Coming up August 6 through 14, the 2022 ECCO FEI World Equestrian Games will feature many amazing feats of horsemanship. The competition in Herning, Denmark, will also be a huge step for two Greek competitors whose quest goes far beyond athleticism and toward ultimate rewards.
Michalis Kalarakis and Dimitra-Eleni Pantechaki from Crete will be the first Greek equestrians to compete in Para Dressage at the level of the WEG. However, their long ride stretches beyond dreams of firsts, trophies for excellence, or other accolades.
For them, the trail, which was sometimes fraught with misfortune, has led to world recognition in the world of equestrian sport. But their journey began as therapy to aid them in coping with their disabilities. Their family, friends, and coaches are betting their journey will take them to Paris at the 2024 Summer Paralympics. However, the athletes and their coaches assure us that there are many gates to hurdle before reaching Paris.
Looking back, Kalarakis’ and Pantechaki’s long ride began at the Riding Academy of Crete with an extraordinary teacher and mentor, the Crete equestrian center’s director Marianna Grammatikaki. Today, it is the trainer’s and her proteges’ wider vision to make “horse therapy,” or Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT), available to more people. These, and similar regiments, help create a foundation for improved mental, physical, emotional, and social development for individuals with a wide array of difficulties.
As Grammatikaki told us the other day: “It’s hard to imagine the physical, psychological, and spiritual boost one gets from gaining the trust of, and controlling a 600-kilogram animal.”
Michalis Kalarakis, who is hindered by quadriparesis and quadriplegia from cerebral palsy, mirrored those sentiments when he talked with us last weekend about his path to these games. He first recalled his “rebirth” at the academy back in 2006 when he mounted a horse for the first time as a disabled kid with a fear of heights. We asked him about his ultimate goal, to which he replied:
“My ultimate goal is to encourage other people to find refuge in therapeutic riding. I am not competing in Para Dressage for individual glory, but so that I can position myself to act both as a therapist and as a rider-mentor for others who would benefit from what I have experienced.”
Dimitra-Eleni Pantechaki’s story is a similar one. However, she is unique in what she calls her “stubbornness” where hard work is concerned. Born with spastic diplegia, a type of cerebral palsy, she seems to flourish in training rituals.
She also longs to expand the systematization of the sport of Paralympic Equestrian in Greece. Currently, she, Michalis, and other disabled equestrian athletes can only reach the Paralympics via a fairly complicated slot allocation process for individuals.
Para-equestrian dressage was added to the Paralympic Games program at the 1996 Summer Paralympics. FEI began para-equestrian sports programs in 2006. At the upcoming FEI World Championships 2022, the world’s best equestrian athletes will compete. For many of them, including Michalis and Dimitra-Eleni, these games will be the next hurdle on the way to the 2024 Summer Paralympics in Paris.