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World Champion Aims for the Gold Medal: Rodolpho Riskalla (Part II)

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?

*This article is a continuation from Rodolpho Riskalla (Part I).

2016 was also the year of the Rio Paralympic Games, held in Brazil. To qualify for the Paralympics that same year, he would have to have outstanding results in the few tournaments that were left. The stress and tension in those days must have been remarkable.

Riskalla: I received my classification [for my impairment], and competed in my first para-equestrian tournament in April. Everyone around me was kind of like, “Are you sure this is okay? You were just ill,” but I personally don’t remember getting that nervous. But when I competed in those four tournaments and qualified for the Paralympics, I was really, truly happy.

At the Rio Paralympics, he came in 7th in the Team Test event, and 10th in the Individual Test event.

Riskalla: I might not have done all that well, but I was satisfied with my performance. It was right after my illness, and I considered this first Paralympics to just be the beginning of my career. My horse also really worked hard for me, despite it being so hot.

It’d been six months of rapid progress. But how had Riskalla been able to transfer his energies so neatly, so soon after having his fingers and legs amputated? How had he gotten himself all the way to the Paralympics?

Riskalla: The answer to that is easy. It’s because it was being held in Brazil. My home country hosting the Olympics and Paralympics—it’ll probably never happen again in my lifetime. And so I thought, I have to get in. Equestrian sport allowed me not to think about my illness all that much. Even the people who thought my life was over—they were so excited to see me compete. It’s the magic of sports.

Working to Compete in Both the Olympics and Paralympics

Riskalla came to Japan in October of last year to perform a demonstration at CPEDI3★Gotemba Autumn photo by Atsushi Mihara

After Rio, Riskalla won the FEI Against All Odds award, an award the Fédération Equestre Internationale gives to riders who have overcome great difficulties. Christian Dior pledged their support of Riskalla, and he began working towards his goal of winning a gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. His coaches are his mother and sister. And in July 2017, he even found a new partner—Don Henrico, a stallion born in 2003.

Riskalla: I felt a connection with Don Henrico as soon as I met him, and I thought, “He’s perfect!” Ann-Kathrin Linsenhoff, who was a gold medalist in the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games, had given him to me, saying, “You’ll be able to ride him.”

With Don Henrico, Riskalla’s competitive career immediately skyrockets. The following month, he came in second in International Dressage Competition Nice, a tournament for able-bodied riders. And as stated before, he won two silver medals in the FEI World Equestrian Games™ in 2018. And in 2019, he marked his third victory in a high-grade, three-star tournament. Whatever titles he works for, he gets—and therein lies his strength.

Riskalla: My strength is that I’m very good at concentrating, but more than that, I think it’s my ability to set long-term goals, and prepare for them. Instead of just riding for as long as I can, I can set up plans based on what level I need to be in however many months. I guess another good thing might just be my personality—I tend to get really motivated when people expect things from me.

How does he feel about the increase in difficulty in terms of controlling the horse? Nowadays, Riskalla uses a special type of long whip that comes attached to a wristband.

Riskalla: Of course I have to do things differently now when I want to tell a horse what to do. But I actually don’t think it’s any more difficult. I can use special equestrian equipment, and I do have all of my past experience, so the control isn’t a problem. I can find all kind of ways to control a horse with just my body.

“That’s just him being talented. Normally it’s not something that’s easy at all,” explains Riskalla’s companion. The equestrian staff in Japan, who’d watched Riskalla’s demonstration, had also marveled at his control. “His control of the horse with just those tiny bits of pressure on the seat, was just incredible.” What, then, is driving Riskalla toward that Paralympic gold medal?

Riskalla: The Olympics and Paralympics are like one enormous party. It’s fun not just for the athletes, but for the spectators too. It’s fun for everyone. And I feel there’s immense value in winning a gold medal on a stage that special.

I also have another goal—to compete in both the Olympics and the Paralympics for Paris 2024. It’s something that doesn’t happen very often, but if I’m able to get a big sponsor, and get a good horse, it should be possible to make this come true. My goal at Rio was to compete, my goal for Tokyo is to win a gold medal, and my goal for Paris will be to compete in both the Olympics and the Paralympics. Of course, it’s not like everything has gone perfectly for me, but I do want that gold medal in Tokyo, partly to achieve this dream I have for Paris.

Riskalla’s motto? Live life with all you have, so you don’t regret any of it. Fitting words coming from Riskalla, who knows more than anyone how quickly life can change, no matter how happy and healthy you are in the moment. And so Riskalla heads to Tokyo, and then to Paris, with these words etched into his heart.

text by TEAM A
photo by Haruo Wanibe

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