Deanna Phelan: Ian Millar's optimism will be missed by Team Canada at Rio Games
Veteran's absence from Rio shows even best riders need the right horse power
By Amy Cleveland
Canadian equestrian legend Ian Millar will be forced to miss the Olympics for the first time in more than four decades as his top mount Dixson is unavailable due to surgery.
CBC Sports show jumping analyst Deanna Phelan tells us about the implications of a Summer Games without "Captain Canada" riding anchor on the four-person team and how his daughter Amy Millar stacks up as his replacement in what will be her first Olympics.
CBC Sports: What's your take on Canada's jumping team without Ian Millar?
Phelan: Any time you're heading into the Olympics, you're hoping to send your most seasoned and experienced team. If we look back to the [2015 Toronto] Pan Am Games, we had Yann Candele, Tiffany Foster, Eric Lamaze, and Ian Millar. That foursome has been really working well together. Mark Laskin [chef d'equipe] on numerous occasions has mentioned any time you can bookend your team with Lamaze and Millar, you have a fighting chance.
When it was announced in June that [Ian Millar] was not on the team, I wasn't worried, but I was sad. I remember listening to one reporter saying "can the show jumping team even go without you?"
I think it's a great reminder that there's two athletes involved. Even though Ian Millar is one of the greatest riders that has ever come out of Canada, he can't go without a horse. His Olympic horse that he's been training and working with the last four years toward the cycle was sidelined...he did try to go to the next horse, but it's not on that level yet.
Captain Canada has to be personally disappointed because he's a true competitor and he never shies away from competition, but I think the bittersweet [side] of this is that his daughter [Amy Millar] gets to go. I think that's a proud moment for him.
CBC Sports: Can you explain the process of getting a horse ready for the Olympics?
Phelan: I think most of them work on a four-year cycle. So a lot of these people buy a seven or eight-year-old [horse] who shows great potential. Then they're looking to [train] that and expose it to competition and not fast track it, but over four years let that horse gently move up the ranks. There's still no guarantee. It's like watching guys play junior hockey and seeing if they will move up or peak out at that level. It's the same thing with a horse.
Dixson was on that track to go towards Rio. Every equestrian out there is looking for and thinks they might have the next Olympic horse. Many horses have been bought to take their rider to the Olympics only to see that maybe they fall short and they're lacking some requirement. They are still a great horse and a wonderful competitor, but not at the Olympic level.
CBC Sports: What do you think the chances are of Team Canada getting a medal in Rio?
Phelan: If I look at the past history, three of the members were part of the Pan Am team and they did bring home the gold. They had to work hard. They were down after round one and they came back scratching and fighting and pulled the gold off. That's why I like Ian Millar and Eric Lamaze, sometimes when they're down in the trenches, you need that wisdom and that experience that can turn into fight where they can come back for round two.
That's what Ian Millar brings. His optimism is going to be missing. I think more responsibility will be on Eric Lamaze this year to say "listen team, you can do it." Ian will obviously be there...He's not there as a rider, but certainly he's there in person and that will hold the team well. I'm looking at Eric Lamaze, Tiffany Foster and Yann Candele, who have shown at major championships over the last couple of years and I think they can take the pressure that comes along with that.
But they're coming up against major power from the United States and Germany. I just watched the Aachen's Cup on Thursday and Canada placed seventh. Germany was first. It wasn't a terrible performance, it wasn't a weak performance. It was probably one of the bigger venues than they have walked into in a while and I thought they performed well and I'm glad they have that chance to show in Aachen before they go to Rio. They certainly have a chance to be on the podium.
CBC Sports: What does Amy Millar bring to the team?
Phelan: She's deadly competitive. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree and she's very much like her dad. She's extremely competitive, gutsy, composed, skilled, and knowledgeable. I like her chosen on those merits as being a capable rider.
She's riding a nine-year-old Belgian gelding named Heros. He's only nine and that's young to go to the Olympics. That's my tiny little concern. I would love if this horse and rider combination had one more year under their belt at international competition. But he's in very capable hands...and Amy will have to give him great rides and she will have the confidence. I think and hope that she will impose and instill that in her horse.