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Adrienne Sternlicht's journey to success: "It’s about whatever you decide to let confine you”

Tuesday, 30 July 2019
Interview

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping "I like to think that she knows the adoration I have for her and that this is part of the strength of our relationship and our bond,” Adrienne Sternlicht says about her amazing mare Cristalline. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

“I always wanted to push myself to whatever limits I think I have and see if I can surpass them,” Adrienne Sternlicht says as we sit in a cozy lounge at Double H Farm in Wellington talking about 2018 – her breakthrough year. “I was always like that – also in school and in other sports. Over the last years, there have been so many different kinds of pressure that I have felt. One has been the pressure of time, because my timeline has been dictated by the fact that what I am doing has not been presented to me as a lifelong career. I’ve seen the last couple of years as my one chance to do it,” the 26-year-old says.  

And do it she did. After landing herself a spot on the US short-list for the World Equestrian Games in Tryon last year with her stunning 11-year-old mare Cristalline, Adrienne continued to impress throughout the summer season – securing herself a place on the team that went on to win gold on home soil, alongside her mentor and trainer McLain Ward, Laura Kraut and Devin Ryan. Adrienne’s post-press conference appearance following that gold medal gave several indications that it had been no straight-forward ride to reach the success she currently is experiencing. Full of emotions, Sternlicht’s words were almost drowning in her tears as she said: “For me it’s been a battle of overcoming my own mind and I’m so grateful that Robert trusted me and trusted McLain enough to put me on this team and to be with Laura and Devin and McLain, three riders I’ve honestly looked up to my entire life for various reasons.”

Little did Adrienne know about how she would end up on this podium, and the challenges she would face along the way to get there, when she as a 6-year-old sat on a horse for the first time, during a play date at her best friend’s house. “They had a 17-hand black horse in the back yard named Sampson. I got on to have a lesson and did not want to get off,” Adrienne smiles. From there on, she started taking lessons at a local barn, leased her first pony when she was eight before ending up at Heritage Farm. “It was meant to be temporary, but I loved it. I was at Heritage for five years. I had a lot of success with the ponies, most of which was passed down to Lillie Keenan – so now it’s kind of come full circle with both of us training for McLain,” she smiles. 

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping "I’ve learned so much from McLain," Adrienne says about her mentor and trainer. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

When Adrienne was 15, she moved her horses close to the boarding school she was attending and started training with Linda Langmeier. “Linda has helped me for the past ten years, always been engaged in my riding and is a really important person in my life,” Adrienne tells. 

However, it would take a while before the horses became Adrienne’s main occupation. From the age of 14 until she was 18, school and squash took most of her time. Adrienne would only ride a couple of times a month and compete a bit more during the summers. “Not because I did not want to but because the demands of my boarding school were quite strict and academically vigorous. I don’t like to say it, but I’m sort of a very competitive and intense person and as I played squash at university level for my school I would come down to Florida four weekends a winter when I did not have squash matches,” Adrienne smiles. 

Adrienne’s parents also had demands that had to be met, and in order to be allowed to ride in more of a concentrated way Adrienne first had to get into college. “So, when I got into Brown and was like ‘Let’s get some horses!’. My dad gave me a budget and told me that within that I could buy one horse or six, it was my priority. From that I was very lucky to get a real packer of a Grand Prix horse and two younger horses – one of them which I still have,” she tells. 

There was only one problem. “Honestly, I did not know about horse care,” she laughs. “My parents had wanted me to keep it as a hobby and just take lessons. They were never into horses. They were supportive, but also unengaged – which they still are. I wanted to be more around the horses, and learn more so I kept two with me about 15 minutes away from school at a real backyard stable. I would ride in the mornings before going to school, and it was really an amazing time for me because I did not grow up with horses like that. I just got to enjoy spending time with them, get to know their quirks, setting up little exercises for myself – it was a bit trial and error though,” she laughs. 

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping "We’re both very blunt and direct, and I feel like we always had a relationship where we can be honest with each other even when I do feel intimidated," Adrienne tells about working with McLain Ward. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

When Adrienne wanted to go to Europe for the summer – “for no other reason than that I thought it sounded really great,” she laughs – Linda Langmeier hooked her student up with Laura Kraut. “It was so much fun, such a crazy year – I lived with Alice Oken and Paris Sellon while Jessicsa Springsteen, Emily Moffitt and Emma Heise also rode with us – can you believe that? I don’t know how Laura did that, it was nuts,” Adrienne laughs. “We had the best times! That summer was however also a time where I got to be a 100% consumed by horses, which I absolutely loved. From there on Laura helped me for another year, I’ve always been in awe of her.” 

During Devon in 2015, a family emergency resulted in Linda Langmeier asking McLain Ward to help Adrienne for the day. “I was completely freaked out,” Adrienne laughs about the slightly intimidating Ward. “However, McLain and I sort of clicked immediately. We’re both very blunt and direct, and I feel like we always had a relationship where we can be honest with each other even when I do feel intimidated. There was a certain comfort level there with his directness, and I really liked the way he worked. He helped me a bit on an ad-hoc basis during the following WEF, and after the Olympic Games in Rio he started to help me full-time. I’ve learned so much from McLain. He is logical and uncomplicated in the way he deals with the horses. He allows me to spend time with them, both in and out of the saddle. He provides structure but gives me agency as to how I adapt that. One thing we talk about a lot, is trying to achieve some sort of mental equilibrium because it’s in my nature to be quite erratic. I really feel the ups and downs, I am a very emotional and sensitive person,” she tells.”

