Road To The Olympic Games

The Millars pack a punch

Show jumper Ian Millar, 61, will tie a world record with nine Olympic appearances when he competes for Canada at the Beijing Games.

Ian Millar, 61, readies for his 9th Olympic Games as Canada's premiere show jumper

Canada's Ian Millar rides In Style to a fourth place finish at the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro. ((Victor R. Caivano/Canadian Press))

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Something is missing in Ian Millar’s dining room.  

Canada’s most decorated show jumper houses only his most coveted awards here at his Perth, Ont., home. His two Pan American gold medals hang on the wall, mounted in frames. Trophy cases hold achievements earned over the course of a career spanning more than 30 years, two as the world’s number one ranked rider.   

There’s no Olympic medal in that collection.  

"It’s kind of like that quiet elephant in the corner," says Millar’s daughter, Amy, 31. "We all know it’s there, but we don’t specifically talk about it all that often."  

In eight Olympic appearances, Millar, 61, has never stood on the podium. When he rode Big Ben he was part of Canadian teams that placed fourth on two occasions – 1984 in Los Angeles, 1988 in Seoul.  

The man known as equestrian’s Captain Canada has had the taste of only an unofficial Olympic medal in 1980, when alternate Olympic equestrian events were held in Rotterdam because the world boycotted Moscow. 

Our timing was wrong 

"We won the team gold medal, which of course was unofficial in terms of Olympic records," Millar says, laughing. "We got it right, but our timing was wrong in that regard."  

That alternate Games does not count as part of the eight Olympic appearances on Millar’s resume, a career that began in 1972 at age 25.  

Thirty-six years later, Millar will step into the Olympic equestrian venue aboard In Style to tie a world record with nine Olympic performances.  

Eric Lamze, left, and Millar are part of a Canadian team Millar says is the best he's seen in 20 years. ((Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press))

Ask him how it will feel to make history at the Beijing Games and his first response is that results count more than how many times you’ve been there.  

"Medals mean more," says Millar, "but it’s a great honour to have represented our country that many times."  

This could be the year he adds an Olympic medal to that collection.

The rider who has won more Pan American medals than any show jumper in history and the first to be part of a horse and rider team that won back-to-back world cups calls this the best team Canada has fielded since Seoul in 1988.

Eric Lamaze of Schomberg, Ont., is the world’s fourth-ranked show jumper and finished one spot ahead of Millar at the 2007 Pan American Games to win bronze. Jill Henselwood of Oxford Mills, Ont., won gold at the 2007 Pan Ams with Special Ed. Rounding out the Canadian squad that won silver at last year’s Pan Ams is Mac Cone of King City, Ont. 

All must fire at same time

"We have a very strong team if all the horses are on form," Millar says. "The stars have got to line up, and if they do, we have a chance to medal. The horse rider combinations that we’re zeroing in on have that capability, but they all have to fire at the same time, and that’s the trick."  

In Style, Millar’s number one Olympic mount, "has what it takes to be the winner," he says. "He’s fast, he’s powerful, and he knows exactly where his legs are. He sees a big occasion, senses it, and he rises to it."  

Thinking about what it would mean to her father to win that elusive Olympic medal gives Amy chills.  

"It would be so, so special. I mean, I don’t know that there’s really anything better. Just thinking about it gives you little goose bumps."  

Both of Millar’s kids, Amy and Jonathon, 33, will be watching their dad compete in Beijing. "We’ve got a good feeling this time," says Amy.  

She and Jonathon are two of the reasons Millar says he’s still competing. The Millar kids are accomplished show jumpers in their own right, and it’s not unusual to find the three of them competing head-to-head. 

At a Grand Prix competition in Florida, the Millar clan finished one, two, three. The photo is a favourite of Millar’s late wife, Lynn, who died of cancer earlier this year. It hangs in the dining room and shows Jonathan in first, Ian in second and Amy in third.  

Competing is second nature

Competing against dad isn’t weird, Amy says. In fact, the Millars often strategize together before competitions. 

Amy Millar, 31, has followed in her father's show jumping footsteps. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

"It’s almost second nature competing together," she says. "I think the weird part was probably the first time I placed ahead of my father," she added, laughing. 

Getting beat by his kids doesn’t seem to bother Millar one bit.

"It’s a no lose," he says. "If they win, I win. It’s just like having more chances. It’s great to watch them do what they do."

A graduate of Ryerson University, Amy considered other paths she could take in life, but none stacked up to the family business.

"Every time I went away from riding, I was always drawn back," she says. "We have a blast just riding around on the young horses and seeing the future, how good they’re going to be. I think that has a lot to do with why my father’s still so excited about it."

That love for horse riding started when Millar was 10 years old. He was spending a summer in Alberta with his family when his equestrian career began.

"I’d been bugging my parents about horses for years and they said, ‘OK, when we move out west.’ I guess that was just to keep me quiet," says Millar.

The cowboy by the store

He was in the car with his parents when he spotted a cowboy sitting by a general store with a sign that said ‘Horses for rent.’

Millar says there's a good chance he'll be in London for a 10th and world record-breaking Olympic appearance. ((Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press))

"I jumped out of the car and that was it. I became his best customer, and pretty soon I would run the business for him, and he’d go back to the ranch. My pay really was that I could ride as much as I wanted."

That enthusiasm hasn’t faded.

"I love horses and I love the sport and I love competing," he says. "You put it all together and you get the reasons for staying in the sport." 

As for a world record 10th Olympic appearance, Millar says "there’s a good chance" he’ll be competing in London four years from now.

"As long as I’m in one piece and I have a good horse to ride, I’ll keep going."

This doesn’t surprise Amy. If their horses are in top form, she and Jonathon will also be vying to crack that 2012 Olympic team. Canada could field a one, two, three Millar punch.

"It’s not impossible, that’s for sure," says Amy. "If my father was there it wouldn’t surprise me. He doesn’t cease to amaze me. He has a passion for it. It’s not just what he does, it’s who he is." 

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