Faith Today writer shares what it’s like to have a sister in the Olympics

By Julie Fitz-Gerald

For three days straight, my computer was my lifeline to one of the most important events my family has experienced. A lifetime of dedication, faith, perseverance and training led my sister, Jessica Phoenix, to the Rio Olympics – her second Olympic Games and another roller coaster of emotion for our family cheering from home.

Julie Fitz-Gerald shares what it was like to cheer on her Olympian sister.
Julie Fitz-Gerald shares what it was like to cheer on her Olympian sister.

Jessie has competed in the equestrian sport of eventing since she was 11 years old. It’s the triathlon of equestrian sport, where horse and rider contest dressage, cross-country jumping and show jumping over three days. On cross-country day the element of danger runs high as horse and rider gallop across acres of fields jumping solid obstacles that make my blood run cold – think five-foot ditches, formidable banks and large drops into water. Crossing the finish line is a feat in itself, with a third of the contingent usually falling off or retiring on course. As her sister,  the number one thing on my mind is Jessie’s safety.

With the intense media speculation about Rio’s safety issues, including the Zika virus, our family opted to stay home. It’s the kind of decision that you always second-guess and immediately regret on competition day. For the sake of my children and Jessie’s I think it was the right call, but watching her live out her lifelong dream from home was gut-wrenching at times.

As pictures began to roll in, I quickly realized that Jessie’s mount, A Little Romance, owned by Don and Anita Leschied, was literally the smallest horse in the Olympic Eventing competition. She looked like a pony next to the other statuesque European steeds. With Jessie only standing 5’3”, these two are a small but mighty pair.

Jessie was selected as the first competitor to contest both the dressage and cross-country phases. It’s not an ideal position, as dressage marks are harder to come by and riders don’t have the benefit of seeing where the problem spots are on cross-country. Despite this, Jessie and A Little Romance laid down a personal best dressage score that had my 85-year-old nanny and me jumping up and down in my kitchen like little kids.

The second day was quickly upon us. Cross-country day. Knots and butterflies filled my stomach. I dropped my kids off at sports camp and took my place in my mom’s home office. Tensions were running high and chit-chat was at a minimum. I had been praying incessantly since the previous night for Jessie’s safety and protection, and now we were all lifting up silent prayers.

We huddled around the computer to watch CBC’s live stream –my mom, nanny, my sister’s husband Joel, their 18-month old daughter Jordan, and I. If there was any benefit to Jessie being first on course, it was that we didn’t have to wait in agony for her turn. Just seeing her determined, all-business face splash across the screen brought me to tears.

Her expression was fierce and focused as she entered the start box. The first few fences rode well – and then they got bigger. All we could see were the horse’s ears as they made their approach and I silently wondered how they were going to clear the fence. Then like a deer, they leaped over and were off to the next one.

They fought hard for every jump and their perseverance paid off when they crossed the finish line as the first pair of the day to complete the challenging course. Over-caffeinated cheers erupted from my mom’s office as we hugged in relief. We were wobbly-kneed, tear-streaked and bursting with pride.

Jessie and A Little Romance had a beautiful show-jumping round on the third day, finishing the Eventing competition as the second-highest placed Canadian pair. While she didn’t medal, watching my sister on the world stage realizing her childhood dream always feels like gold.

Julie Fitz-Gerald is a Faith Today writer from Uxbridge, Ont.  Subscribe to Faith Today now to receive a fantastic deal. Think: Christmas gifts.

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