Be sure to be pleasantly surprised by Saudi Arabian rider Kamal Bahamdan! At least we did not expect him to be so openhearted, so outspoken, and so committed for showjumping and for his horses, Tess, Delphi and Cezanne. In this interview he speaks about how he started showjumping both as a hobby and professionally, his coordination between a full time job in investment and the sport, learning from the best, pushing out of the comfort zone – and Tess, Tess and Tess!
For a very long time horses and showjumping were hobbies for Kamal. When he was seven years old he started riding in Saudi Arabia, and continued to do so throughout his years in high school. Horses were one of Kamal’s many hobbies. After graduating from Boston University as a manufacturing engineer, showjumping became a more serious commitment for Kamal though it remained a part time focus as he built parallel to it his career in investments. “The first four Olympic Games were for me part time commitment where I used to commute between the office and the stables, work in the weekdays and train or compete in the weekends. Against such part time role, I put realistic targets and worked to achieve them,” Kamal tells us. Before the London Olympics Kamal decided to take one sabbatical year from business and focus on his preparations for the Games; “When I decided to prepare for the London Games on full time basis, I set the bar much higher and aimed to make it to the podium," he explains.
Managing a full time job with top sport did not limit Kamal’s achievements. It was rather on the contrary! Kamal has been part of the Saudi Arabian team at five consecutive Olympics; in Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, Beijing and London. Four WEGs are also on his list of championships that are ridden. Not to forget that he also was a part of the team that claimed gold at the 2004 Pan Arab Games as well as taking home the individual gold on Casita. In 2011 he yet again helped the Saudi team to gold at the Pan Arab Games in Doha – as well as being individual silver medalist on Noblesse des Tess. But what really has made Kamal rocket to showjumping fame was his and Noblesse des Tess’ – aka Tess – fabulous performances at this year’s Olympics in London where they ended up with a team bronze medal and coming individually fourth.
Kamal’s fantastic results at the Olympics did not come without sacrifices and commitment though. “After the WEG in Kentucky it was time to decide whether to give the sporting career a priority over business while preparing towards the Olympics. At the WEG we saw that we had a strong team, with Abdullah claiming silver and the team ending eight especially after the establishment of the Saudi Equestrian Organization which provided significant support for the Saudi riders and I thought that if there ever was a time to give it a real try, that time was there and then,” Bahamdan tells us.
That decision brought with it some serious changes to Kamal’s life. Being based with Jan Tops in Valkenswaard, Holland, he started to commute back and forth between Holland and Saudi Arabia to train and work at his company respectively. “I continued commuting until a year ago; until then I worked during the week and met up with the horses at shows. When I could not travel due to business needs I used to ask ‘Daniel or Edwina can you please jump my horses, I can’t make it?’! The last year it has been different though, and I have been riding full time, being based here – spending every weekend at shows. The fifteen last weeks ahead of the Games I spent competing at different shows, and I only had the last week before London off,” Kamal tells us. “I believed that to be successful in London, I had to compete at the Global Champions Tour where I compete against the best riders, horses and at the most difficult courses, it is almost the same level as the Olympics on all counts, and so I did."
“The intensity has in other words been a lot different over the past year. I’ve pushed out of my comfort zone, and lived with complete focus towards the Games pretty much every single day,” Kamal smiles when speaking of how he has reached the level he now is finding himself at. “It will for sure be strange to get back to work after I have spent so much time with my three fantastic horses; I’ve just become even more attached to them the past year after seeing them every day. However, I have to get back to work, and to balance between work and showjumping again. But I definitely hope the balancing act will involve more showjumping than it did before I took this break from work,” Kamal reflects.
Kamal’s Olympic partner Noblesse des Tess seems to be a match made in heaven for the 41 year old, and we ask him to tell us about this super mare. “Tess is definitely an incredible mare,” Bahamdan says with fire in his eyes. “She’s got all the talent in the world! She does not have to think much about what she does as it comes natural to her, this however comes with a disadvantage where she has a tendency to be more quick and sometimes be even ahead of me and herself. Of course when I first got her I had to do a lot of mental work between her and me, more than physical work– and I got to see the amazing side of her when she slowed down and we really connected. She started to wait for me, and was kind of asking ‘what are we going to do now – what’s next?’ Over the last months she really started to wait instead of rushing things. Ahead of the Olympics I felt she was starting to show off and tried to tell me something; she really tried her heart out in everything she did and her results started to speak for themselves. Tess was really sticking her head out, saying ‘take me with you’.”
Kamal clearly has a very soft spot for this extra ordinary mare. “Tess has a heart made of gold and she is so intelligent. Her intelligence is mirrored in the way she jumps; she does what’s necessary for the jump and she is always trying to figure out what is needed to do the right thing.” Kamal puts forward the two final rounds at the Olympics as an example of how clever Tess is, where she solved the question posed by course builder Bob Ellis in the double combination where the horses really were asked to back up and then in the triple combination two jumps later they really had to go faster and stretch. Tess handled this difficulty with ease without any problems. “Her strongest point is probably not that she has got all the power in the world, but that she is so smart and in-tune with me."
Kamal also has other great horses, such as Delphi and Cezanne. "If you want me to personalize my horses, Tess has the personality of a gypsy and Delphi the personality of a princess. Delphi is quality wise a great horse, though she might have a temper if rushed, she needs to go through her routine both during warm out and on the course but when she goes within her comfort she is an amazing mare," Kamal says.
“Cezanne is very different from Tess and Delphi. While Cezanne had a very intense season last year, this year was more of a support to the two other mares, jumping the first big class of the show and then smaller classes. His first grand Prix was only at the mid-season in in Chantilly where he did great, then he jumped at Hamburg and Wiesbaden – and could have been ready to go to the Games also. He’s a bit of a slower horse than the other two though, where we jumped a lot of clear over the jumps however with time faults, therefore our task is to work on our tempo in order to avoid time faults in the future. He is big horse, careful with a big heart and all the scope. I need to switch on and off when I get off the other two and on to Cezanne, and I have to remind myself to adjust – not just when riding but also when I walk the courses since he has a huge stride ,” Kamal explains.
So, how big a sport is showjumping in his home country now we ask. "We are a country that cherishes horses as they are an integral part of our culture and heritage. However showjumping is a relatively young sport in Saudi Arabia – not much more than 20 years old. But after Sidney we experienced an increased awareness around the sport, and a lot more young riders were coming into showjumping afterwards. The medal that we won at the London Games will hopefully be a booster as well! People eagerly were following this time, with the social media and awareness around the sport –also the formation of Saudi Equestrian Organization brought a lot of increased attention. So this time it was a bit different, people were anticipating and watching – and to be able to get a team medal was great as it’s something that met the country’s expectations. We all went out there and really fought for that medal! I think our team showed that with fighting spirit and good preparation it can be done,” Kamal says full of spirit.
“We have had some great feedback from other riders from our region after London; people have come up to me and said ‘You showed us that it can be done. You showed us that you the country does not have to be in the sport for a 100 years for its riders to do well’ – asking also about what the team did and how we prepared in details. It’s a huge leap forward for this sport in our country!”
Before we finish our talk we ask Kamal to sum-up his Olympic-experiences. "In my opinion the London Games were the best ever. It was the most successful at all levels, the audience, infrastructure and organization, and obviously what made it extra special is the medal I won. It’s the best moment of my career if not my life. I have no words to explain how it feels! And it was also about how we fought for it – I still cherish it till now!”
Before he leaves, we tell Kamal that we really appreciate him telling us so much about himself and his horses. Kamal smiles, gets up and says; “Without the horses, what are we?”
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