Childhood passion led to Olympic joy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 October, 2009, 12:00am

When Samantha Lam's second riding lesson as a seven-year-old ended with her falling off and being trodden on by the pony, she knew she had found her thing. 'I was hooked,' said the Olympian, who, as a leading member of the Hong Kong Jockey Club's equestrian team, will represent the city in showjumping at this month's National Games in Jinan.

'It left a bruise in the shape of a hoof print on my back, but I just thought that was part of the fun. There was no fear and, once I had started riding, it was the only thing I was interested in; you couldn't get me out of the stables.'

So, with her father's tacit encouragement and the more reluctant consent of her mother, after-school lessons in piano, swimming, badminton and twice-a-week ballet were successively replaced by what became near-daily visits to the farm in south Vancouver where Lam had quickly demonstrated a natural affinity for riding. When not on horseback, she would spend long summer days mucking out, grooming or cleaning tack and, by the age of 10, was in no doubt where her future lay.

The catalyst for that decision was seeing the equestrian events of the 1988 Seoul Olympics on television. The scale and spectacle made an enormous impression, and the fact that a couple of the Canadian team were regular competitors at provincial events in British Columbia made it seem possible.

'I knew then that was what I wanted to do,' Lam said. 'There was nothing else in my mind, no plan B.' By her early teens, she was committed to a routine of training, travel and increasingly distant and more exacting competition. At her parents' insistence, though, school was never allowed to take a back seat. Initially, this meant completing homework at 11 or 12 at night and persuading teachers at her private girls' school to make allowances for frequent absences and assignments handed in late.

'When I started competing consistently, I was away more often than not and would take two bags of schoolwork,' Lam said. 'At events, my mother would lock me in the tack room and force me to do it.' But, as the demands intensified and the prospect of breaking into the senior ranks increased, it made better sense to switch first to a special sports and arts school that condensed lessons into one semester a year and, then, to correspondence classes. This enabled steady progress on both fronts and, after making her Grand Prix debut at age 14, Lam had good horses, a world-class trainer in George Morris and only missed a place on Canada's 1996 Olympic team by the narrowest of margins.

'It was not handed to me on a silver platter,' she said. 'My family worked hard and made it clear I had to dedicate myself.' That was never truer than when finances became tight. Basically, by 1997, although Lam had become the youngest female to make a World Cup final, her parents' life savings were all but exhausted. Since prospective earnings as a professional rider in North America were unpromising and sponsorship deals were rare, a move to Europe appeared the only option to keep her dream alive.

Therefore, with one bag, two saddles, a few contact numbers and little more than US$400, she headed to Germany, one of the world centres for equestrian sports, and prepared to start again from the bottom. Finding a shoebox room and unpaid work through the breeders' association, she existed on bread and rice and knuckled down to the back-breaking work of mucking out boxes, heaving bales of straw and wrestling with foals.

'Going to Europe was a bit of a naive schoolgirl fantasy. I thought it would be easy but, boy, was I shocked,' Lam said. 'For the first three weeks, I called home in tears every day, but my mother said, 'you wanted this, you fight for it', and that gave me the determination not to give in.'

She learned German in four months, found a better job as number one rider for an established breeder, and competed for the stable in regional and smaller international shows. There was still plenty of hard physical work, but it was balanced by the chance to enjoy the camaraderie of the circuit and to keep improving. That came through refining the teamwork between horse and rider while understanding the evolution of the sport in terms of the distances between jumps, lighter poles and optical illusions on fences.

Although winning prizes and recognition, Lam knew she had neither the right horse nor sufficient financial backing to chase an Olympic place in Sydney or Athens. But hopes revived with the news that Hong Kong would co-host the Olympic equestrian events in 2008 and was likely to get a wild card.

'The big decision was to renounce Canadian citizenship and register as a Chinese national, but my family are all from Hong Kong, so I didn't think twice,' Lam said.

After qualifying in Europe, the whole event, with her parents prominent among 20,000 spectators, exceeded imagination. 'It was a huge thing,' she said. 'For anyone making the Olympic team for the first time, it is an overwhelming, humbling experience, but one of the greatest of all our lives.'

Generous Jockey Club sponsorship has relieved all financial concerns at least until late next year. 'It is a big load off our shoulders,' she said. 'You can win some nice prize money, but for every horse at a show, you have to pay for transport, entry fees, bedding and feed, so unless you have a top sponsor it is very tough.'

New challenges

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Regards skydiving as a next big challenge and hopes, in due course, to visit every continent

Prizes for equestrian games champions

FEI World Equestrian Games Aachen (international competition) HK$264, 000

National Games (national competition) HK$300,000

Hamina Bastioni Horse Festival (regional competition) HK$30,000