whirlwind for the pair, who tried not to look too far ahead in the future. “I’ve tried to keep the focus on each individual event. It’s a long and short game.” Indeed. Purdy and Lauren moved up to Advanced at this event at Twin Rivers Horse Park last year and never looked back.
Their FEI event schedule was carefully planned and scheduled, and resulted in top 20 finishes at Galway Downs CIC3* (10th), Jersey Fresh CCI3* (16th), the Toronto Pan American Games CCI2* (18th), Copper Meadows CIC3* (2nd), a win Woodside Horse Park CIC3*, and the CCI3* at Galway Downs (8th) in November.
In fact, Jersey Fresh marked not only the pair’s first CCI3* together, it marked Lauren’s first completion at that level, and Purdy’s second run at the level after completing Blenheim in 2012. According to Lauren, Purdy didn’t even blink. This year they came in second in the two-star at Fresno County Horse Park, where they were leading after dressage and stadium, and won the CIC3* at Twin this week.
Lauren was named the 2015 Puerto Rican female Equestrian athlete of the year, a true honor. She called it the “most humbling award” of her career.
After their outing at Fresno, Lauren explained their winter training program. “He’s a big horse, and I’m a little person, so that has brought its own set of challenges.”
Focusing on dressage and stadium, they came out this year with a bang, going double clear in both their stadium rounds and setting the top mark for dressage. She doesn’t worry about the cross country as much, since he’s pretty much a beast out there. In her preparation for Rio, she plans to event him only a few times, but go to a lot of show jumping and dressage shows. “In a way, it’s winter for us again!” Expect to see Purdy back on the scene in late May, early June.
As soon as it was official Lauren would be indeed going to Rio, she reached out to those that helped her get to where she is today. She found Derek di Grazia, and Lois Henry (her longtime dressage coach) and told them in person before the news broke.
And how did she find out? Because the individual riders are determined on a point basis, the results of other 3* events around the world also factor in. So this morning, Ronald Zabala of Ecuador sent Lauren an email after the conclusion of the event in Quillota, Chile, letting her know she was bound for Rio.
“It’s incredible, we’re kind of competitors but at the same time, we’re not.” Carlos Lagos from Chile is also bound for Rio (he finished 5th individually at the Pan Ams last summer), while the remaining individual spot is dependent on results in Portugal tomorrow. As for the scene when she found out? “It was incredibly emotional. I was getting ready to go back to Twin and Ronald emailed and my mom was there, and my dad was there, and my sister was there and we were all crying. And it’s hard to put an end on anything but it’s been five years.”
She had a five year plan? Lauren laughed. “It was right after the Pan Ams in Mexico (2011), and I was on the phone with Derek. He asked, so what’s next? And I said, I think the 2015 Pan Ams and then the Olympics in 2016. And he was just said okay. Then it was – I just committed to a lot! Who knew that could become a reality? I clearly remember that moment.”
Her Rio prep isn’t finalized yet, because she also had alternate plans if Rio didn’t happen. “This (the CIC 3* at Twin) was his first Advanced outing of the year, so I am really pleased.”
She’ll plan to event him lightly, going to multiple dressage and jumper shows to keep up the training, keep her eye, and keep the focus. “For me, I feel like I compete better when I have been competing recently,” so she will aim to keep herself sharp. “Tentatively I would really like to go to Great Meadows for the Nations Cup as his last outing. The last flight to Rio leaves from Miami, and my father lives there, so I could spend the last two week in Florida and break up the trip a little.”
The CIC3* and upper levels were run as one day event on Friday at Twin Rivers, in order to try to keep ahead of the forecast for rain. “I was walking the XC and if nothing else, I have made so many friends and supporters from this year. The Baxters in part put this 3* on for me to qualify — I’m representing Puerto Rico and I’m also representing Area VI. People I didn’t even know were keeping tabs on [my qualification], were. Tamie [Smith] called me because she found out the results from Chile and asked, ‘Are you going now?’ It was amazing! People in the barns were cheering and crying and it was really just such a great moment not just for me. It’s incredible.”
And now? “I haven’t slept for the past two days. I knew it was going to be to the wire (with gathering enough points to qualify) so the last four months have been so emotional and so crazy. It will nice to kind of relax and be normal, at least for a little bit,” as Lauren plans to maybe visit some friends and family in the next month and sleep. But have no fear, she only plans to take the rest of the March as a kind of breather period!
Of course, there are also many thanks —”I can’t thank my sponsors, the Purdy Syndicate, LLC, Bea and Derek DiGrazia, Loris Henry, my family, my friends, the Puerto Rican Olympic Committee and Equestrian Federation, the LB Eventing family, and my friends in Area VI who have supported me and relentlessly been part of every step to get to this place.”
As for the next five year plan, Lauren’s sights are already on WEG at Bromont, and she’ll start competing her newer horse, Marseille (imported in March last year) starting in April. In other words, if you don’t already know her name, make sure you take note now.
Lauren Billys is ready to take on the world.