Joining the gold rush

IT’S a multi-billion dollar money maker, advertisers’ delight and media obsession. And then there’s the Paralympics.

While not as headline-grabbing or lucrative as its big brother showpiece, the Paralympics remains arguably the most important sporting fixture on the planet. And Rob Oakley is confident he’ll make a name for himself on the crucial stage.

But that’s not his number one priority. Neither is winning gold in the 1A class equestrian competition as in a monent the world catches its breath.

Under the watchful eyes of Tallong-based coaches José and Faye Mendez, Oakley meticulously plans each step of his Paralympic routine aboard faithful stallion Mantovani.

Should the height of the occasion prove too much – an unlikely proposition, according to his mentors – Oakley will still return Down Under buoyed by his experience.

It’s that balance between life and sport that has the Bungendorebred rider, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, poised to win gold.

“People always talk about the Paralympics as a dream, but for me, equestrian is part of my lifestyle,” he said atop Mantovani during a leisurely session at the Mendezes’ Tallong training facility.

“London will be important, but it’s more important that I keep the exercise and competition up as part of my life.”

Muscular dystrophy is a degenerative condition characterised by progressive muscle weakness. And while it’s restricted his ability in the equestrian ring, it’s increased his love of the sport.

Most days he makes the journey from his home-town of Bungendore to the cusp of Southern Highlands at Tallong.

It’s a trek he’s only too willing to take.

Oakley’s equestrian outings with Mantovani – coupled with a fitness regime undertaken with the ACT Academy of Sport – are crucial to his wellbeing. And his Paralamypic gold medal chances.

“We’re hoping for a gold medal,” Faye says, watching her men strut their stuff during a training session from the inside of her property’s equestrian ring.

“I’m the one who mainly gets the horse ready… Rob will usually do some exercises before he gets in. We warm up the horse, Rob gets in, continues with his balance, the quality of the walk, his halts and his turns.”

The effective athlete-coach relationship was born when Rob tracked down José – a worldclass trainer – for advice. So smooth is Oakley’s communication stream with the 14-year-old stallion and his mentors, he’s developed into a genuine gold medal chance.

The father of two will representative Australia in the 1A category individual test, teams competition and freestyle format. “Their combination is excellent,” Faye said.

“They’ve been together for about two years and it’s just developed from there. We’ve competed Mantovani with Rob on five occasions and we’re already off to the Paralympics.”

The man in the saddle concedes 2012 may be his one and only shot on the world’s biggest stage.

And while he’s the first to admit there’s more to life than gold medal glory, he’d dearly love a podium finish on London’s East End.

“I’ve been there or thereabouts for the last two [Paralympics], so to get a shot is quite special. I’ve been lucky enough to let José and Faye let me ride Manny and we’ve got a good understanding,” he said.

“This is my shot, we’ll make the most of it and reassess our priorities when I get back.”

Should London prove to be Oakley’s last international hurrah, he’ll hang pack up the saddle content with his achievement.

“I’ve got two teenage daughters and a little farm that keeps me busy, and I’m fond of a bit of fishing, so there’s plenty that keeps me interested away from the ring,” he said.

Just getting to the UK will be a challenge in itself. The Mendez- Oakley operation was granted permission to fly two stallions – one of whom is Mantovani – and two mares to Britain.

Keeping the horses enthusiasm curbed and their natural instincts in tact could yet prove a tricky task – especially over a 24 hour transit.

A tub of Vicks vapour rub is an unlikely ingredient in gold medal success.

“It’ll make for an interesting challenge,” the rider said tonguein- cheek.

“I think there’ll be a little bit of Vicks on the flight – we use the Vicks so they can’t smell anything or than Vicks. It’s all pretty simple for a stallion – they eat, sleep and chase mares”.

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