Last summer, young dressage rider Ayden Uhlir was pondering her future in the sport. She was preparing to take a gap year between high school and college to focus on riding her 2013 Adequan North American Junior and Young Rider Championship double-gold medal mount Sjapoer, but she knew time was running out on her parents’ financial support of her riding career.
So Uhlir decided to send off several sponsorship pitch letters to a range of equine and mainstream companies.
“I’m starting to realize the value of money now that I’m having to start paying for things,” said Uhlir, 18, who’s originally from Texas but has spent the winter based in Southern California. “For a little while I thought, ‘Why would they ever pick me?’ Then I was thinking, ‘What am I going to lose by sending it out?’ I know I’m going to be in this sport forever, and this is my love, and I’m going to work my butt off until the end of time. But it was just amazing that they even got back to me.”
When Uhlir received an email back from Nike, her jaw hit the floor. She hadn’t allowed herself to even hope for an acknowledgement from the “long shot,” as she put it, but the company’s response expressed interest in a sponsorship package; the original message informed her that Nike doesn’t normally give money to athletes, but that they might consider providing her with some logo wear for promotion.
“Anything was amazing for me,” she said.
Last fall, an executive from Nike (who wished to remain anonymous in this story) called Uhlir and said she could meet her at her barn in Kirkland, Wash., where Uhlir had moved to work with U.S. Equestrian Federation Youth Coach Jeremy Steinberg. The executive was in town for a convention—and she was arriving in two hours.
“I was kind of freaking out, so I cleaned everything I owned and was making everything look fabulous before she got there in two hours,” said Uhlir, who showed the executive around and introduced her to Sjapoer.
“Something changed her mind, and she really wanted to start investing in me,” Uhlir said. “She suggested they sign me as an athlete.”
Soon afterward, Uhlir signed with Sheryl Shade of New York-based Shade Global, an independent sports agent who represents several Olympic athletes.
“The equestrian world has never been something that a lot of the mainstream sponsors from the Olympics have ever reached out to,” said Shade. “Ayden is pretty special. She sent a book out to many, many sponsors to talk about her sport and how much she loved her horse and how hard-working and dedicated [she was.]
“Nike called me and said, ‘You ought to see this. This girl is pretty interesting,’ ” Shade continued. “That’s how it all started. We started chatting about what her goals are. Ayden is a delight, and it’s amazing how nice everyone is in the equestrian world.”
Uhlir knows how lucky she is, considering Nike has never sponsored an equestrian before. The company had designed a riding boot for the 2008 Olympic athletes, but they never became available to the public for sale.
“I really have no idea what’s going to happen because this has never happened with me or anyone that I know of,” said Uhlir. “It’s a new experience. I was thinking that it could really help dressage as a whole. With the jumpers, they have, like, Mercedes Benz and Rolex to help support them. Dressage doesn’t have a big company to help support us. It’s not really a mainstream sport that everyone can watch and know what’s going on. It would be nice if we could change that and get more people involved. It could help everybody in the whole sport.”
Uhlir hopes to collaborate with Nike in the future should they decide to move into equestrian apparel, but for now, she’ll be wearing anything with their signature swoosh.
“I can wear the white undershirt underneath my shadbelly and still be wearing and using their products,” she said. “I can put their logos on anything, like saddle pads. I can wear their logos during practice.”
There’s also a performance-based incentive to her three-year deal. For every major win, Uhlir will receive some bonus money.
“It definitely puts a little pressure on me, but that’s what I really need,” she said. “I need to start getting out there, and I need to get a younger horse. My horse just turned 15. Realistically, I’m not a wealthy person. I’m a first-generation rider, so I have to work my butt off.”
Shade explained that in addition to wearing Nike gear, Uhlir may make promotional appearances, and Shade will assist her in finding her next horse.
“When you work with Nike and you’re a Nike athlete, you do a lot of cross-promotion and cross-training,” Shade said. “She will probably meet many other athletes in completely different sports. It depends on what Nike is coming out with. They will assist in the specific needs of Ayden but will also cross-promote and use her to bring more exposure to the sport itself.
“The job that I do, whatever the resources and needs are for an athlete, whatever they need, I will assist, I’ll make the calls, I’ll do whatever it takes to try to get them what they need. I’m going to work with her parents, her trainer and anyone else to see what we can do,” she continued.
Uhlir is currently living in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., to continue her gap year training with Christine Traurig, but she expects to head to college in the fall.
“I love Christine dearly,” Uhlir said. “She’s such a character. The whole support staff at her barn is amazing. At the barn I’m at now, people like Guenter [Seidel] ride there, so I get to watch his lessons and Christine’s lessons. It’s a great atmosphere.
“I’m lucky that I’m taking my year off so I can get on my feet again since I moved from Seattle,” she added. “And I can still have some support from my parents, but I have to get my act together and start sustaining myself in this sport, which is going to be really hard. I’m kind of the guinea pig [for Nike], so I’m really excited!”