(Published with the kind permission of the Aachener Zeitung. By Marlon Gego)
About luck and missing the chance of a lifetime
Wonder child, jobless, Olympic gold medallist: In spite of his exceptional talent, Steve Guerdat had to fight hard to fulfil his dream of winning the Olympic Games.
Aachen. One doesn't see the story behind Steve Guerdat by looking at him, it is not written all over his face, perhaps because he is still young, just 32. Some people know his story, but not everyone still remembers it. People prefer to recall the nice moments, for example, when Guerdat won the Olympic Games in 2012. On the riding scene, success counts for more than the road that led to success. It has been eight years since Steve Guerdat blew the chance of a lifetime and went from being a wonder child to jobless. And then to Olympic gold medallist.
Guerdat comes from Bassecourt in the North-West of Switzerland. He grew up with his family on the farm of his granddad, who was a horse dealer. His father, Philippe, was also a show-jumper. He was Vice-European Champion in 1985. A good rider, but not half as talented as Steve, his son. Steve's life progressed quite predictably; form a very early stage it was obvious that Steve would be very successful on the equestrian sport circuit. When he decided to leave school after the eleventh grade to become a professional rider, his father didn't mind at all, but his mother did. Philippe Guerdat relied on the fact that Steve's talent would enable him to make a living out of riding. He was so successful as a Junior rider that Jan Tops, one of the most famous horse dealers in Europe, signed him up in 2003.
Unlike some of his fellow competitors, Steve Guerdat does not come from a rich family. He relies on people placing horses at his disposal, which he can compete with. A top rider is nothing without a good horse and if you want to win gold at the Olympics, you need a horse that costs at least a six-digit figure, often even more.
The price for his idealism
While working for Jan Tops, Guerdat always had outstanding horses, but only until a buyer was found, who was prepared to pay the right amount for these horses. When the one horse was sold, Guerdat was given another one, which he had to start from scratch again with. Even the best horses and best riders need a while to get used to each other. But, in the meantime, Guerdat had made a name for himself. He wanted more, above all he wanted to be able to work consistently with his horses, without having to fear that they would be sold the next day. At the beginning of 2006, he handed in his notice.
Nearly everyone experiences major changes in the course of their lives, sometimes ill strokes of fate happen in one's private life or one is faced with unusual career decisions. Most ups and downs occur as a result of such upheavals and the same is true for Steve Guerdat.
After he had quit working for Tops, he was offered a job by the Ukrainian oil billionaire Oleksandr Onischtschenko, who was at the time putting a riding team together. Here, money didn't play a role, Onischtschenko paid Guerdat's wages for four years in advance, furthermore the entrepreneur agreed to buy the best horses for Guerdat. The only condition was that Guerdat, like the other team members, should become a Ukrainian citizen, by the 2012 Olympic Games at the latest.
Guerdat hesitantly consented and things took their course: A company flat in Liège, a company car, good wages, financial independence. For Guerdat, 23 years old, the opportunity of a lifetime.
In May 2006, the contract was supposed to be signed during the show in La Baule in France, on the Monday, Guerdat handed over his Swiss passport, the signing of the contract was scheduled for the Wednesday. As Guerdat sat down with the pen in his hand, he paused and said: "I can't sign it."
The situation back then is not Guerdat's favourite topic. He is the sort of person, who prefers to look ahead rather than dwelling on the past. But on Tuesday evening at the CHIO Aachen, he talked about it again. Guerdat explained that he is impulsive and he simply couldn't sign the contract, it "didn't feel right". Before the planned signing of the contract, the German Olympic gold medallist Ludger Beerbaum had rung him, said Guerdat, the contents of the conversation "is between him and me", but "I remain grateful to him until this very day."
Of course, the billionaire from the Ukraine was totally offended by his refusal to sign the contact. He took the company car and the company flat off him the same day, Guerdat had to transfer the salary he had been paid for the next four years - according to rumours a seven-digit figure - back to the billionaire immediately. He was stood on the showgrounds in La Baule with not much more than the clothes he was wearing and from one minute to the next, he didn't have any horses to ride. His brother came and picked him up in France.
Nothing happened for a few months, Guerdat missed the FEI World Equestrian Games Aachen 2006. Philippe Guerdat, his father said: "This is always a great story for the newspapers, because everything turned it out well. But believe me, it was really tough for Steve at the time.“ The price for his idealism?
