Nina Ligon, a U.S.-based event rider with dual nationality who’ll be representing Thailand in the Olympics, is biding her time before the Games. Interview by Samantha Clark.
Top Photo: Nina Ligon & Fernhill Fearless (Photo by Samantha)
Scrutinizing the Rolex and Badminton entry lists, one Olympic contender’s name is conspicuously absent: Nina Ligon’s been enjoying a well-deserved break at her Esmont, Va., home alongside parents Pan and Austin and horses Butts Leon, Fernhill Fearless, Jazz King and Tipperary Liadhnan, all of whom have been chasing the London dream for the better part of a year.
“At the beginning of 2011, we didn’t even know if [Olympic qualification] would be a possibility, because I hadn’t competed at advanced yet, and I didn’t know if I’d be brave enough,” admitted Nina, 20. “But Fernhill Fearless really got me going, and that’s when we really started thinking it might be possible.”
Having worked her way up the FEI Olympic Ranking list tackling three-stars from California to the Czech Republic (“We’d do well at one event and think, ‘Oh, we’re safe!’ And then we’d keep watching other riders sneak up the list, so I never really knew when I was safe and when I wasn’t”), Nina finally got the good news call from her points-calculating dad, Austin, in February (read his excellent in-person EN recaps of Italy’s Montelibretti CCI*** here, here and here).
“I’d just finished my ride on ‘Paddy’ at Pine Top, so it was pretty exciting,” said Nina. “But at the same time I was just waiting for someone to be like, ‘Psych! You’re not really on the list!’ It wasn’t until I got the official statement from the FEI [in March] that I knew I had a spot.”
Nina’s now in the enviable position of knowing–months earlier than most–something other High Performance-listed riders would give their eye-teeth to know: She’s going to Greenwich. And as the sole equestrian representing Thailand, she’s also been generating some celebrity status buzz (see: Nina on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar Thailand; Nina’s flowery reception during a recent visit home).
“I did an interview with Channel 3, which is a big sports station in Thailand,” Nina said. “It was a short piece about how I qualified, and people really started to catch on after that. It’s been a very different experience. It’s a little overwhelming, but it’s good for the sport over there, especially trying to promote younger girls in the sport. In Thailand, it’s a mostly male-dominated sport.”
With four months to go until the Olympic Opening Ceremony, Nina has the unusual luxury of planning her Spring season without having to impress selectors.
“[Rolex] was suggested as something to consider, but we decided since the Olympics was my main goal, we didn’t want to risk the horses,” said Nina, whose down-time in Virginia wont last long. She flies for England next Monday, April 2, where she’ll stay at Waresly Park Stud outside Cambridge as she prepares.
“It’s hard on the horses to do so much traveling, so that’s why we decided to go over early and let them settle in, get used to everything, get acclimatized and not feel like they’re constantly on the move,” she said. “Waresly is a pretty big eventing facility, but it’s a bit out of the way of the action, so it’s very quiet. But we’re going to be stabled with the Brazilian event team–so it may be a big party!”
Nina plans to start things off in the intermediate at Withington Manor at the end of April before running a few events at the advanced or three-star levels–she lists Chatsworth and Houghton in May and Bramham and Barbury in June as possibilities.
“[Coach Kim Severson] will come over for all of the advanced and three-stars. I want to keep my program as much the same as possible,” she said. “Going and competing in England is big enough change, so I’ve asked Kim to help me make sure nothing goes wrong. She might come a day or two early to help me prep for some of the big events.
“We’re still looking into rules of how late I can decide [on my Olympic mount], but probably by the beginning of July or end of June, after Barbury, we’ll re-evaluate and see how the horses are doing and how comfortable they are,” she continued. “My real hope is that I’ll end up taking Butts Leon. He’s definitely my strongest horse, but at the moment I feel like I just need to get to know him better. I still feel like I have a lot of unknowns when it comes to him, but I’m hoping the Spring season will solidify that. It takes me a good six to nine months before I start really feeling like I understand them and get along well.”
Readying herself and her horses for the trip abroad (“We have a really great program for packing by now. We have great lists; we know which tack trunks work best, how to pack them the most efficiently”), Nina admits she’s been carefully considering her desired Olympic outcome.
“At first I thought, ‘I’ll just go and complete,’ and then I thought, ‘I’ll go and finish on my dressage score,’ but I ultimately can’t decide something like that,” she said. “My goal could be to finish on my dressage score, but no one knows what the course will be like or how hard it will be to make time.
“So my goal is just to not let pressure get to me,” she continued. “I’ve never competed against this many top riders, so I don’t really know where I stand. I’ll just stay concentrated and give as good of a performance as I would if I were back here in the U.S. competing. I’ll try not to change too much, not let things fall apart, and stick to what I’ve been doing.”
And her ever-supportive parents–how are they adjusting to the new Olympic pressure?
“I think they’re really, really excited!” Nina said.
EN wishes Nina and her horses safe travels and the best of luck in England. In the meantime, keep up with Nina on her website, Facebook and Twitter. We look forward to hearing more from Team Ligon’s adventures abroad.