In the latest in the Mixed Zone’s series of articles counting down to this summer’s Olympic Games, Eleanore Kelly reveals the story of the effervescent Paralympic rider Natasha Baker, who is under mounting pressure to repeat her London 2012 success
Horse-riding, sky-diving and skiing must be among the top ten most dangerous sports. But self-confessed ‘adrenalin junkie’ Natasha Baker loves all three. She has won more than twenty championship medals for one of them, but claims that ‘fear’ never comes into the equation.
When she’s not riding a horse, flying down the mountains or jumping out of a plane, Baker spends most of her life in a wheelchair after contracting Transverse Myelitis at 14 months. It is a condition that has left her with permanent nerve damage and severe weakness in her legs.
But her remarkable achievements and infectious enthusiasm for life means Baker is a woman who positively laughs in the face of adversity. And with grit, talent and extraordinary spirit she is in the line-up as one of Britain’s best hopes of a gold medal in Rio this year.
The 26 year old from London has been a double Paralympic equestrian gold medallist, achieved a Paralympic record in London 2012, won the European Championships five times and remains an intrinsic part of one Team GB’s most successful sporting team in history. Success, however, breeds pressure. UK Sport, who have invested £355 million in 28 of the 30 Rio-bound sports, have set an ambitious target. They want Team GB to win more medals in Rio than they did in London. That would be a first in living memory. For Baker, the heat is on to win at least one of the targeted 66 medals.
“There is so much pressure,” she says. “We are still the team to beat and we do not want to be the first ones to come back with a silver instead of gold. So much can go wrong before we even get that far and dressage must be one of the hardest sports to plan for. There are so many variables and things that have to go right, and Rio will be so different to London. We had a great Olympics, but Rio is a 12-hour flight while London was just up the road. I have two horses in contention and while one horse has flown abroad before, the other has not. You never know how they are going to handle the travelling.”
Without the use of her legs to guide the horse, Baker instructs them entirely through verbal commands and seat movements. For able-bodied riders asking horses to perform complicated movements means training a horse to respond to leg, seat and hand aids, but never voice.
“When I first get a new horse, they have only been ridden by able-bodied riders, so they have to get used to a very different method of communication,” Baker explains. Yet she claims that she has never felt nervous getting on a horse, even for the first time. “I love it! My mum worries, but I love horse shopping. In fact, it’s my favourite kind of shopping, and that is saying something because I do love shopping!” Indeed, right now she is shopping for her new flat, which she’s just moved into with boyfriend Mark, an aircraft engineer.
Back to the horses, she insists: “I wouldn’t ride if I was scared of falling off.” She recounts the one occasion where she wasn’t able to get back on. “A pigeon flew out and I was riding a young horse which spun around and bolted. It was quite a bad fall and involved an ambulance and three months off. That was the worst part – that I couldn’t ride. I ride six days a week and have ridden for as long as I can remember. That made me miserable and I couldn’t wait to get back on again.”
A love of horses came in infancy for Baker. “I was on a horse before I could walk as my mum always rode and I always loved it,” she says. After years of nagging her physiotherapist into letting her ride, she was taken to the local RDA at the age of eight by her grandad. At nine years old she was talent spotted, and by 11 she was on the World Class Programme set up by UK Sport in its pilot year. She is still on the Programme fifteen years later, which allows her access to training, physiotherapists and nutritionists for herself and her horse as well as Lottery funding to support some of the overheads. “It’s basically everything we need to win medals and it’s obviously worked. Other nations are copying and that means they are catching us up.”
The British Para-Equestrian team have reigned supreme since the sport’s inclusion in the Games 20 years ago. With 143 medals won they are one of the most successful British teams in Olympic history. Yet their unbeaten record is under fire. “The Dutch team are the biggest threat. It’s the closet it’s ever been. They have amazing horse power and funding now that is resulting in medals. I was beaten into silver by a Dutch rider at last year’s European Championships,” she says. “So I will be working my backside off between now and Rio.” The next few months will involve competing nearly every week, both at home and abroad, before the final selection trial in July.
London 2012 has been the highlight of an illustrious career so far. Baker believes that the 2012 Games were responsible for changing perceptions not only towards disability sport but towards disability itself. “I used to be stared at and no one would be brave enough to help me on public transport. People are more open to it these days and know how to react. I think the London Games did a phenomenal job at changing the way people think – for example, the Olympics were never mentioned without mentioning the Paralympics. In a way, I think people can relate more to the Paras than the Olympics as everyone who got there had to overcome something. And any normal person has had to overcome some sort of adversity in their life – whether it’s illness, family problems or just losing a job.”
Among the formidable British Para squad, Baker says there is a strong sense of camaraderie rather than rivalry. She has made some cherished friends, listing Paralympians Sophie Wells, Ricky Balshaw and Lee Pearson among them. “Lee inspired me in the first place. I used to watch videos of him when I was growing up and to be on the same team as him seems amazing, even now.
“Ricky is hilarious and great fun. He was pulled over in Beijing for driving his mobility scooter on a public highway. It was only when he showed the police his medals that they let him off. We have great fun at the championships and on the last night we all let our hair down.”
Away from the horses, Baker she also loves sit-down skiing. “I never thought I’d love a sport as much as riding. In fact, if I wasn’t riding, I would probably try to do that at top level.” Baker took part in a sky-dive for Dreamflight, a charity which takes seriously ill or disabled children on holiday to Florida. “I wanted to do something that really challenged me, for a charity that I loved. I’m planning to do a sponsored silence next. Anyone who knows me will know that I would find that way harder than chucking myself out of a plane. In fact, five minutes would be a struggle in my case,” she giggles.
Beyond her own ambitions, Baker’s mission is to inspire a future generation of Para-athletes and change the perception towards those with disabilities. “At the age of 10, back in 2000, I was inspired by the Sydney Paralympics. It would be a dream come true if I could inspire others to fulfil their dreams and aspirations.”
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.