This week, the Australian Olympic Committee announced that Equestrian show jumping rider Edwina Tops-Alexander had been selected to captain and compete in what will be her third Olympics.
Known as Australia’s best performed rider at the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 games, the NSW-born product fell in love with horse riding as a young girl and in 1998 at the tender age of 18, decided to uproot her life here to pursue her dreams in Europe.
24 years later, she’s competed and won some of the world’s most prestigious show jumping competitions and was the first rider to win a million euros prize money in a single season.
Coming in to the 2006 World Championships in Aachen, Germany ranked 35th in the world, she also went on to make history by becoming the first female Australian rider to make the final, where she eventually claimed 4th.
I had the chance to chat to the hugely popular rider while she’s competing in Shanghai and her steely determination, passion and hunger to succeed in Rio is palpable even down the phone line.
Edwina firstly, congratulations on booking your spot to Rio. How special is this moment for you?
It’s really special. To be going to my third Olympics is great and I am looking forward to it. We’re still not completely up with the team so it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens in the next few months before the team’s decided.
I’ve been to Rio a couple of times already and competed there and it’s always a great atmosphere and a lot of people coming to watch. There are a lot of riders over there and equestrian enthusiasts so I am sure it’ll be exciting.
You mentioned there that this will be your third Olympics campaign - has there been anything different about this qualification period?
Not really, the only thing I guess is it’s the first time that I had to compete in the qualification competition in Hagen where we qualified. Before then, we’ve always qualified in a different way through the world championships.
The format of everything has changed quite a bit since then with the way that the IOC (international Olympic Committee) has positioned the countries and different groups, that’s why it was a little bit different for us. I expected us to qualify. I would have been very disappointed if we didn’t.
What can you tell us about your horse - Caretina De Joter? (Pronounced Ka-re-tina Deh Zo-ter)
I’ve had her for about eight months now. She was ridden before actually by a Brazilian girl [laughs].
Her name was Corina Johan Peters and her farm is called De Joter so all her horses are named after that. I actually saw her in Shanghai last year, where I am today and she was second there in the Grand Prix. We managed to get the opportunity to buy the horse and I’ve just been taking my time with her a little but. I had her at the World Cup final recently and she jumped amazing.
She’s very careful, she’s had a little bit of experience at the five-star level and we had some very good results with her in the indoor season. I’ll probably do another four or five shows with her depending on how she is after each show - we take it show by show and the main thing is, is picking her for the right moment and she’s in great shape.
Casting your mind back to your childhood - when did you know that you wanted to become a professional show jumper?
I was riding a lot and I went to university and I was just really unsure if I could make a career out of it. I realised being in Australia if I really wanted to make a career out of the sport and to see also if I was really good enough, that was my reason for going to Europe.
Australia’s a great starting point but if you want to go further and compete against the best in the world, you have to be in Europe.
It was a little bit all or nothing for me and I decided look, I’ll give it a shot and I’ll see where I end up. My plan was originally just to go for six months and I got the bug and I am still here. That was back in 1998.
When you did made that risky call to try your luck out on the European circuit where you had great success - how much of that experience do you credit for getting you to where you are today?
Experience is everything. For me it was a little bit like, at that time I thought, I didn’t have anything to lose, I was still young and it was a good time for me to make a decision in my life. I realised soon after I got Europe that I still had a long way to go.
That’s a little point that I keep trying to reinforce with riders back in Australia that you can get to a point and you can get to a level in Australia where you can be very good but you just can’t go further because there’s nothing pushing you to go further.
The level needs to be high to bring you up higher otherwise you’d never get there. The level is just a lot stronger in Europe, a lot more competitive and a lot more sophisticated and it’s a lot more challenging.
The only way you learn anything in life whether it’s business or sport, is to get experience and to learn from your mistakes and try to learn as much as you can from other people that have experience.
Both you and your husband, Jan Tops created the Global Champions Tour in 2006 which really catapulted showjumping onto the world stage. Ten years on from that, how far has the sport really come?
The Global Tour in my opinion changed the whole sport in general because it lifted the level and a lot of other competitions; for example Aachen, their prize money is now $1 million and it used to be $150 000 only five years ago so they’ve really lifted.
A lot of other shows have had to go with it because the horses are valuable, they’re unique and they’re very hard to come by. They take a lot of training and a lot of work goes into it. They’re special animals and they’re not easy to find and it’s not easy to find the right one for yourself. It’s so important to look after the welfare of the horses and what we believe is jumping a little bit less and earning a little bit more and then you have your horses for a longer period of time.
The level is so high and we have the best riders in the world competing all the time and it’s very motivating because you’ve got to be really sharp, really on form and so the level is very, very strong and it’s very exciting for the public to watch.
There’s a big fan base now and having a Global Tour all around the world in different destinations, it’s also a lifestyle for the owners, the breeders and the spectators who can follow it and go to amazing destinations. It broadens our sport and it’s built the sport and I think it’s only going to get better.
In addition to the Global Champions Tour and your preparation for things like the Olympics, you also compete in over 40 competitions annually. How do you manage such an intense schedule?
It’s tough. You’ve got to be very fit and you’ve got to be able to get to the time zones quick and be sharp and motivated and make sure your horses are fit. Nothing’s tough if you love what you do at the end of the day but you have to keep yourself physically fit and be very organised in everything you’re doing. That’s part of getting used to the travel and understanding how your body works and understanding how your horses work.
I read a blog on you a few weeks back which said; ‘Edwina Tops Alexander is by far the most successful Australian showjumper of the 21st Century, and some consider her to even be the best there is in the showjumping world.’ In terms of what it is you’d like to achieve, what is it that drives you and gives you that inspiration to keep going?
I read that, I was quite surprised! [Laughs]
Obviously I’ve got goals and I think it’s important to have goals. You can have small goals, you can have big goals and you need to have realistic goals. Obviously with the Olympics coming up now, that’s definitely one of my goals and also the Global Tour - I’d like to get back on the podium or try to win the overall again which would be fantastic.
I think in any sport, or business if you don’t have goals or you don’t have that passion that drives you there, it’s pretty hard to succeed at anything.
Finally, your best finish at an Olympics was back at Beijing in 2008 where you finished 7th in the individual event - what hopes do you have for Rio?
I have a lot more experience than I did then. I’ve probably had the horse for the same amount of time as I did then as well I’ve had a lot more results since then.
I am feeling confident and I try to just stay focussed and not make too much of a big deal out of it but at the same time feel that I’ve got my horse ready and that I’ve done the best I can. It for sure makes a big difference when you’ve competed in other Olympics and a lot of other big competitions against the best riders in the world so you’ve got a lot more confidence.