The Columns

Headed to Rio

— by on July 15th, 2016

Lynn Symansky ’05 said she has “essentially been trying out for the Olympics” ever since she began competing during college at the top level of the equestrian sport. 2016 is her year.

Symansky and her mount, Donner, have been selected as the traveling reserve for the U.S. Eventing Team to compete at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The three-day equestrian competition will take place Aug. 5-9 at the Deodoro Olympic Equestrian Center.

“In three-day eventing, men and women compete against each other, and it is essentially an equestrian triathalon,” explained Symansky. “The same horse-and-rider combination competes in three different phases: dressage, cross-country and show jumping. The sport evolved from a military contest to an Olympic competition.”

Dressage, sometimes compared to ballet on horseback, tests the horse’s obedience and training as rider and horse perform a series of prescribed movements in an enclosed arena. Unlike high scores given in sports like gymnastics or diving, riders need to accumulate the lowest possible score. Penalties are added to that score over the next two phases.

The second phase, cross-country, involves galloping and jumping at high speeds across varied terrain over several miles in a set amount of time. This tests the horse and rider’s bravery and endurance as they jump a variety of large obstacles such as water, ditches, brushes, banks, tables and narrow fences. Penalties are incurred for refusals at obstacles and for exceeding the allotted time.

In the final day, horse and rider jump a series of fences in an enclosed arena over a set amount of time. Rails of the fences can fall down with the slightest tap, and after the pair’s bravery has been tested on cross country, the show jumping tests carefulness, athleticism and scope. Penalties are incurred for every second over time, for knocking down the poles of the jumps and for refusals. The horse-and-rider pair with the fewest points at the conclusion of the three-day event takes home top honors.

The eventing team (four riders and one traveling reserve) is chosen by a group of selectors who have been watching the riders and horses compete at selection trials over the past two years. Top results at the trials help contribute to an invitation to the team, but many other factors are at play, such as experience of horse and rider; talent; the health, fitness and soundness of the horse and rider; and what type of horse will suit the weather, terrain and other factors at the Olympics. “The selection is purely subjective, so it is often a surprise and honor to be chosen,” said Symansky.

Symansky, though, has been performing solidly over the years. In 2003, while she was in her third year at W&L, she was an alternate at the Pan American games. “It is very unusual to compete at the international team level in eventing, while also being a full-time college student,” she said. “Riding at the professional level is an enormous time commitment that involves a lot of travel and training year round. That was my first team experience.”

While at W&L, Symansky traveled up and down the East Coast to compete (W&L didn’t have an eventing team), and she ruefully noted that “I didn’t receive any credit for my sport. I still had to take five additional gym credits. That said, I don’t think I could have been as successful at eventing anywhere else but W&L. I believe the Honor System was a big factor in my success. I was able to take a few exams from hotel rooms while at faraway competitions, and the Honor System allowed me to be absent a bit more than I could have at another school, where I would just have been a number.” She graduated from W&L with a B.S. cum laude in business administration.

Six years after graduating, she competed at the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, where the team captured the gold medal. Three years later, Symansky competed at the World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France. Other international competitions include Canada, England and Germany, and she’s done eight four-star competitions, which is the highest level in the world. There is only one in North America and six in the world.

Symansky, who has “been riding horses since I was in the womb,” took the LSATs her senior year, planning to attend law school. However, she took one year off to pursue her goal of riding at the four-star level, which is one level higher than the Olympics, and began to train horses and teach lessons. During that time she rented a small barn and slowly grew her business into Lynn Symansky Equestrian. “That one year off turned into several, and now, 10 years later, I run a successful teaching, training and sales business out of Middleburg, Virginia.”

As she and her horse, Donner, look ahead, Symansky noted her training will not vary much from her day-to-day preparations. “We have our final team training camp in Ocala, Florida, a week before we ship to Rio. We will do our final gallops (fitness runs) and dressage and jumping schools. The horses will fly with their grooms and vet out of Miami, and we will meet them in Rio a few days before the competition beings. Eventing starts the day after opening ceremonies.”

Follow Symansky on her Rio journey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.