One of the people, who has followed Guerdat's development over a longer period of time, is Rolf Grass. Grass was the national coach of Switzerland's jumping squad between 2002 and 2010. To underline who Steve Guerdat is and what motivates him, Grass recounted the following anecdote: In 2008, at the Olympic Games in Peking, the Swiss riders arrived early so that they could take part in the Opening Ceremony. Grass had good connections in Peking and organised a tour of the city for his team. The riders were to get an impression of where they were. Shortly before they set off, Grass had the following conversation with Guerdat:
Steve Guerdat: "Do I have to go on the tour of the city?"
Guerdat: "One notices that you haven't got a clue about riding."
Grass: "That may be true, but you haven't got a clue about anything except for riding."
Guerdat went to his room without saying a word and thought about it for a while. Then he got changed and joined the others on the tour.
"Steve occupies himself meticulously with riding, he thinks every step through, everything is planned, he is totally convinced about the course of action has has decided upon," said Grass. City tours hardly ever fall under Guerdat's plans. "He finds it difficult to jump over his own shadow, he never wants to change his plans." Which is both a weakness and a strength.
After the contract fell through, Guerdat was very lucky. Or to put it another way: Guerdat gave his fortune a good helping hand by refusing to sign the contract. His father Philippe introduced him to an old friend, Yves Piaget, a Swiss watchmaker. Piaget bought Jalisca Solier, whom Guerdat succeeded in qualifying for the 2008 Olympics with. The former polo player from Zurich, Urs Schwarzenbach, placed his yard in Herrliberg over the Zurich Lake at his disposal. Since 2007 Guerdat has been self-employed and has a small team of helpers. The Olympic victory didn't just happen, it was the result of meticulous planning, never-ending training and a strong will that even moves oil billionaires.
Rolf Grass said: "There are only a few riders that have the makings of an Olympic gold medallist, which requires talent, diligence and good horses."
It doesn't bother him anymore, does it?
It's easier to say something rather than actually doing it and nobody knows that better than Guerdat. There are only a few athletes who place such high demands on themselves as Guerdat. If he makes a mistake in an important jumping competition, "he sometimes doesn't come out of the stables for hours, he has to be on his own," said Thomas Fuchs, the former world-class rider and Guerdat's trainer since 2007. Fuchs doesn't think he can teach Guerdat much more, but he keeps on trying to remind him that "there is more to life than titles and medals." Fuchs said: "If there is one thing he still has to learn, it is to relax more." Working together with him on that "is my main job, isn't it", said Fuchs laughing. If anyone is relaxed, then definitely Fuchs.
Next to Roger Federer, Steve Guerdat is the most popular sportsman in Switzerland, as well as one of the most successful. And as is the case with most popular people, Guerdat doesn't just have friends. On the one hand, he is self-confident enough that it doesn't interest him whether other people agree with how he trains or where he rides. On the other hand, he sometimes falls out with journalists, if he thinks he has come off badly in an article. He doesn't care what the public think about him as a person, his achievements speak for themselves. Which is why he is not that keen on PR appointments. He prefers to be hardly visible in the public eye.
Guerdat is not a sunny boy, he is a rider and in this capacity, he is very well respected by his fellow competitors. After his Olympic victory on August 7, 2012 he was sat on his own on a wooden fence next to the arena battling against his emotions, when the US show-jumper Laura Kraut came up to Guerdat and said: "If anyone deserves to win Olympic gold, you do.“ It is important to know that Kraut is the partner of the English show-jumper Nick Skelton, whom Guerdat had narrowly beaten just a few minutes previously.
Peter Jegen, sports editor at the "Neuen Zürcher Zeitung", told another anecdote. It sounds corny, said Jegen, but Guerdat really is a horse lover. Nothing is more important to him than his horses, than riding and there is a lot of evidence for this besides Guerdat's own declarations. At the end of 2012, Jegen reported, Guerdat chose not to compete in the final of the Global Champions Tour in Abu Dabi that is endowed with high prize-money. Although Guerdat can hardly afford to waiver such high prize-money "the show that was launched with immense financial backing did not correspond with his understanding of the equestrian sport“. Guerdat simply doesn't want to compete at competitions that have no tradition or association to horses. Guerdat competes with Nino de Buissonnetts, his best horse at the moment, at ten or eleven competitions a year, he is not one of those riders who tries to earn as much money as possible within the shortest space of time with good horses.
"I only need the prize-money and the money from the sponsors to pay my employees and keep my business going," said Guerdat. Which is much more of a struggle than raking in the money from a Ukrainian oil billionaire for years would have been.
Looking at Steve Guerdat you don't notice it, it is not written all over his face, but if you take a closer look you asks yourself why such a young person looks so serious, than you begin to understand that even beautiful faces have tough stories to tell. You just have to look closely enough.