UNICEF Team Canada Sweeps the Championships
20 February 2008, 06h30 EST (GMT-5)
Gold Medals at the Closing Ceremonies
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When I awoke for the final day of competition of the 2008 International Tent Pegging Championships, I realised immediately that something had changed. To begin with, there was a stranger standing in my hotel room.
"Hello sir!" he quipped, cheerfully dropping a bowl of oranges and a cup of chai next to my bed. "I saw you win yesterday. Do you think you will win again today?" Well, I thought, rubbing the sleep from my eyes, this must be the Manipuri equivalent of spoils to the victor.
I arrived at the stadium to find the area adjacent to the stables aflame. Curiously, the crowd did not budge. One of the grooms shrugged, "Who wants to lose good seats?"
The fire was doused quickly, with a bit of water and a great deal of shouting and running about. My teammates and I retrieved our horses - who happily were oblivious to their moment of peril - mounted up, and rode in formation unto the field.
As we awaited the start of the day's games, I noticed that each of us carried a token of someone he wished could be there. Bimol wore a small brass ornament from his son around his neck. Jeetender and Talwinder wore braided circlets from their families around their wrists. I kept a ribbon from Sarah's hair looped through my sword belt.
The first event of the day was team sword. The team gallops four abreast, and uses swords rather than lances to smite ground targets. A sword specialist, I had harboured the highest hopes, and felt the greatest pressure, for this event, and I had named my sword Satyasi in anticipation of these championships.
One serious difficulty my teammates and I had to overcome was that towards the end of the previous day, our horses had begun to gallop on the wrong lead. The lead, the order in which a horse's hooves meet the ground, has a profound impact on balance and safety when the rider strikes out at targets.
To encourage the horses to adopt the correct lead, I planned to have the team enter the starting area on a diagonal line, then turn the horses around in voltes (tight individual circles) to face the course. This carried one potentially calamitous risk: the horses would have to turn away from the course before turning towards it, and a warhorse might not be willing to show its back to the metaphoric enemy.
Sadly, my concern proved well-founded.
Our horses trotted to the starting area compliantly, but swelled with mortal dread when we tried to execute the volte. They fought their bits, threw their heads, reared, struck out, and collided with one another. Once we finally brought them around, the four of us galloped off in a jagged, broken line that cost us severely in time faults.
While awaiting our second run, we dismounted, and tried to school the horses from the ground rather than from the saddle. We had only a few minutes between runs, and our efforts seemed futile, if not laughable.
On our second run, we took our horses into the starting area in reverse order, allowing us to describe a larger, and therefore less athletically demanding circle. Perhaps the physical relief of the larger circle convinced the horses to co-operate; perhaps they now had a better understanding of what we wanted; perhaps the few minutes of groundwork paid dividends. Whatever the cause, the four of us struck off on a simultaneous gallop, on the correct lead, and cleared the course of all the targets.
In each succeeding run, our horses performed still better. On the final run, they cantered into the starting area, and instead of turning to face the course, they performed fine approximations of half-pirouettes. We ran the targets through so deeply that groups of grooms had to struggle to extricate our blades from them.
In the final tally, India's B Team took the bronze medal, India's A Team took the silver, and UNICEF Team Canada took the gold.
The second event of the day, and the final event of the championships, was Indian File. The four team members take the course simultaneously, but in single file, one behind the other, rather than abreast. There are only two runs, one with the lance and one with the sword.
All the horses and riders were equally fatigued by this time, and we were all fading in the afternoon sun. However, though I am obviously biased, I felt that our horses retained more "heart" and the will to serve us one last time. And they did so magnificently.
India's B Team once again took the bronze medal, and in a strong finish, Team Oman took the silver. UNICEF Team Canada won the gold.
Much of what followed is something of a blur for me: the cheers of the crowd; the rapture of our grooms; the exhaustion after days of adrenalin.
Red ribbons were affixed to our lances, and we led the column of teams in a mounted parade past the stands, to offer and to receive the salute from the dais. We then dismounted, and I took my team to the podium, where our gold medals were placed around our necks.
But my most vivid memory of the finale of the championships was that the loudest cheers for UNICEF Team Canada came from the riders of the other teams.
Tent pegging is undeniably an anachronistic sport, the last vestige of an age of chivalry whose ideals seem even more out of place in the modern world than its implements. But that is precisely what I most love about the sport.
The athletes I have met through tent pegging personify not only those ideals, but also the intrinsic virtues of sport: grace in defeat, and humility in victory; gallantry towards ally and adversary alike; the prizing of fair play and honourable conduct over the outcome of competition. For me, the greatest honour of the championships was not to stand on the podium, but to stand alongside the other athletes throughout the games.
Of course, my teammates and I are all enormously proud of our results at the championships. However, we are also in awe of the riders with whom we competed. There is no doubt in my mind that if the events of the 2008 International Tent Pegging Championships were repeated a hundred times over a hundred days, in sum, victory would go to others. It is just that those two particular days, the days of the championships, happened to be our days.
But they are days the four of us will cherish for the rest of our lives.
Bimol, Jeetender, and Talwinder, who are NCOs in the police and armed forces, have returned to their home units and will receive promotions in rank. I understand that at least one of them (I should not say which one until it is final) will be commissioned as an officer. It is unlikely that any of them will ever again be overlooked in the selections for their national tent pegging teams.
My horse Gagan has returned to the Indian Army Service Corps, and he will reprise his role as a true modern-day warhorse.
I have returned home to Toronto, and I have been taking some time to nurse my bruises and to convince my horse Chance to forgive me for my long absence.
I hope I upheld Canada's honour at the championships, and that I served UNICEF well. Out of the four team disciplines, I have brought home three gold medals and one bronze, and it is my sincerest wish that those medals will do some good for both Canada and for the cause of the world's children.
Later this year, I will organise a Canadian Tent Pegging Association, to encourage other Canadians to practise the sport domestically and to exceed my results internationally. More immediately, I have donated most of my medals to UNICEF, to be used in its fund-raising efforts to treat and care for children with HIV-AIDS.
And of course, the 2009 International Tent Pegging Championships are now less than a year away!