Egypt's equestrian team are set to ride high after making history by qualifying for the Olympic Games for the first time in 61 years. Here's what Nayel Nassar had to say in an interview last year with Tokyo 2020.
It's been six long decades since an Egyptian equestrian team qualified and competed at an Olympic Games.
But now the wait is over as Mohamed 'Mouda' Taher Ziada, Sameh Al Dahan, Abdul Qader Saeed and Nayel Nassar - Team Egypt's showjumping team - are set to shine at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 after qualifying through the FEI Nations Cup in Morocco in 2019.
"[Qualifying] was a special moment. We had a large contingent from Egypt who came to support us and we felt like we had the strongest team in the Arab world. It would have been a huge disappointment for us not to qualify, so it felt great to pull together under pressure and deliver the clear rounds when they mattered most," Nassar told Tokyo 2020 in December 2020.
Not only did they qualify for the Games, it was also the first time they secured victory at a Nations Cup as a team.
"We don’t get the opportunity to do many Nations Cups and Egypt had never won one in its history. So to beat all the other countries as well, even those who didn’t have Olympic qualification at stake, was just the icing on the cake," the 30-year-old equestrian athlete added.
Now the team need to surpass their predecessors footsteps - who placed fourth in Rome 1960 - and earn the country's first Olympic medal in equestrian.
"It’s definitely our main priority right now and we are planning backwards from there. Our goal is to win a medal. It’s ambitious but anything can happen in our sport!' Nassar added.
And it seems they are the right team to make this happen. Each athlete in the Egyptian jumping team have been making waves in their own right and individually winning prestigious events. However, together they are stronger as a team.
"We are a passionate, professional group of young guys who have all had success in the sport and it’s an exciting time for Egyptian showjumping," Nassar said.
Whilst being part of the Egyptian cavalry team, who made Olympic qualification is one of his highlights in the sport, Nassar would like to accomplish more in his career.
"I’ve had several memorable moments in the last few years and am blessed to have had a fortunate career so far, but I like to keep my eyes ahead as there is still so much left to achieve."
Born in the United States and raised in Kuwait, Nassar had been riding since he was five years of age and started jumping at age 10 thanks to his Egyptian parents who encouraged him to take up the sport.
"My parents understood the life lessons that horses could teach us and encouraged my brother and I to take it on as a hobby. It was hardly a competitive thing at first, we simply enjoyed the bond between horse and rider and were fascinated by the animals. They are amazingly willing creatures and naturally are always what attract people to equestrian sport as a whole."
When he started winning amateur competitions, that hobby had started to become a life-long passion but he still was not convinced about making a future career out of it.
"A career in horse sport was never something I imagined for myself. I went to Stanford to study Economics and was convinced I would eventually get a job and maybe ride a bit on the side. I had been quite successful with my 2 horses as an amateur, but hadn’t won anything of huge significance yet," he explained.
However, it was his horse Lordan who helped seal the deal.
"We had purchased Lordan a few years earlier as a young horse, and I spent my college years educating him and bringing him through the ranks. In 2013 he had finally come of age - he was 9 years old and ready to jump the highest level. My expectations were low, as I didn’t have much experience at that level and Lordan was one of the youngest horses in the class. A jumper’s prime usually lies between ages 10 to 13, so it’s rare to see 9-year-olds jumping 1.60m." he said.
"To make a long story short, we ended up winning the class despite the fact that nobody even knew who we were! It was a moment of validation for me, as Lordan was a horse that I had found and developed myself for three years. I was immediately hooked, and thought it would be a real shame not to dedicate myself and see how far we could go in the sport. There was no stopping me after that, I knew that Grand Prix showjumping was where my heart was and it’s been there ever since."
2019 Getty Images
A showjumper through and through
With his horses Lordan and another named Lucifer, Nassar went on to represent his country in FEI World Cup finals (2013, 2014, 2017), FEI World Equestrian Games 2014) and have built a string of Grand Prix victories including the HITS Grand Prix where he won three times.
As a top elite showjumper, Nassar says he wouldn't be where he is today without the support of a myriad of people - and that includes the horses.
"I work hard but always put the horses’ well being first as I have a lot of respect for our partners. Most importantly though, I have a great support team without whom none of this would be possible - from my family, to the horses’ caretakers, vets and farriers. I’ve had to sacrifice some social time and my college experience was certainly different than most, but it’s a very small price to pay!"
With more success on the horizon for the Nassar, it's always the love for equestrian and the horses that continues to motivate him, especially in a sport that takes years to hone your skills.
"Showjumping in particular has a very steep learning curve. It takes a lot of time and dedication to become elite, and the fact that each horse is unique makes it even more engaging and challenging. Mistakes are very costly, the margin of error is extremely small and the end result is usually very unpredictable."
"A rider’s career can span several decades, so there is always room to improve, learn and grow even when you’ve reached the top level. Showjumping is also very objective and binary; you either clear the fences or you don’t, you are either faster than the rest or you’re not. The simplicity and objectivity definitely attracted me as well, because it means the victories are well-earned and well-deserved."
All aboard for Tokyo 2020
During the winter months of 2020, Nassar had been staying in Wellington, Florida where there are opportunities to compete in showjumping.
"My main motivation is always to bring the best out of my horses. We try to put them in a position to succeed whether that is at a smaller event or at a prestigious one."
Aside from actual riding, Nassar had also been focussing on doing other types of training to complement his riding in preparation for his competition at Tokyo 2020.
"Basically, you need to stay fit and strong enough to control a horse. Core and leg strength, conditioning, and hand eye coordination exercises are generally what we do in terms of cross-training. I also enjoy playing basketball, as it works on all those things while still being fun!
Whilst the Games and getting a medal are indeed his main focus for the Games, he hopes their success as a team at the Olympic Games will inspire future generations of Egyptian showjumpers.
"For Egyptian showjumping I hope to continue on this upward trajectory and inspire a younger generation of riders to pursue their dreams and goals," he said.
Nassar says show jumping is a sport that he encourages other people to get unto.
"Absolutely. Even just on a basic level, horses have so much to teach us."
"For showjumping as a whole, I hope to see it become more widely appreciated. I truly believe it is a very exciting, spectator-friendly sport which is going highly unnoticed in terms of media coverage and engagement."
However, for Nassar, equestrian offers something quite unique to the Olympic Games.
"Equestrian is the only Olympic sport involving animals and the only sport where men and women compete on a level playing field, so it has plenty to offer."
This feature was first published on 9 December 2020.