U.S. Paralympics

U.S. Paralympics

Jun 26 Hart hopes for second chance at podium in London

By Jonathan Gomez | June 26, 2012, 12:19 p.m. (ET)

While watching the para-equestrian selection trials in 1998, Rebecca Hart (Unionville, Pa.) decided she wanted to compete internationally. She purchased her first horse, trained seriously, and eight years later – after claiming her second United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) Para-Equestrian Dressage National Championship – ended up one spot away from a medal in mixed dressage freestyle grade II event at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games.

“I was very happy with fourth," said Hart. "Would I love to have medaled? Absolutely. But having that experience along with the last few years of work is amazing. I’m definitely going to bring it this time around and hopefully end up on the podium."

Hart will likely get a second chance at the 2012 Paralympic Games after winning her fifth national championship. Hart inched out 2011 national champion Jonathan Wentz by a slim margin – 73.501% to 73.126% – for the victory.

“It feels awesome. It’s one of those things where it’s not just my win; it belongs to everyone who’s helped me get to this point. There’s nothing like representing your country at a Paralympic Games.”

Based on rankings, Jonathan Wentz (Richardson, TX/Grade Ib), Donna Ponessa (New Windsor, NY/Grade Ia), and Dale Dedrick (Ann Arbor, MI/Grade II) are likely to join her at the Games, although the team will not be nominated until mid-July. There are five classes in Paralympic equestrian competition: Grades Ia, Ib, II, III and IV. Grade Ia is for athletes whose impairment has the greatest impact on their ability to ride, while Grade IV is for athletes whose impairment has the least impact on their ability to ride.

The four athletes will be joined by Chef d’Equipe Missy Ransehousen, who will put the athletes through a boot camp before the Games. Ransehousen is Hart’s full-time coach and set aside her own bid for the Beijing Olympic Games to help the U.S. Paralympic Team.

Since her fourth place finish, Hart claimed three consecutive national champion titles in 2008, 2009 and 2010 while also participating in the 2010 Alltech World Equestrian Games. Changing horses in 2011, Hart and Lord Ludger (LoLu, as she calls him) watched her winning streak end at the hand of Paralympic teammate Jonathan Wentz, this year’s reserve champion.

“(Changing horses) was actually a forced hand,” Hart explained. “I had to retire my other horse (Norteassa). He just turned 20 and was no longer able to compete at the national level. LoLu had always been ridden by able-bodied riders, so it was a new experience to have a disabled rider on his back.”

Hart rides with familial spastic paraplegia, a degenerative and genetic condition that causes muscle wasting and paralysis in the lower body. The progressive disease worsens with age, causing some to lose complete mobility and end up in a wheelchair.

During the three day national championship, competitors experienced an array of weather conditions ranging from high temperatures one day, a downpour the second day and a breezy but exceptional weather pattern on the final day.

“LoLu got more and more comfortable with the performance. All the different factors (weather) that could’ve ruined things, I was glad he just did his job. I’m really looking forward to London. I’m confident with LoLu. It’ll be his first Paralympic Games so it’ll be quite the atmosphere change for him.”

While the environment and opponents may change, one aspect that will remain is the judges. The USEF National Championship FEI Ground Jury members Carlos Lopes, Anne Prain, and Marc Urban will also be judging the Paralympic Games in London.

“They told me to just keep smoothing things out; work on the consistency and getting the flow and accuracy to nail down a good ride,” said Hart.

While an individual medal is certainly on her mind, Hart was quick to mention the team’s medal chances. After all, the U.S. Para-Equestrian team has been on a roll claiming three team tournament championships in 2011 and a championship and reserve champion so far in 2012.

“There are a ton of very good teams,” said Hart. “It’s a homecoming for the sport and it’s going to be tough, but if we keep the horses calm we’ve got a great chance.”

The Paralympic equestrian events take place in London at Greenwich Park, Aug. 30-Sept. 4, 2012.London’s oldest Royal Park, Greenwich Park dates back to 1433 and is part of the Greenwich World Heritage site and home to the Prime Meridian Line. Located 20 minutes from central London, the park offers sweeping views across the River Thames to St. Paul’s Cathedral and beyond. The equestrian course sits in front of the Queen’s House within the grounds of the National Maritime Museum and will be removed after the Games.

Athletes compete in three dressage tests where they have to perform a series of pre-determined movements which differ by grade and ability: a team test (with three to four riders per team), an individual championship test, and freestyle test, where athletes choose their own movements and music. Through the tests, horse and rider must be in harmony, and the overall picture must be of lightness and rhythm.

The mixed team event will take place Aug. 30-31 before the individual competitions begin.