Major games selection can sometimes seem a mystery – all of the sudden, a press release appears with a list of combinations chosen to represent the red and white. But how are those athlete and horse names chosen? James Atkinson, who resides in San Marcos, CA, shed light on the process as a member of the Canadian Eventing Team selection panel for the Lima 2019 Pan American Games, taking place July 26 to Aug. 11 in Peru. 

James Atkinson Demystifies Canadian Eventing Team Selection for Lima 2019 Pan American Games

James Atkinson of San Marcos, CA, shared his approach to eventing team selection for the Lima 2019 Pan American Games, to be held July 26 to Aug. 11 in Peru.
Photo Credit: Caroline Soble/©EC

A three-time member of the Canadian Eventing Team, James is familiar with the extreme highs and lows of international team competition.

“My first team experience was at the ‘99 Winnipeg Pan Am Games; I didn’t complete [all phases of competition], my horse went lame in the 10-minute box between steeplechase and cross-country,” he explained. “At the 2002 World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Jerez, ESP, I had to pull up partway around cross-country because my horse was sore. And then in 2011, I went to the Pan Ams in Guadalajara, MEX, and won the team silver medal – that’s when [Jessica Phoenix] won the individual gold. So it certainly made me aware of the fact that [team competition] is very difficult. I’d never failed to complete a long format competition when it wasn’t a team situation, but until 2011, I failed every single time at the team level.”

With his first-hand knowledge of the inner workings and pressures of major games, James was an ideal addition to the Equestrian Canada High Performance Advisory Group in 2017. He served on his first selection panel to choose the Canadian Eventing Team for WEG 2018 in Tryon, NC, alongside international eventer, Penny Rowland and Chair of the High Performance Advisory Group, Rob Stevenson. Soon afterwards, the trio reconvened to select the next representatives of the maple leaf at the upcoming Lima 2019 Pan Am Games.

To be selected to the Canadian Eventing Team, horse-and-athlete combinations have to meet Minimum Eligibility Requirements, which set performance parameters for each phase of competition – dressage, cross-country and show jumping. The selection panel then weighs in several other factors, including fitness and soundness, in accordance with each game’s specific nomination criteria.

“There’s very good reason why selection is not simple; it’s hard when the potential liabilities are made very clear,” commented James. “It’s real, it’s a business for these riders, and that’s a big deal. It’s quite recent that I’ve ridden at that level competitively, and I still coach, ride, and am at a lot of the events, so high performance is fresh in my mind. Most of the current riders are people I’ve ridden against, ridden with or ridden on teams with, so I think that’s a good thing because they know that’s where I’m coming from.”

James Atkinson Demystifies Canadian Eventing Team Selection for Lima 2019 Pan American Games

James brings his experience as a three-time member of the Canadian Eventing Team to the eventing selection panel. He is shown here competing in the 2011 Guadalajara Pan Am Games with Gustav.
Photo Credit: Shannon Brinkman

Respect for athletes is a key message that James stresses throughout the entire major games process, from the initial declarations to the conclusion of the games. It’s a value he learned at the hand of former Chair of the Eventing High Performance Committee, Grit High, who sat on the selection panel during his time as an athlete.

“Grit is a fantastic person and my role model as a selector,” said James. “She communicated directly with me and told me exactly what I needed to be considered – not to be selected, but to be considered. And that is the level of respect that we have to give to these riders. We ultimately cannot truly control the outcome at an international team competition, but we can control the experience, and that has real ancillary value. The culture that respect has created around the team situation has been a huge part of team success.”

The other and more obvious part of team success is the cumulative athletic abilities of each combination. But striving for maximum podium potential from an extremely varied field of Canadian talent is no easy task, particularly since each major games requires a different selection strategy.

James explained, “[Selection] certainly varies for the level of competition. For the 5* level, particularly looking forward to [the 2020 Tokyo Olympics], there are three riders on a team and three scores to count, which is a big, big difference from four riders on a team with three scores to count. Basically, [a 5* competition] will have three or four teams at best from the entire world finishing, so when we look forward to that our priority is cantering through the finish flags and not walking through them. Say we have three horses that all have an 85% completion rating – which is a very strong completion rating – when you do the math on that, three reliable horses turn into a 50-some per cent chance of finishing a team, so the more consistent they are in cross-country, the more likely they are to go. And that’s clear and fair for the 4* or 5* championship level.”

But when you add the luxury of a drop score into the mix, the selection strategy changes a bit. James continued, “For this year, the 3* level at the Pan Am Games, we can expect other teams to be finishing on their dressage score, which will put three horses on a dressage score of about 90 to 110, so we need to be on that number. So maybe we need to take a little more risk at times, because if we’re not on that number, we’re not competitive. We need to pick horses that are completing on a very low 30s number; Long term, jumping clean cross-country is what makes teams and riders successful.”

Luckily for James and his fellow selectors, Penny and Rob, Canadian combinations are more and more frequently hitting that target of final scores in the 30s – a good problem to have, but one that didn’t necessarily make selection for the Lima 2019 Pan Am Games any easier.

“It was a very difficult selection process for Lima because we have so many riders who are not just at that level, but competitive at that level,” confirmed James. “It wasn’t a decision based on who we think is going to go around the course and finish; it came down to a strategic decision based on the number we thought other countries are going to target and deliver, and what we need to do to compete with that. That’s a testament to the depth of horses and riders at this level we’re starting to see in this country.”

As expected, the Canadian Eventing Team combinations selected for the Lima 2019 Pan Am Games are all capable of producing a final score in the 30s: Dana Cooke of Mooresville, NC, and Mississippi (Cassini II x Legaat), a nine-year-old Württemberger mare owned by the FE Mississippi Syndicate LLC; Canadian Olympian Colleen Loach of Dunham, QC, and FE Golden Eye (Goldfever x Contendro I), the seven-year-old Hanoverian gelding that she co-owns with Amanda Bernhard; Canadian Olympian Jessica Phoenix of Cannington, ON, and her 17-year-old Westphalian gelding, Pavarotti (Pavarotti van de Helle x Foxiland XX); and Karl Slezak of Tottenham, ON, and Fernhill Wishes (Chacoa x Gildawn Diamond), the 10-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding that he co-owns with Kirk Hoppner.

James Atkinson Demystifies Canadian Eventing Team Selection for Lima 2019 Pan American Games

James and his fellow selection panel members, Penny Rowland and Rob Stevenson, chose the Canadian Eventing Team for the Lima 2019 Pan American Games based on their abilities to produce final scores in the 30s.
Clockwise from Top Left: Karl Slezak and Fernhill Wishes, Colleen Loach and FE Golden Eye, Dana Cooke and Mississippi, Jessica Phoenix and Pavarotti
Photo Credits: Cealy Tetley, Brant Gamma Photography, Amy Flemming Waters Photography, Shannon Brinkman

“Jessica has been a consistent member of the team with Pavarotti , so we have that experience, and Colleen also, but Dana and Karl are brand new and very deserving of this,” said James of the nominated team. “It’s fresh and young with three new horses, and Pavarotti for a little consistency, so I’m excited that we’re playing up our game and taking the best horses up the levels. I think it is ultimately going to help Dana and Karl’s programs and confidence develop to where we will seem them at the same level just as consistently as we have with Jessica and Colleen.”

James concluded, “Everybody works hard to make it on the team, but this is representing your country, and if that was easy it wouldn’t mean a thing. There’s no greater honour in the sport – and I know it was disappointing for some people, but they’ll get their shot and hopefully redouble their efforts so we can’t leave them off the team next time!”