SUNDRE — A local horse vaulter has set the bar high after not only beating her own previous record but also setting a Canadian milestone on the international stage among dozens of other skilled contenders.
Averill Saunders, who lives on a quarter section north of Sundre in the James River area, recently competed at the 2021 Junior World Vaulting Championships that was hosted in Le Mans, France from July 28 to Aug. 1.
The 17-year-old, who will be starting Grade 12 at Caroline School in September, said it was her second time performing in a world championship competition in France.
“I was the flyer on a senior team who competed at the senior world championships there in 2016,” said Saunders on Wednesday, Aug. 18 during an interview.
“But this was also my second world championship as a junior individual,” she said.
Her first championship event as an individual junior was in Ermelo, Netherlands in 2019, when she set a new Canadian record at that event after placing 19th.
“That was a record for all Canadian women across junior and senior competition at a world championship level,” she said.
“And then I re-broke that record this summer in Le Mans, finishing in ninth place, making myself the first Canadian female individual to ever make a second round cut in a world championships, as well as beating my previous set record by 10 places,” she said.
“It was quite incredible.”
During her first round, which includes going through textbook compulsory moves that all contenders must complete in the same order followed by a freestyle performance, she feared a mistake might have cost her the chance to move on.
“But I was the only competitor who made the second round cut who actually fell off in their first round,” she said, adding that even just briefly falling off for a few strides translates to a substantial deduction on a vaulter’s score, which is judged on components like the horse, composition, and artistic merit.
“The recovery from that was huge. So, that was also kind of like a little mini-feat in there as well.”
Among the first to perform during round one, she said watching the remaining 68 competitors — including two other Canadians from Edmonton and Strathmore — was an excruciating, nail-biting experience that had her on the edge of her seat as she watched intently trying to guess what their scores would be and whether they’d beat her.
“It was a very long wait of me just sitting there,” she said.
Following her performance at the 2019 championship that she wasn’t quite satisfied with, Saunders said her goal at that time was to make the second round, which requires a top-15 finish that she had narrowly missed by four ranks.
“I was just really distraught that I was going to make the same mistake and cost myself that huge goal two years later. So, me making it was a very, very huge sigh of relief,” she said.
No stranger to the pressure of competition, Saunders said she was 12 when she performed as a flyer during her first world championship event.
“That was the first time I was really exposed to how much higher of a level the vaulting is in Europe. That kind of really set a fire for me,” she told The Albertan.
Feeding her motivation are those who have mentored her, including her Olds-based coach Jeanine van der Sluijs, as well as other vaulters she’s looked up to.
“As much as I feel proud of myself, it’s a huge success for the whole country, and I do it with the inspiration of all the others who were so close but didn’t quite get there,” she said.
Upon reaching the second round, the top-15 contenders must once again complete a compulsory set before going onto their freestyle performance.
“You get to pick your music and your costume and your theme or concept,” she said.
Two athletes who train at the Meadow Creek Vaulting Club, whose home base is 15 minutes southeast of Olds, also competed at the championships. In the individual male division, Daniel Klotz-Dedora, 14, from Cochrane, placed top-10, while Jacynda Row, also 14, from Edmonton, finished 46th. Megan Leeper, 17, of Strathmore, who is not affiliated with the club, followed two spots behind Row.
Gymnastics on horseback
Horse vaulting might to a casual observer look similar to but is not to be confused with rodeo trick riding.
“It’s quite commonly described as dance and gymnastics on horses,” said Saunders.
“We’re not necessarily associated with trick riding — that’s more of a western approach to it,” she said.
Most vaulting horses, especially those that compete at the highest level, are also highly trained in dressage, “which is where we differ from trick riding,” she elaborated.
“We also have a lunger, who lunges the horse in the circle. So, that adds another person to it. Whereas in trick riding, it’s just the rider and the horse,” she said, adding horse vaulters are not actually in control of the mount.
Vaulting has three categories — individual, pair and team. But even the individual category could arguably be considered a team effort, she said.
“Just because you have the vaulter, the horse and the lunger all working as one,” she said.
“I’ve always found that my connection and my personal relationship with my lunger is very, very important to me. And if I’m competing with a lunger I’m really comfortable with, it makes me feel a lot better and a lot more confident in the vaulting that I’m doing.”
First learning to ride a horse when she was about six years old, Saunders said she pretty well instantly developed a passion for vaulting a couple of years later at a summer camp in 2012.
“I’ve been vaulting for nine years,” she said.
“When I first started vaulting, I was also jumping horses, so I was in other equestrian disciplines as well as I was also doing dance and gymnastics. The initial draw for me was really how it combined all of the things that I loved into one, and it just made me love it so much more than all of the other things on their own,” she said.
Since then, her passion for the sport has developed into a love for the entire horse vaulting community and the people around her.
“I love competing so much — not necessarily for the aspect of competing, but just seeing everybody that you haven’t seen since the last competition. Especially travelling to Europe, because then you get to see your friends that you only get to maybe see once a year when you’re competing overseas.”
Although her parents were never heavily involved with horses, Saunders said her “grandparents and their parents were huge into equestrian sports. So, I think it was really surreal for my family to just have me back into it, even though it skipped a generation.”
While most vaulters would tend to favour freestyle moves that they came up with and managed to pull off, Saunders expressed a preference for certain technically complicated compulsory moves.
“I’ve spent nine years vaulting, and doing a compulsory swing and reaching a handstand, is like a massive goal that lots and lots of vaulters set, and only the top can finally reach it,” she said.
“This year, when I finally got that, it was huge,” she added.
“This has been like a career-long goal, and to finally be able to do that, I think that’s why I love doing it so much.”