Ward has undoubtedly been an invaluable piece in the puzzle that has been Adrienne’s breakthrough. As was Cristalline, the mare that jumped into every single heart at the 2016 World Cup Finals in Gothenburg with Australia’s Chris Chugg in the saddle. “I remember watching Cristalline jump at the World Cup Finals. I literally kid you not, after that I wrote my parents an e-mail begging to try her. Back then it was just a dream, and it took a series of events for me to end up with her. Chris and Gaby were sort of in a situation where they were ready to leave Europe to go back to Australia, and so they were open to the idea of selling her. I remember sitting on her for the first time thinking ‘there is no way this is real’. I was so afraid to touch her while I was on her, she was – and still is – the most unbelievable specimen I had ever been in front of,” Adrienne recalls.  

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping. “She is quietly calm, and has that sort of confidence and fortitude," Adrienne says about Cristalline. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

“Honestly, I think a lot of people could have success with her,” Adrienne tells about Cristalline. “However, I like to think that she knows the adoration I have for her and that this is part of the strength of our relationship and our bond.”

That Adrienne adores Cristalline is obvious. “She has the biggest heart of any animal I have ever been around,” she says. “She is quietly calm, and has that sort of confidence and fortitude. She is incredibly sensitive and can feel the magnitude of the moment. I’m so happy she is not a human, she would literally be so perfect! With Cristalline – I feel like one rail down is a mediocre performance on my part. I think anyone would feel that way with a horse like her.”

“I had never ridden any horse with so much ability and power as she has,” Adrienne tells about Cristalline’s arrival in the summer of 2016. “She had this complete raw and natural talent – because at that point she was still quite green. She was only eight, had mainly – apart from the World Cup Finals – jumped two-stars. What she did at the finals was a testament to Chris as a jockey, and to her willingness to do it and her incredible heart. But, she still needed a lot of flatwork and she was very sensitive. I did not feel like I could go and do anything immediately and I did not want to either, I knew it was a partnership for the future so I wanted to take my time. That being said, I think the second show I took her to we were second in the Grand Prix – so things did happen quickly for us. Then, that fall McLain send me to Tryon for two weeks and the first week I was by myself – the first time for me to be on my own – and that was a turning point, I was clear in the qualifier and double clear in the Grand Prix and I was like ‘Oh, wow I can do this’. I was probably a bit arrogant after that,” she laughs. 

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping. "I knew the sky was the limit with her, and if I could get myself in order we could achieve big things,” Adrienne tells looking back at her 2017-season with Cristalline. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

After being double clear in the Nations Cup at Langley in the spring of 2017, Adrienne and Cristalline joined McLain on his trip to Europe. “I remember jumping in Falsterbo, and at that time McLain was getting ready for Aachen so he was not there – and that was challenging for me. It was my first five-star Nations Cup and I felt very green to the level. I ended up not having the result that I wanted. After, McLain told me that he was not going to be holding my hand – he explained me that this was not the way I was going to be successful, that it was not his philosophy and not what he believed in. While there were moments in the past when I for sure would have appreciated a bit of hand holding, ultimately, I want to be successful on my own. I think those kinds of experiences are so pivotal when you are trying to reach something because no one can do it in the ring but yourself,” Adrienne tells. 

At the end of summer, in a freakish accident, Cristalline broke her jaw and ended up being out for two months. “That break was a blessing in disguise, she was only nine at the time and had done so much already. It gave her a break without having a serious injury. After that, in the fall, we were a bit rusty however. To have a horse like that, and to feel you are not performing to the best of your ability – for me – a very mental rider – that was very hard. I spend December contemplating quitting. My thoughts sort of were that I had every opportunity someone would want in this sport. There is this huge effort there, I have amazing horses, amazing staff, an amazing trainer – if I can’t put it together with all of that, when I am going to put it together? I felt like I was, for so many reasons, wasting a lot of people’s time. I felt disappointed in myself. I took December to think what I really wanted from the sport, and what was my primary motivation. McLain wrote me a long message, quite emotional, and it forced me to re-evaluate why I was doing this. I thought to myself, that my commitment is to my horses and to be the best I can be for them – particularly having a horse like Cristaline. I knew the sky was the limit with her, and if I could get myself in order we could achieve big things,” Adrienne tells looking back.

