Para-dressage rider Natasha Baker may have only made her senior Championship debut last year, but she’s already firmly cemented herself as one to watch ahead of this year’s Paralympics.
With double gold at the European Para-Equestrian Dressage Championships in Belgium last September, the 22-year-old couldn’t have planned her pre-Games prep much better. Next stop, London.
Since watching the 2000 Sydney Games, Natasha has had her sights set on Paralympic glory. We caught up with the talented rider to talk dark horses, the Flintstones and, of course, London 2012.
First of all, can you talk us through para-dressage – what’s it all about?
Basically, dressage is gymnastics on horseback, so it’s making the horse look very elegant and very pretty, it’s all about accuracy. We’ve got to make it look really effortless and really easy, when it’s not! Everybody thinks, ‘oh, you’re just sitting on a horse, pointing it in the right direction’ but that’s actually really good because it means we are doing our job properly.
ParalympicsGB secured ten medals in Beijing; London would be your debut Games – how would it feel to do even better on home soil?
First of all, to get there will be the biggest challenge because we are the only sport that’s been unbeaten since it started in 1996. So we’ve got an amazing record and the selectors will choose people that they think will be able to maintain that. Any of the nine people that are on the squad are capable of getting that, so it’s going to be really hard to even get a place. I was unbeaten internationally last year, which was great and hopefully that will sway them and I will get a chance. Once we get out there our aim is to get the team gold again and get as many individual goals as we can.
You mentioned how tough it will be to even just secure your spot – who’s likely to prove your main competition for a place?
Well there’s Lee Pearson who has got a 100 per cent Paralympics gold record, and Sophie Wells. We’ve got four grades, Grade I is the most disabled and Grade IV is the least and they can choose people from all of those grades. They have to have a Grade I or Grade II in the team but that’s the only requirement we have. Lee and Sophie are my main competitors I guess, bit then there’s still everybody else! For example Deb Criddle; she was on the European team last year and she’s got a really nice new horse.
You main competition is likely to come from Germany and the Netherlands, but are there also any wild cards?
The two main ones are the ones that came second and third to me at the Europeans; Petra Van der Sande from the Netherlands and Britta Napel from Germany. There’s also another lady, Angelika Trabert, and a new young girl from the Netherlands, Demi Vermeulen. It was Demi’s first European Championships as well, I think she was fourth so she was in the mix too, so I’m going to keep my beady little eye on them throughout the year.
You won two individual golds at the European Championships last year – having done so well recently are you the one to beat now?
It’s really weird because I don’t see myself as a European Champion! I really didn’t expect to go out and win two gold – I can really say that hand on heart, I did not expect that in a million years, my aim was a bronze. Having two gold medals from the Europeans is added pressure because everyone is going to be looking at me and I’m going to be in the focus, whereas I was in the background for the Europeans. But I do think the competition was a great learning curve for me. I’m really lucky I have got a really good mindset, I don’t normally let nerves get the better of me.
The Paralympics will obviously be the pinnacle of your career so far – what does it mean to you that you’ll be competing on home soil too?
It’s just going to be amazing to have everybody there. For the Europeans I had small support, my boyfriend came out, my dad came out, my trainer was there and my mum, she groomed my horse, so that was really great. But to have them in London, and then so many of my friends and family, but not only them, the whole country, behind you would be incredible. There are so many athletes that won’t get the opportunity to say ‘I’ve competed on home soil’, it’s going to be a once in a lifetime opportunity and I’ve got to grab it with both hands.
I know we’ve not even made it to this year’s Games yet but can we look a bit further ahead to Rio and beyond?
Definitely. Sophie Wells and I are the youngest two people on the team, she will be 22 in May and I’m 22 now, whilst the oldest member of the team is 64. It’s an incredible aspect, in that I could be 64 when I retire and still have a 40 year career. I’ve just bought my horse for Rio, I bought him last year and hopefully everything goes to plan with him. I’m hoping to take him to the Europeans before Rio, he’s going to be incredible, and I’m really excited about him. My main horse is Cabral and I found out the other day that the person named Cabral discovered Brazil! My other horse is called Bam Bam… I thought in my music test I could come down the centre line to the Flintstones music!
What tips do you have for aspiring riders?
I think the most important thing is that the day you don’t enjoy it is the day you give up. My motto is everything happens for a reason, and you have set backs, everyone has set backs, it doesn’t go perfectly all the time, but you learn from those and that’s what makes you a stronger person.
Jessica Whittington, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine