AT 6pm on the night before the eventers’ dressage started in Tokyo, there was a dramatic late switch in the Irish camp. Cathal Daniels’ ride Rioghan Rua, an individual bronze medallist at the European Championships, was pulled out, and Austin O’Connor came into the fray with Colorado Blue. Like a super-sub, he was ready and waiting to make an impact. He went on to finish best of the Irish in 13th.
“I was always prepared, as ready as I could be right up to the off,” says Austin. “In my head, I’d spent a year and a half aiming for this Olympics and I was prepared as if I was going to do it.”
Austin had already watched one Olympics from the substitutes’ bench as reserve in Rio, and he knew he had the horsepower to do Ireland justice this time.
“From the day of selection, it was quite a rollercoaster,” he admits. “There was a lot of disappointment initially not being selected in the team, but we agreed to run with it.”
Austin’s way of coping with the “will I, won’t I” conundrum of the reserve was to believe he would line up.
“I never really accepted the reserve spot; I was always banking on getting a run,” he explains. “It isn’t easy to carry that off, but if you lose focus you might as well stay at home.”
The difference with this year’s new Olympic format was that the alternate could be brought into the team at any phase of the competition. It’s the hardest role for a rider, needing to be adept at switching from a selfless supporter to full-blown competitive mode in a jiffy.
“As a reserve, you’re there to be as good a support as you can be; I’d like to think I was,” says Austin. “I tried to be part of the team and stay involved – otherwise you’d have a meltdown. But I never allowed myself to think I was the alternate; that was the mindset that worked for me.”
Reserve riders have spoken before about dealing with the schadenfreude element – while no one wants any accident to befall a compatriot, at the back of a competitor’s mind is the knowledge that the tiniest off-colour moment from any team member would put you in the hot seat.
“My initial reaction to hearing I was getting a run was genuine disappointment for Cathal,” says Austin of the night he learnt he was in the team. “I’ve been in this game a long time and seen all the ups and downs. The first thing I did was to see Cathal and speak to his owners.”
The next morning, he was in the thick of the action. His dressage was trending around the top 10 until the tricky canter work section.
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