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Gigi McIntosh: The Ride Of A Lifetime, Rio 2016

Written by on September 30, 2016

In her own words, USA Paralympic Equestrian Margaret “Gigi” McIntosh reflects on her Rio 2016 experience- from the exciting, emotional celebration of the Opening Ceremony to the true camaraderie of a team- and amidst the adventure of a lifetime, catching a moment of silence to recognize the value of both the journey and the destination.

One’s first impression of the Olympic Village is simply overwhelming. A complex of 27 high rises looming 20 stories high, balconies festooned with colorful flags from Azerbijan to Zimbabwe, surrounds a park like setting with winding paths, fountains and reflecting pools. The apartment buildings are bordered by the dining hall on one long side and the “International Zone (an open terrace with shops and a very large screened tv) perfect for socializing on any given evening.
The most unique aspect of this village is, of course, the villagers. Dressed in all types of athletic wear reflecting the colors of 50 nations, the diversity of nationalities is only exceeded by the diversity of disabilities. As you walk or roll along, greeting friendly faces, you realize that very few have the full complement of arms and legs you would generally expect. Becca Hart, Sydney Collier, Annie Peavy, Roxie Trunnell and I share an apartment with three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a laundry room and a lounge with beanbag chairs, a sofa and a TV. With great air conditioning and plenty of warm water, we are very comfortable here. Our balcony overlooks the park and the gorgeous Village backdrop of dramatic mountains featured in every picture of Rio de Janeiro.


September 7th, our second day in Rio, started with an early ride as we had to be back in the Village before a 12:30 “lockdown”. In anticipation of the Opening Ceremony taking place that evening, bus activity between the venues and the Village stopped as transportation was organized for the entire athlete population.
I felt such a surge of pride as the American contingent gathered outside our building early that afternoon.
Wearing our Ralph Lauren red, white, and blue striped t-shirts, white jeans and patriot Docker-type shoes with tailored Navy blazers donned for pictures, we were no longer swimmers and equestrians, wheelchair users and sight-impaired, we were Team USA! We would spend the next four hours bonding with our teammates during the bus ride and the long wait for our grand entrance into Maracana Stadium.

Everyone but Annie had their own powered scooters for our time in Rio but charging difficulties left Roxie and me in our manual wheelchairs for the Opening Ceremonies. Laureen Johnson, our Team Leader, pushed Roxie all the way around the beautiful elevated winding pathway to the stadium while I enjoyed being towed by Becca and Sydney’s power scooters and pushed by Annie and the lovely cheerful Brazilian volunteers lining the entranceway!

Entering the stadium with the pandemonium of cheers for the athletes was almost emotionally overwhelming. But, for once in my life, I was at the coolest party ever and totally enjoyed waving and high-fiving the volunteers alongside my USA teammates!

Buses leave the Athletes’ Village regularly every 1/2 hour for the Equestrian complex at Deodoro park. The handi-capped accessible busses take about 35 minutes to reach the military base where our horses and grooms are efficiently stabled. Despite the heat wave of the past few days which had us competing at 94 degrees, the horses stayed quite comfortable in the high ceilings and copiously shaded stables.
As the Deodoro park is on a military base, there is a noticeable presence of military police but the nicest soldiers you have ever met! Despite the camouflage uniforms and rifles, these young men are quick to respond with a wide smile when you greet them with a Portuguese “Bom Dia”! Although few
of the stable workers speak English, they are unfailingly warm and friendly.

It was wonderful to catch up with our old friends, Philippa and James Johnson Dwyer and Meike Wirix, the Singapore girls Laurentia Tan and Gemma Rose Foo. Riding the bus back and forth to the Village gave us a great opportunity to visit as did sharing lunch in the Athlete’s dining hall. Salad was always available as well as several rice, chicken or beef dishes and, of course, all the cold Coke products you could imagine.

Sunday’s jog was hardly uneventful with several horses held for re-presenting and ultimately, the lovely Italian Sarah Morganti’s horse being disqualified. One of my favorite competitors, Sarah gracefully remained to cheer for her teammates through the whole competition. The American horses presented wonderfully thanks to our great vet,  Duncan Peters and our outstanding grooms Missy Ransehousen, Alex Philpin, Fernando Ortega Ortega. Amy McIlwham and Kjersten Lance.

I was so excited to ride Rio in to the Paralympic stadium!

The flags lining the top decks, bright blue and green seating and abundant flowers contributed to the festive Rio atmosphere. The venue looked huge in the pictures from the Able-bodied Olympics but strategically placed shrubbery cut the huge expanse into a manageable size as we scoped out markers for our various figures.

The first day of competition was also a local holiday so Annie and Sydney were greeted by record crowds! Unfortunately, there was also a holiday soccer match in the favela near the stadium, with celebratory fireworks punctuating the scoring! Fortunately, the horses didn’t seem to care and the police intervened before our riders started. Annie and Sydney both had very competent rides to start our team competition.

Roxie and I had our Grade 1a Team test the next afternoon in very warm and humid conditions. At one point late that morning, I had a moment of total panic…followed by an epiphany….I had already achieved what I had set out to do in making it to the Paralympics. I resolved to ride well and just enjoy the experience. Consequently, I wasn’t nervous at all and rode Rio in a solid test with great halts and wonderful free walks for a respectable 68% despite the oppressive heat.
Preparing for my second test, the Individual Championship, involved a slight change in strategy. In order to encourage Rio to show more forward energy, I rode her on a little longer rein. The coaches found her much improved in the subsequent test but not enough to significantly impact her score.

For full results:

I enjoyed the support of a great team in Rio!

Missy Ransehousen did double duty as groom and trainer, keeping Rio well fed and beautifully turned out as well as totally tuned up for competition. Alex Philpin was a great help, especially on competition days when time was a factor. Charlotte McIntosh Tarr, my daughter, was exceptional in her ability to keep me organized, hydrated and focused with energy and a sense of humor that benefitted the whole team. It was a delight to have her there!


The Village is quiet tonight.

Most everyone has gone to the closing ceremony. I’m on my balcony overlooking the city in one direction, the hills in the other. There go the buses in a green and white line preceded by flashing red motorcycles. I’m so proud to watch my fellow athletes in their own parade. But I just had a flash of anxiety realizing that the escort isn’t just for pomp but security, realizing that the athletes are leaving the bubble and are vulnerable.

Funny to think this Paralympic place will cease to exist tomorrow. There will be no alumnae meetings, no Class of 2017.
What an amazing experience…all that forethought and organization so that we could fly the five best horses in the US to Brazil! And the cost and the risk? And everything we worried about that did not happen…and everything we hoped for that also didn’t happen?
What a nice bunch of smart funny athletic and talented men and women made this so much fun…
Just saw my first mosquito!

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