Another piece in the puzzle fell into the right place when Adrienne decided to start working with Peter Crone, a Mind Architect who works with athletes. “I realized that the constraints that I had in the mental side of my riding had so much more to do with limiting self-narratives – in the way I would speak to myself as well as the frame of my mind – than it did with my actual abilities. In this sport, it is very easy to get caught up in what everybody else is doing. As a by-product of my work with Peter, I wanted to create as much space as possible for myself around my riding – using the riding as a vehicle to explore my limiting self-narratives. It’s been this unbelievable journey for me, getting to know myself better and feeling a lot stronger through that experience – and understanding how important the struggle has been for me. Now, this is a part of the goals I have with my riding: What sort of mental strength I can develop and how I can push myself to be better every day? It’s a process that I am still working on, and that is what I like about it,” Adrienne tells. 

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping "It’s been this unbelievable journey for me, getting to know myself better and feeling a lot stronger through that experience," Adrienne tells. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

Adrienne’s ability to challenge herself paid off, a good 2018 winter season followed and in April her name was on the USEF’s short-list for the World Equestrian Games. “From the moment I was on the short-list, that added a new pressure for me. I felt like the selection was not only hinched upon the Nations Cups rounds I would do, but every round I jumped from there until WEG – and that feeling was only intensified over the course of the next five months. Through that process I got to explore a lot of new paradigms when working with Peter. Sport is a great place to explore so many of our primal instincts as human beings, your fight and flight responses, desire for survival – some of the most amazing things we can examine, like ‘Why did I respond to this situation like that’? Sport brings out the greatest human emotions, and that is one of the coolest things about it,” Adrienne says. 

Heading for Europe in the spring of 2018, Adrienne and Cristalline had to show themselves worthy of a spot on the US team throughout a series of observation events. “The craziest for me was Dublin,” Adrienne tells. “By then I knew I had a good shot to be on the team, but that I needed to put in two solid performances – both in the Nations Cup and in the Grand Prix. But, I overdid it – I misjudged a bit on my preparations for the Nations Cup and Cristalline was just quiet as a lamb and I had one down in each round. Going into Sunday’s Grand Prix was honestly and probably the most important moment of my riding career. McLain said: ‘There is no other way around it – you have to jump clear if you want to have a chance of being on the team’. I remember going clear, and for me that was a moment where I realized not only could I do the sport well at the top level – but I could push through when it mattered the most for me. I probably celebrated more than anyone else in that Grand Prix. I felt this fire inside me, so primal!” she laughs. 

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping "I really feel the ups and downs, I am a very emotional and sensitive person,” Adrienne says. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping

Shortly after, Robert Ridland announced Adrienne and Cristalline as a part if the US team for Tryon. Another emotional rollercoaster ride was about to begin. “The first day at the WEG, I was a nut job,” Adrienne laughs. “I think I gave myself 60 horses to prepare. “While warming up, I was trying to channel that feeling I had in Dublin – which was so unrealistic and also so exhausting. I had a four-fault round, which was not a disaster for the team nor for my individual performance, but I hated the way I rode! McLain was not happy with me either, yelling at me. I woke up the next day, and kind of told myself ‘You can’t be like this – it’s not possible’. From there on, I just went into this calm state. The next round we were clear. That was such a special moment, not only for me but more so for my groom Emma – one of the people I am closest to in my life, for McLain and then to feel that I was an asset to the team and that I could contribute in that moment,” Adrienne continues. “The team final was full of emotion. I had a nice round, not my best though but it was so exciting getting to watch McLain jump clear. There was no way we expected to jump-off for the gold, so I was like ‘Shit, we have to jump-off’. That day, looking back at it – it was so much fanfare and noise around. It’s almost like I don’t really remember the details of it, because it felt like I left this planet for a minute. The individual final was the most relaxing day for me, all I felt was like incredible gratitude for Cristalline and for being there. It was such a special, special feeling – it felt like it was only she and I.”

Going home with team gold from a world championship at the age of 25, when going professional only a few years earlier, was a lot to take in. “The time after WEG was a bit weird for me. I had achieved something I felt like was so far beyond what I thought I could. The feeling sort of overcame me, so it was nice to have November and December off – just to relax. I find the fall challenging as a rider, the end of a long season – so it was a moment for me to reassess why I was doing this, and what changes I wanted to make for the coming year,” Adrienne tells. 

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping. Looking back at winning team gold at the World Equestrian Games, Adrienne says: "I had achieved something I felt like was so far beyond what I thought I could." Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

A big change has included moving into her very own stables, right next to her home in Connecticut. “It’s a true experience having my horses in my backyard! And it’s sort of our dream barn, we have 16 boxes, a grass ring, a big sand ring – and it’s only 25 minutes from McLains so he’s close by. It all feels like a dream.”

Next up for Adrienne and Cristalline is gearing up for the US selection for the Olympic Games in Tokyo. “Everything I will do from June with Cristalline, will be focused towards Tokyo. But, it’s a long way to go and a lot of things have to go right,” Adrienne says.

While there might be obstacles to overcome on the way to Tokyo, Adrienne’s way of embracing a challenge suggest that an Olympic appearance is in the cards for the young American rider. And by now, Adrienne has learned the name of the game. “The limitations we put on ourselves are just perceptions of what we believe to be possible or impossible – but there really is no truth to that. It’s about whatever you decide to let confine you.”

 

 


 

Text © World of Showjumping 

Photos © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping

No reproduction without permission, copyright © World of Showjumping

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