A Sudden Illness Gives Rise to an Equestrian Superstar: Rodolpho Riskalla (Part I)
Rodolpho Riskalla, once a rising star in Brazil’s able-bodied dressage world, has the sort of chic, sophisticated look that hints to his experience working at the Paris storefront of a famous fashion brand.
His smile is gentle, warm, despite the harrowing experiences he’s had. In 2015, immediately after his father’s death, he’d contracted a serious illness, hovering between life and death and eventually losing many of his fingers, as well as his legs below the knees. “Equestrian sport is what gave me the will to live. Right now, my goal is to win a gold medal at the Tokyo Paralympics,” he’d said cheerfully. What are his thoughts now, on his competitive career?
A Setback While Working Towards the Olympics
Riskalla won silver medals in the Individual Test and Freestyle events at the FEI World Equestrian Games™ held in the U.S. in September 2018, bringing his world ranking to No. 1. This was the moment when the world accepted Riskalla as their No. 1 rider—Riskalla, who had gotten into the equestrian sport in January 2016.
Rodolpho Riskalla (hereafter “Riskalla”): Dressage is a point-based sport, so the build-up to the tournaments is just as important—like whether the judges know of you, for example. I may have been well-known in able-bodied tournaments, but I was a complete newbie in the para world, and so for a long time, I had to work extra, extra hard. It was also just difficult for me as a Brazilian to try to compete with all of these powerhouse European riders. So to be able to win those silver medals in that tournament, it was very satisfying for me.
From what Riskalla said, you can probably tell that equestrian sport is not very common in his home country of Brazil. Riskalla, however, had grown up in an equestrian family, and had spent his whole life with horses.
Riskalla: My grandfather owned a racehorse, so my mother Rosangele became a professional instructor for equestrian sport, and my younger sister Victoria and I were raised as riders. And when I was 21 years old, I moved to Germany, where equestrian sport is very popular. There are a lot of good horses there, which meant a lot of opportunity.
While living in Germany in 2005, Riskalla became a finalist in the FEI Young Rider World Cup, the gateway to success for riders throughout the world. He devoted himself to training for the Olympic Games, but wasn’t able to qualify for the London 2012 Olympic Games, and in 2014, decided to end his career as a professional rider.
Riskalla: It was very sad, and I was very disappointed. At the time I worked for a stable in France, working towards the Olympics while training the horses and teaching lessons. But equestrian sport costs a lot of money, and over time, I came to realize that just being good at it isn’t enough for me to be able to become an Olympic athlete. So I thought about it, and I thought, I’ll change my life—I can always go back to being a rider, so I should do work that doesn’t involve horses while I’m young. And so I started working at a Christian Dior flagship store.
Competing in the Highest of Stages, Six Months After Getting into the Sport
After that, his life was nice and relaxed. Until the following year, 2015, when everything changed. A series of tragedies over the course of just one month.
Riskalla: I’d taken some days off and gone back to Brazil in July. My parents were divorced, but they got along, and we all had dinner together. That was the last time my family was all together. I went back to France the next day, but heard immediately that my father’s health had taken a turn for the worse. I had a hard time getting plane tickets, and when I went back to Brazil the following week, my father had already passed away, and been buried.
Two weeks later, Riskalla was struck with his illness.
Riskalla: I was still in Brazil for the procedures following my father’s death, and I was completely fine during the day. But overnight, I all of a sudden came down with a 40-degree fever, and fell into a coma. Bacteria made its way into my blood tissue, and the only reason my heart was pumping was that there was a machine pumping it. My blood wasn’t circulating to my extremities, and the tissue in my hands and feet had started dying. Apparently, my mother and sister were asked if the doctors should amputate my hands and feet. But they’d already been told that I was probably going to die, so they told the doctors not to amputate if I was going to die anyway. Of course, I heard all of this from them afterwards.
He hovered between life and death for three weeks, then woke up.
Riskalla: During this time, I still had my hands and feet. But they’d gone completely black. I went back to Paris, where the sanitary conditions were better, and the doctor there gave me two choices—to amputate or not to amputate. And so I asked, “Will I still be able to ride horses if I amputate?” and they responded, “Yes, you could do pretty much anything as long as we amputate in the right spots, and you use prostheses.” And so in October I had my fingers amputated, and my leg amputated below the knees.
It was the most challenging thing life had ever thrown at him. And as if there weren’t enough, the following month saw the Islamic State’s coordinated terrorist attack on Paris, in an area near his own apartment. The city was left reeling. With all of this happening, Riskalla made a decision.
Riskalla: There were so many people shot in the terrorist attack that the hospital ran out of rooms, and so I was spending my time at a rehab facility. While I was there, I got a call from a friend who said, “Hey, you can use my horse—go compete in the Paralympics.” And so in January 2016, I made the switch to the para-equestrian sport.
text by TEAM A
photo by Haruo Wanibe