I’ll never forget watching Rich Fellers accept the trophy for the Rolex FEI World Cup Final. Those awards ceremonies are so highly choreographed, with the winning riders placed on a podium, all the dignitaries and presenters filing in and out of the scene, with banks of photographers corralled into designated areas.
I’ve been lucky enough to see, and photograph, a dozen World Cup Final awards ceremonies, and usually the winner accepts the historic trophy, hoists it aloft, grins for the photographers, and poses for the cameras. It’s a pretty slick process, and every rider I’d seen get that trophy knew the routine.
Not Rich Fellers.
After the obligatory waves to the crowd, Fellers wasn’t sure what to do with his helmet. He put it under his arm for a bit, then back on his head. When he was handed the World Cup trophy, he took a moment. He examined the trophy carefully, taking a good look at the burnished metal. It was such a genuine moment, so far removed from the usual itinerary of awards ceremonies. Fellers didn’t care that he was supposed to be posturing with that tangible evidence of his triumph. There, caught in the spotlight and the center of attention, he simply spent a few moments checking out the spoils.
Fellers came home from that historic victory, and he and Flexible promptly kept turning in astounding performances to jump their way onto the top of the list for the U.S. Olympic show jumping team. They jumped clean in four rounds and four jump-offs, winning all four Olympic observation events. It was truly a magnificent feat.
After the short list was named, with his name atop it, I asked Fellers what he’d done in between the first Olympic observation events he’d jumped, at Del Mar, Calif., in May, and the final ones, at Spruce Meadows in June. The usual reply to this kind of question is an intense discussion of equine fitness work and human mental preparedness.
Not Fellers. He had a party to plan. “We’re so busy with our kids and their activities that when I’m not at the barn, I’m busy doing other things,” he said. “I don’t get too obsessed with the show jumping. In the end, the family things are more important. It’s not that the sport isn’t important to me and a big part of my life—of course it is—but my family is ahead of that.”
Flexible kept to a consistent work schedule, trail riding and flatting, but Fellers had some other things to attend to. “[My wife] Shelley and I needed to catch up on things around the house, and my daughter [Savannah] graduated from high school. That was a really big event for us, and we had a lot of relatives and friends come out and visit. Shelley and I were just working non-stop to get our property all cleaned up to put on a big party for Savannah’s graduation. I really didn’t have time to get too obsessed with keeping myself focused and prepared [for the final observation event]! I didn’t think about it much,” he said.
With the opportunity to jump on his first Olympic team looming ahead, Fellers didn’t think about it much. It’s a bit mind-boggling, but typical of him.
Fellers has always put family first. When I was talking to U.S. Chef d’Equipe George Morris about Fellers’ World Cup win, he told me that he’d offered Fellers a position at his famed Hunterdon decades ago, but that Fellers had declined. He’d chosen to stay in his native Oregon because it was where he wanted to raise his children.
When they get to the top of their sports, riders have a seemingly obsessive focus on their goals and plans. They live and breathe with their horses and competition in mind. They have to. But somehow, Fellers has found a way to not only balance his busy family life with show jumping on a professional level, but also to balance it with outperforming all the other U.S. show jumpers.
Somehow, he’s just a regular guy who happens to be the best in the country, if not the world, right now. When I called Flexible’s owner, Harry Chapman, after the World Cup Final, he told me he was due to drink a few beers with his friends but would be happy to be late to chat with me. In our interview, he chuckled and said, “To think that a couple of rednecks from Oregon could have a horse with that quality to jump that well in that caliber of competition is an awesome feeling.”
I don’t know that Chapman and Fellers will be toodling around London in their trucker caps and camo, but they are a bit different than the norm in the show jumping world. At the conclusion of the interview, Chapman told me we’d have to have a beer together someday to make up for the ones he’d missed while on the phone to me. I hope I get to keep that date.
Fellers’ focus on his family life and his simple, no-nonsense approach makes him eminently accessible to fans. He’s not slick and fancy. He’s just a good guy, a good father who’s really talented at his job. He’s had Flexible for more than a decade, building to this. It makes me think that this year, at age 52, Fellers is going to really soak up every second of the Olympic experience. He’s going to take that moment to pause and really examine things no matter the hoopla going on around him. I’m so glad he’s going to be representing the United States.