SETBACKS ARE NEIGH BOTHER FOR NICOLA

Paralympic golden girl Nicola Tustain would be the first to admit that she’s not had the best of build ups ahead of the 2008 Paralympics.

Taking a glance at her sporting CV, you would think that making the podium at the Beijing Paralympics would be a routine procedure. 4K1E5481 web image

The Conwy sportswoman already boasts six Paralympic medals – three golds and three bronze – from the equestrian arena. But her prize horse of four years, Prinz Heinrich, went lame at the start of the year:

"This year has been really tough - in February, Prinz Heinrich went lame, just as we were producing our best ever work together in preparation for this year’s World Championships in July.

As if she didn’t have problems enough, tragedy struck further when she fell off a young horse and fractured her coccyx.

"I was worried that that I would not be able to ride for about five months and there were only eight weeks to go before the Worlds. I had a chat to my personal physiotherapist and we worked really hard together everyday and gradually started riding again much sooner than expected."

Against all odds, she was asked to represent Team GB and she was forced to pluck 20-year-old Hotstuff out of retirement to win gold and silver.

Alas, Hotstuff is of an age where he is not up to the long haul flight to Hong Kong, where the 2008 Paralympic dressage events will take place. It has meant that Tustain has been on a desperate, worldwide search for a horse, up to the job of competing at such a high standard. It’s in the nick of time, with qualification looming on the horizon, that it seems the quest may finally be over.

The answer to her prayers may be Rivaldo – a dark brown, nine-year old Oldenburg:

"I found him in Warwickshire and fell in love with him the minute I saw him! He seems to tick all the right boxes for a potential horse for the next Paralympics. He seems to have a good temperament which is what I’m really looking for. His three paces – walk, trot and canter – look in order and he has a fabulous confirmation [his statue and the overall picture]."

Rivaldo – or Bobbings, as he has been quickly nicknamed by the Tustain household – has been stabled at the family farm near Corwen since the middle of October and is now undertaking a three month trial to see if he is up to scratch. But so far, so good:

"He seems to have a laidback personality - he has already made friends with the rest of my pets and is becoming more and more of a family member. He has even started giving me kisses on my cheek! Over the next few weeks, we will hopefully form a great partnership. If all goes to plan, we’ll work together to achieve my dream – three gold medals in Hong Kong next year."

Of course, there is the added pressure of financing a horse plus all the associated costs including livery, training, vets fees and so on."

Fortunately, she receives National Lottery funding which goes some way to help her with the massive financial commitment but she is still hoping that she may attract sponsorship to help cover the shortfall.

Jon Morgan of Disability Sport Wales explains, "Nicola deserves some good luck. She has been at the top of her sport for the past ten years and has given so much back to Wales and GB. Finding Rivaldo has given her a real boost and this could be a dynamic new partnership. Hopefully, there may be some companies out there who would want to share in the excitement with Nicola on the road to Beijing and support her and Rivaldo along the way."

Tustain is a competitor in freestyle and dressage - a type of competition in which judges award points for the performance of the horse and rider in a series of movements testing the rider's control and the horse's training.

She is currently working hard to get into tip top shape with her personal fitness instructor, "I need to get as fit and strong enough as possible for the whole Paralympics experience."

And it’s not just the rider that is put through the paces. "If we decide that Rivaldo is my horse for Beijing, we will be into full on training. We get the horse rugged up so that it gets used to training in hot conditions - as we really don’t have the weather, especially in North Wales up in the hills!"

Tustain started riding competitively when she was ten as a way of escaping the bullying she experienced throughout secondary school:

"Unfortunately, I was one of those kids who was a target for bullying – simply because of the way I looked! This knocked my confidence completely. I started riding as a distraction and was introduced to dressage at my local Riding for the Disabled Centre. It was really scary to begin with, but I soon started to take it seriously. I used to win at the regional champs to qualify for the big one – the national championships.

"I first went to the National Championships when I was 12 and won my class! I remember being taken aback with the GB Squad – particularly one rider, Jo Jackson. She was all dressed up with her Team GB kit and looked really smart. It was then I said to myself - one day I would like to have the GB Badge on my jacket and so the story goes on..."

Sport has taken Tustain all over the world – and not just to stables and arenas. She says her biggest achievement was to be named top dressage rider of the year back in 2003 at the Animal Health Trust Awards. To date, she is the only Para dressage rider to take the title:

"It was great! I was nominated along with Noel Edmunds daughter so I was sharing the same table as their family – I danced all night with Noel and his family!"

And in 2004, she ditched her jodphurs for an evening gown as she stepped out on the red carpet among the world’s leading sporting legends at the Laureus World Sports Awards.

Inbetween competing and travelling to GB Team Training in the heart of the Cotswolds, it is hard to believe that she manages to take time out to coach Paralympic hopefuls in North Wales:

"This means so much to me knowing that I’m helping other people achieve their dream – they can relate to me and at the same time not use excuses when they can‘t do something!

"I also work with other children and adults who have multiple disabilities and I really enjoy watching the smiles on their faces. I’ve also designed "The Tustain Bar Rein" which is a special Bar Rein for riders to use with one hand."

This tool is manufactured by her sponsor, Albion Saddlemakers, and is sold all around the world.

She may not have had the best of starts to her medal campaign, but let’s hope that Tustain is firmly back in the saddle.