Nicola Philippaerts is part of a rich Belgian showjumping tradition. He thinks the experience he gathered at the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games will serve him well as he looks towards Tokyo 2020.
“It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s so similar to a senior Olympics. The (Olympic) Village was great, the facilities were brilliant and we had so much fun.”
Philippaerts is a name that resonates throughout the showjumping world. Ludo Philippaerts rode at Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 – just missing out on the podium and coming fourth at the Sydney and Athens Olympic Games.
His brother Johan was also a top rider, and now Ludo’s twin sons Nicola and Olivier are professionals too. Nicola represented Belgium at Rio 2016 and, for the 24-year-old, it was a gold medal at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games (YOG) in Singapore that really kicked off his international career.
“My dad said to me straight away, ‘you should do it’, as soon as the possibility of riding at the YOG came up,” said Nicola. “He was right. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s so similar to a senior Olympics. The (Olympic) Village was great, the facilities were brilliant and we had so much fun.”
The YOG was set up with the remit of innovation, and Nicola’s gold medal was won in a mixed-NOC event alongside British, Italian, Swiss and Polish teammates.
“Showjumping is already a good sport for mixing everyone in anyway, because women and men compete in the same events, but putting different countries together was a great idea too,” said Nicola. “Martin Fuchs, the Swiss rider who is now competing internationally too, was in my team.
“I see him almost every week at events and we often end up talking about the YOG and how enjoyable it was. We stayed for 20 days and met so many people in the dining hall and around the Village. I would love to do it all over again.
“It’s also an effective way to get you to appreciate new sports. I became friendly with one of the Belgian tennis players and went to some of her matches. It makes you realise how hard different athletes work.”
Nicola’s debut senior Olympic experience was less enjoyable. He was disqualified from the Rio 2016 event for over-use of the spurs.
“It was a hard time for me but I’ve come out of that now,” he said. “I think the experience has made me stronger, more determined. I stayed in Rio to support my teammates, and it was a great Olympic Games, but it was personally tough. There’s a long way to go, but it has focused me on trying to get to Tokyo 2020.”
There’s certainly time. Equestrian riders can enjoy long careers. “Look at John Whitaker – he’s still showing at the highest level into his sixties,” said Nicola. “I love this sport so much, and if you can do what you love for a living, you are very lucky.”
Can he eventually top his dad’s record? It will be difficult, but should the twins not do the job, yet another highly promising Philippaerts is waiting in the wings. “I’m not sure I can ever beat my dad, but who knows,” laughed Nicola.
“He has stables in Belgium and is now very involved with getting my two younger brothers, who are 16 and 14, into the sport. Anthony is very promising. I’ve already told him he has got to go to the Youth Olympics if he can.”