Our attempt to interview Olivier Philippaerts didn’t start so well, when we were a bit confused about who were who in regards to him and his twin brother Nicola. But, Olivier is probably the sweetest thing on the showjumping circuit – and somehow he made the very embarrassing situation completely normal.
With less than two decades on the horse back, and still two European Championships ridden as a pony rider, two European Championships ridden as a junior whereas one resulted in an individual gold medal in 2010, a team gold medal won at the European Championships for young riders in Comporta in 2011 – well it’s kind of an understatement to write that Olivier is one of the circuit’s biggest talents. No surprise either, as his father is Ludo Philippaerts – one of the world’s best riders.
So when Olivier started to ride at the age of five, it was only how it was supposed to be. “But, in the beginning I also did a lot of other sports as well – such as football, tennis, and basketball,” Philippaerts explains. “At the certain moment though, I chose – I think I was around 12 – to only do showjumping and forget about the rest.” It turned out that was a very good choice.
Still, Olivier had to combine riding with school – juggling the two around was not the easiest, but the Philippaerts found a solution; “Until I was 18 me and my brother went to a top sports school in Belgium – and then we trained at home with my dad. I had a certain amount of school days that I could use to go to shows, and that was how I made it work. It was a really good solution for me and my brother; we could combine our competition careers with going to school in the week – and I am very happy I did that.”
Olivier also made an attempt to compete and study – but had to give in; “I started studying finance at the university – but then I went to America for one month to compete, and when I came back I had missed out on a lot and concluded that it was a bit too complicated. It’s hard combining studies and competing at the level I am now, so I think this year I try it a bit differently with half-time studies or something like that. For me, it is important to do this, as we are going to run a business in a few years and it’s not only sport that it’s about.”
At the age of 19 Olivier was picked as Belgium’s fifth rider for the Olympics in London, after a very good season on his super star Cabrio van de Heffinck. “I didn’t really think I had any chance to make it to the team, but my horse jumped really well in some of the Nations Cups leading towards the selection for the Games. Then in the end I was picked as the fifth rider. In one way it is of course a little frustrating to be the fifth rider on a team like that as you really would like to ride, but in another way it was a huge experience for me. Just going to the opening ceremony, and living in the Olympic village – it was very special!”
Cabrio van de Heffinck – an 11 year old stallion, is Olivier’s super star. “The van de Heffinck stud farm bought him when he was 2 or 3 at an auction. Cabrio was one of three horses from the same breeding at the auction, and the cheapest of them – but in the end he was the one who turned out to be the best. My father bought half of Cabrio, and we kept him to ride. As a young horse Cabrio was very wild and fresh! He was very difficult to ride – and extremely nervous. And he was always bucking around, and not focused on what he had to do. When Cabrio was a 6 year old I started to ride him. The first show I did with him was in Italy – and he jumped unbelievably good, and I realized he fitted me quite well. At the time I did the Europeans on him in Comporta he was good, but he was still a bit stallionish and liked to play around – so I knew he had room to improve. I think when he was nine, and then in the Nations Cup in Lisbon he started jumping really well. In my first 2012 Nations Cup in Lummen I did a clear round, and then had four faults – and then the same in Rome – where he jumped really good again. And then in Aachen I was clear and had two down in the Nations Cup; I mean Aachen is an unbelievable show, so it was a great result for me. Then I went to the Olympics, and then Calgary,” Olivier explains about his road to the highlight of his career.
Because in 2012 Olivier became the youngest rider ever to win the CN International Grand Prix at Spruce Meadows, riding Cabrio. “On the first day he was placed in the big class, and then in the Nations Cup I had eight faults – it was my own mistake, but I had a good feeling all weekend. Then in the Grand Prix I jumped clear in the first round but with a time fault – and it was one of the biggest classes I have ever jumped so I was super happy. In the second round I also had a time fault – but it was my first Grand Prix were I went through both rounds without faults on the fences. It was so difficult there, so to only end up with time faults was no shame. It was exciting to the last rider, and one after the other had faults – I was watching with my dad by the entrance when I realized I won. I will never forget that moment – and I am so happy to have been able to win that Grand Prix. It’s the biggest achievement in my career!”
On Cabrio Olivier ads; “He is quieter now, but still a little wild – I cannot, and would not like to, change his nature. It is the way he is. What is funny is that he is very quiet in the stable, and always sleeps – but when he gets out he wakes up. I have to say it’s been a huge advantage to have had him since he was a youngster, as I now know him very well.” As to Cabrio’s co-owners – the van de Heffinck stud Olivier says; “I am very happy with my owners from van de Heffinck – they kept Cabrio for me, and always gave me the chance and I am so thankful for that.”
As to which Philppaerts gets to ride a horse in the stable, he says; “We have a lot of horses coming and going at our stable – and it’s my dad who actually decides who rides which horse based on what he thinks will fit the best. Sometimes we have to change it – but that does not happen so often.”
The focus for the Philippaerts is on the sport, but as Olivier puts it; “We also live from this – it is our business and livelihood as well. So we have to sell good horses, but I think we have managed to combine the sport with the business in a good way. My dad has an unbelievable good eye for young horses – I really think it’s one of his biggest advantages in this sport.”
There are no lazy days for Olivier, Nicola and Ludo who have 55 horses at home that need to be ridden every day. And not only that – the Philippaerts breed a lot – about 25 foals a year. So, there is of course extra riders at home and quite a few grooms - “it’s quite busy at our place,” Olivier laughs.
It’s a family affair when it comes to the Philippaerts, and Olivier expresses clearly how he appreciates his family and the help from his father. “It is very nice to work so close with my family, but sometimes it can of course be a little difficult. We are four sons in the family, so let’s see what the future holds for the company and our business – it all depends on what we want and how it develops.”
Although hugely successful, Olivier has a long list of things he wants to achieve; “I would love to compete at the Olympics! And of course I would like to become one of the best in the world, and I will do what I can to make it happen – although I know it will be hard. I will work as best as I can to improve myself where I can, so I can get myself as far as I can in the sport!”
And with an attitude like that – we are sure Olivier will achieve exactly what he wants.
Photos by Jenny Abrahamsson/Text by Jannicke Naustdal - copyright © worldofshowjumping.com 2013.
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