/ 6 March 2020

Fighting to get back in the saddle

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Back in the saddle: Philippa Johnson-Dwyer, riding Benedict, in the equestrian freestyle at the Paralympics in 2008, where she won gold. She will be riding another new horse, Lord Louis, in Tokyo. (Mike Clarke/AFP)

‘Victory comes to the one who was courageous enough.”

These are the defiant words Philippa Johnson-Dwyer lives by.

Johnson-Dwyer is one of South Africa’s most accomplished and successful equestrian athletes, who won two para dressage silver medals at the 2004 Athens Paralympics and two gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.

Few people get to experience the chills — or the “grille” — she says she still gets, of representing their country at the highest level of sport.

And far fewer still get to hear their country’s anthem booming out in their honour at one of the world’s showpiece sporting events.

To do so, though, Johnson-Dwyer has needed to be far more than just courageous.

On October 27 1998, when she was just 23 years old, she was involved in a horrific car crash that claimed the lives of her brother and her fiancé, leaving her severely disabled, and on the brink of death herself.

Before this terrible tragedy, Johnson-Dwyer was a promising dressage rider born into a love for horses.

Her father, Arthur, and uncle, Bill, were swashbuckling champion showjumpers in the 1960s, and her mother, Colleen, was a ballerina. So Philippa opted for the best of both worlds and became a dressage rider — a classical ballerina prancing on four hooves.

“Our family’s stables were in the agricultural belt of Diepsloot when I was growing up. We were from Rivonia; the house I grew up in was actually on Liliesleaf Farm, just three houses down from the house where Nelson Mandela was arrested,” says Johnson-Dwyer in an interview at the majestic Longines Arena, where she was invited to participate among the elite riders at CHI Al Shaqab, the Middle East’s most prestigious equestrian event.

Her childhood was idyllic and she developed her love for horse riding from her father and uncle, who were “like characters out of a Jilly Cooper novel, the men you warn your daughters about”.

The devastating car crash jolted her promising career as one of the country’s top young dressage riders to a halt, painfully yanking from her life in one go two of the people most precious to her.

On top of her grief was the news from the doctors treating her that she would never be able to ride a horse again.

Johnson-Dwyer lost all the strength in her right arm and 60% of the strength in her right leg after the accident.

“I had lost my brother and I had lost my fiancé. And when I left the hospital, nobody actually told me what was wrong with me. The doctor came into my room and said, ‘I’m very happy with the prognosis of your leg, but you will never use your hands again’, and then he walked out. He never actually told me what was wrong,” says Johnson-Dwyer.

It was chilling news, but the doctors didn’t quite account for Johnson-Dwyer’s strong will, personality, and her love for horses and riding.

“Nobody can put limits on your dreams. I remember the doctors saying I would never ride again. I was like, ‘How dare you.’ They don’t know me. They don’t know what drives me. How can they put a cap on something I love so dearly?’ It’s that determination to prove them wrong that ended up saving my life,” says Johnson-Dwyer.

Within days, with great difficulty and with considerable support, Johnson-Dwyer managed to hobble the length of a parallel bar at the hospital, the one thing she could control.

Astonishingly, just two months later, by January 1 1999, she got back on her horse, led gently around in a circle by her father, just as he had done when she was a four-year-old learning to ride for the first time.

“When the doctors said I’m never going to ride again, my father said, ‘Don’t worry sweetheart, you will ride again.’ Because he had been through it, stared death in the face, survived, and got back on a horse again, I believed him,” says Johnson-Dwyer.

Years earlier, while competing in an equestrian competition, her father too was involved in a horrific incident, in which a horse flipped and crushed the left side of his chest. Despite his prognosis, her father would get back on the saddle again.

With her hopes of becoming an international dressage rider dashed, Johnson-Dwyer refused to give up on her dreams, turning to grade IV para dressage, and targeting the Paralympics.

“It is really difficult coming to terms with the severe loss of the functions of your limbs. It is very daunting, especially psychologically,” says Johnson-Dwyer. 

Gradually, though, she came to terms with her disability, and forced her way into the South African para dressage team for an international show in Belgium in 2002, the first para equestrian team South Africa sent to an international event.

Having travelled to Belgium, the South African riders needed to “borrow” local horses to compete in the competition.

“The guy who was arranging our horses looked at me and said there’s a horse in the stables this girl would ride nicely, and he brought out this majestic chestnut gelding,” says Johnson-Dwyer.

It was love at first sight for Philippa and the strapping Benedict.

“Seeing Benedict for the first time was like watching liquid mercury move. He floated; he did not touch the ground. He was so beautiful.

“I sat on him and within five minutes I knew I was sitting on my Olympic horse. It was like we were star-crossed lovers, locking eyes from across the room,” says Johnson-Dwyer of the horse she lost her heart to.“I see the look on your face when you ride him,” said the man who arranged the horse for her, adding, “This horse goes nicely for Piet [Benedict’s usual stable rider], but she dances for you.”

It was the beginning of a love affair that is still flourishing more than 20 years later.

“Nobody expected anything from me at Athens. People just fell in love with Benedict. All the volunteers at the athletes’ village wanted to take photos with him. Benedict just had this incredible energy. He is just the kindest, sweetest horse,” says Johnson-Dwyer.

After their surprise silvers in Athens, Benedict and Philippa were a “complete force” in 2008, winning every international show they participated in, including the gold medals at the Beijing 2008 Paralympics in the individual test and freestyle categories.

For more than a decade now, though, Johnson-Dwyer has been haunted by the mean-spirited words of a competitor, who said to her, “You can’t really ride that well, you only won because you had a good horse.” 

It would have been easy to dismiss those throwaway utterances as just sour grapes from a rival, but they struck a nasty chord with Johnson-Dwyer, who has not won a medal at a Paralympics since.

But, at the age of 45, Johnson-Dwyer is still in the saddle, and still motivated to prove her detractors wrong as she heads to the Tokyo Paralympics this year with a different chestnut gelding, Lord Louis.

Whereas Benedict gently treated his riders as if he were “carrying porcelain”, Lord Louis is a different kettle of fish altogether. “Lord Louis is a German redhead; he’s got a mind of his own,” says Johnson-Dwyer.

“This horse has cost me blood, sweat and tears. For the first four years, I absolutely hated him. He held up a mirror I did not really want to look into, the mirror of my disability,” Johnson-Dwyer adds. “He said: ‘You know what, stand your ground and stand on your own two feet.’ He’s taught me so much.”

She knows she is up against younger and very capable riders and horses in Tokyo — and that emulating her Beijing feats will be a tall order — but she is still desperate for a podium place.

She is likely to compete at the Paralympics in Tokyo against her Irish husband, James Dwyer, who lost his leg when he contracted cancer at the age of 17, and who she often competes against on the international para dressage circuit.

They often joke about which is “easiest” — riding with one leg, or with one hand.

“The horses keep you motivated. I’m not like a cricket fast bowler who, by the age of 32, that’s the end of my career,” says Johnson-Dwyer, adding, “There is no age restriction in equestrian sport. Working with horses, every day something else always comes up; the horses themselves are always changing. No matter how long you ride, when you do get it right, even for just that nanosecond you think, ‘That must be the high drug addicts get when they shoot up’.”

Johnson-Dwyer is determined to get the monkey off her back as she heads to Tokyo this year. “I need to get back and show I’m not a one-hit wonder.”