THE PATH TO TOKYO
When it comes to horses, things rarely go to plan — and Sharon knows this as well as anyone. Having had to pull Odie out of the Paralympic selection trials back in 2012, it was difficult to again be faced with a similar situation with Tokyo on the horizon.
Initially, it was chestnut Hanoverian and registered Arabian warmblood stallion Lord Larmarque who was penned as her possible Tokyo partner. Imported from Germany as a three-year-old by Kate Barton, and owned by Jade Edwards and Alan Moody of Westcoast Castle Equetrian, Sharon had ridden him since 2013. “I moved over from Western Australia to Ryans in NSW (Sharon is coached by Rozzie Ryan), to aim purely for Tokyo. We were going to campaign Lord Larmarque, but unfortunately he got an injury and we couldn’t guarantee a good lead up to the Games and so made a decision to not campaign him.” The Tokyo journey may be over for this handsome chestnut, but Sharon is still looking forward to continuing her partnership with him post-Tokyo. “Jade and Alan have been great supporters of mine for a long time and I look forward to continuing the ride on him after Tokyo.”
Although the loss of Lord Larmarque was further out than was the case with Odie in the lead up to London, with the Games not yet postponed at that point and no horse to ride, all hope seemed lost. “I honestly had no idea where I was going to pull another horse from. I said to Rozzie, ‘That’s it, I don’t think I’ve got anything left. I think I need to go home,’ but Rozzie would not let me drive out the driveway. She said, ‘You are not leaving yet, you’re not finished. We will make this happen!’”
Rozzie suggested Sharon put the call out via social media asking whether there was anyone who would have a horse to loan. “It was just going on the ultimate unicorn search, really,” says Sharon. “And we just had so many beautiful people offer horses that they thought might be suitable that we could try.”
Sure enough, a message came through from Donnella Merrett and Shaun Cooper of Gladstone in Queensland — Sharon’s unicorn had been found. “Rozzie looked at the message and said, ‘Right, that’s the horse that we need’. I got on a plane and went and had one ride on him and brought the video back to Rozzie. But you kind of know; honestly, I’ve found my other horses literally through one ride as well. I just knew when I sat on him that we had the potential to do what we needed to do,” recalls Sharon of her first meeting with Romanos. It wasn’t long before the gelding arrived at Ryans.
Donella and Shaun imported Romanos several years ago from Germany where he had competed at Small Tour level. Donnella took him through to Medium Tour, competing at national level and riding on the Queensland State Squad along the way. For Sharon, taking over the ride was a case of ‘right place, right time’.
“Donnella is a mother with a young son and she was busy with her businesses, and therefore Romanos wasn’t doing much, and so she had the ability to loan him. We hit it off from the start; he’s a little bit of a cheeky chap and has a great personality. He’s helped take my riding to the next level.”
Sharon did not know Donnella previously, and has been blown away by her generosity. “She’s just so incredibly generous and an absolutely lovely person. We keep in contact, sharing videos and photos. It’s just absolute generosity, and it’s exactly what our sport needs, because it can be difficult finding those incredible para horses.”
Sharon and Romanos really hit the ground running, achieving impressive scores at three Tokyo selection events before the pandemic struck. They attended the 2019 Australian Para Dressage Championships, achieving scores of 71.458% in the Team Test, 73.252% in the Individual Test, and a 74.875% in the Freestyle, and were crowned Grade IV champions. Next, they attended the Boneo Classic in January, 2020, where they scored 73.975% in the Team Test, 70.638% in the Individual Test and 71.042% in the Freestyle; they won the first two tests and placed second in the Freestyle. It was then on to the Tokyo Test Event, held at SIEC in March just a week prior to Covid-19 lockdowns, where they were again crowned Grade IV champions. Since then, there has been a big break due to the pandemic and of course the Paralympics have been postponed.
“Honestly, when the Games were postponed, probably my biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be able to keep the ride on Romanos for another year. But Donnella has allowed that to happen, which I’m just absolutely forever grateful for.” If Sharon is selected to compete at the Tokyo Paralympics, it will be an Australian record: no para dressage rider to date has competed for our country at three Games.