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A meeting with Rodrigo Pessoa, part three: Olympic dreams

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Photo (c) Rolex/Guillaume Mégevand. Photo (c) Rolex/Guillaume Mégevand.

Thanks to an invitation from Rolex, World of Showjumping got to spend a day with Brazilian super-star Rodrigo Pessoa at his current European base in Belgium.

Spread out in a series of three articles, the Olympic gold medallist talks about growing up a Pessoa, the most influential horses in his career, highs-and-lows, making negative into positive as well as the future of the sport – and of course how he combines being Chef d’Equipe for Ireland with his own riding. 

The coaching career

At the end of 2016, Rodrigo Pessoa started in his job as Chef d’Equipe for Ireland and went straight on to success at the European Championships in Gothenburg in 2017. For the first time in 16 years, Ireland was on top of the podium when winning the team gold. They could also add an individual bronze medal to their record.

Rodrigo talks openly about the way to success, the human side of it and how he ended up as the Chef d’Equipe in the first place. But, let’s start from the beginning: “I first started talking with one of the Irish riders during the summer in 2016,” Rodrigo tells. “They had been having some problems with their Olympic selection, and some riders were pretty unhappy. It was just coffee talk, and then ten days later we spoke again and he really tried to convince me. That made me start thinking about it a bit more. I kind of needed a break after the Rio Olympics following the situation in my own country with the selection for the Games.”

An official application and a few interviews later, Rodrigo found himself in charge of the Irish team. “The human side of it has been very interesting, to be a leader of a group is a lot of responsibility of course, but the human side of it has been really phenomenal,” he says.

“What I try to bring to the table really are the mistakes that I have made, to make sure they are not made again. I like to plan well ahead of time, to set goals and see the objectives. These are all things that I can do pretty well, and that is probably why I got chosen. Last year was a great achievement. It was a long time since the Irish were close to a podium and to win under those circumstances – with only three riders in the final – was a great thing.”

“To get a better planning for the team, to identify what are the goals and then be together closer to the events to get a better team feeling – that is something I have been working on. The riders were very individual. It is an individual sport, but then when you go to events where you have teams you have to stick together and they didn’t know how to do that,” Rodrigo says.  

“You cannot be a leader without others having the confidence in you”

Photo (c) Rolex/Guillaume Mégevand. Photo (c) Rolex/Guillaume Mégevand.

Unpopular decisions are sometimes also part of the job as Chef d’Equipe, something Rodrigo got to experience last year ahead of the Europeans. “The Nations Cup in Dublin was two weeks before the Europeans, and none of the riders rode their horses for the championships there. In Ireland, everyone was really angry with me – but that was how we needed to do it. This is what they didn’t have before, someone to say no, this is how we are going to do it. No matter what, the objective was the Europeans in Gothenburg, not the show in Dublin. We proved the decision right, and after nobody was angry anymore,” Rodrigo tells.

“Those decisions – to take the horses out of competitions – can really make a big difference. Sometimes I had to convince the riders to jump their horses here or there, or not jump, even if they didn’t really want to. But they have to trust you; if they don’t trust you there is no way to do it. You cannot be a leader without others having the confidence in you.”

Being on the other side of the in-gate has been a new experience for Rodrigo. “The human aspect of it is very interesting because now it is not yourself that has to deliver, it is they that have to do it. You experience the success through them. It is very special and it was very emotional in Gothenburg. The fact how they managed to do it was incredible, because we really had our back against the wall and they were able to surprise themselves and be perfect that night. It is an individual sport and you have individual wins that are great, but every time you have success as a group it is very special. Because it is not often we have this opportunity.”

Rodrigo also believes that honesty is the key to success as a team. “If you are not honest to each other in a team it can’t work. You need cooperation. It was also really important that they allowed me to lead.”

Count the surprises in

Photo (c) Rolex/Guillaume Mégevand. Photo (c) Rolex/Guillaume Mégevand.

Rodrigo is of the opinion that the most important thing when making the calendar, is first to identify the most important show of the year. “Then you need to find out how you will get there in the best possible shape, and make your plan accordingly. With horses you always have surprises – the horse might get injured and it doesn’t always go according to plan, so you need to be able to switch lanes but you always need to keep the focus on where you are going. That is the no. one thing.”

When you then go to a big championship it is important that you keep your routines whatever they are. “Don’t do anything different because it is the Olympic Games. If you get nervous and start to change things it mostly goes wrong. Why change the things that has worked before?”

Most countries have a training camp ahead of championships, where they all train together and spend time together. For some time it didn’t really look like the Irish team would have one ahead of the Europeans. “We talked about the training camp and in the beginning they were totally against it and said ‘no way, this will never happen’. It took me a couple of weeks of talking and convincing and in the end we were all here for one week and it was very good - all together here in the stable, having breakfast, lunch and dinner together and training together, solving the problems together and having understanding for each other. That was really character building.”

Olympic dreams

With his own Olympic aspirations, Rodrigo does not only have ambitions for the Irish ahead of Tokyo 2020. “If I have a nice and decent horse to be able to help the team, which would be Team Brazil and to deliver a good performance – yes, then I would like to go.”

“At this point I don’t even know if I will still be with Ireland or not, since this will be decided at the end of this year. But I will put on the table that if I have a good horse I would like to ride. And they have to choose if that is ok for them, or if it is not ok for them. But that is IF I have a horse that is capable of doing something good. Otherwise I have no really interest. To go just one more time to the Olympics is not for me. It can work to both coach and ride at the Olympics. It has never been done before, but I don’t think it is a big deal,” Rodrigo concludes.

A big thanks to Rolex for inviting us to this meeting with their Testimonee Rodrigo Pessoa!

Text © World of Showjumping // Photos © Rolex/Guillaume Mégevand and JennyAbrahamsson.

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