There was bitter disappointment among Britain’s showjumpers after the defending champions crashed out of the Olympics last night. It came as a surprise to many when Team GB finished in thirteenth place and therefore failed to qualify for the final team contest. The team consisted of four men with a combined age of more than two hundred, ranging from thirty-three to sixty-two. One might wonder what the team’s travelling reserve, Jessica Mendoza, must have been thinking as she watched from the sidelines. The fresh-faced 20 year old would certainly be forgiven for assuming that maybe now it’s her time to shine.
Equestrian sport stands proud as one of the very few sports where men and women compete against each other. In the three Olympic disciplines of showjumping, dressage and eventing, women frequently lead the world rankings. That is certainly the case in dressage right now where women fill the top five spots. The British showjumping team, meanwhile, has long been filled by men. And old men at that. If Mendoza had made the cut, she would not only have been the youngest, but also the first British female rider to make the team in 40 years.
Like many young riders, Mendoza was inspired by recent British success in the sport. “Ever since watching the Olympics in London, Rio has been the goal. It was only when I started being selected for Nations Cup competitions last year that it seemed like a reality.”
Like Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro, Mendoza shares a magical partnership with her horse, a hot-blooded mare called Spirit T, who has far outweighed expectations. “Spirit was only meant to be my horse to contest junior teams with. We never thought she would get this far,” she exclaims. “I think she’s so good because she always wants to please and do her best. We have an emotional connection. She has her own way of going, and I think she does it because she wants to do it for me.”
You might expect with her super-model looks and extraordinary talent, Mendoza would come across as gregarious, but is in fact quite shy in conversation. Yet when asked about her horse, she takes on a delightful girlish excitement. “If I had to describe Spirit’s personality, I’d say she’s a bit of a diva and pretty spoilt. She loves food and knows exactly when it is breakfast, lunch and dinner time, but she is always a kind horse.”
Despite missing team selection by a margin, Mendoza has enjoyed a great season. “The highlight has been being on the winning Nations Cup teams in Rome and Rotterdam. But it was great being on the British team at the European Championships last year.” She fails to mention that her result in Aachen in July 2015 actually helped secure British team qualification for Rio in the first place.
“It has been a great experience being part of the [senior] team,” she explains with the eagerness of youth. “Everyone is friendly and helpful and we get on really well. It’s like a family but we all respect each other. Being the only female doesn’t feel strange as in this sport we are used to competing against men all the time. In fact, I actually enjoy being the only girl and a bit younger as it’s put me in the spotlight which is cool.”
Mendoza is renowned for her steely nerves and clearly relishes the spotlight. “I don’t really feel nerves for my own performance, but I am always more nervous when I’m watching the other riders on a team.”
The greatest challenge facing Mendoza’s quest to make the British team, is sourcing the horse power “Finding another horse as good as Spirit will be hard,” she says. “I ride ten horses but only have two at Grand Prix level. We are always looking for owners and sponsors, but it is not easy as there are so many other riders trying to do the same.”
For a travelling reserve, emotions are torn: while you would not wish ill on your team-mates, your own burning desire to take part must be in conflict. But Jess has remained philosophical on her current role. “I always felt that whatever happens happens. We couldn’t have a better team than the one we’ve got. I was always as prepared as possible, but I wasn’t really thinking about whether I made the team. I was just hoping we won the gold.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eleanore Kelly is a multi-media journalist who competed in three-day eventing at elite level. She runs an equestrian business in Hampshire and still has a burning ambition to compete around Badminton. At present her role as an assistant producer for the BBC has to suffice. Eleanore’s latest articles.