It’s about working together, playing together and being together.
It takes more than a group of the nation’s best young horsewomen to win two Varsity Equestrian national championships and three consecutive hunt seat championships. Sure, the University of South Carolina equestrian team can boast that, but their consistent stream of varsity victories boils down to a distinctive recipe composed of camaraderie, trust and poise.
Coach Boo Duncan, a 1981 USC graduate and chairman of the Legislative Committee for Varsity Equestrian, heads the squad and the hunt seat posse. She was hard pressed to say she’d ever enjoyed a job as much in her 25 years of instructing.
During Duncan’s first five years with the Gamecocks, she took 22 riders to the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association National Cham-pionships. In 2004, the IHSA recognized her knack for molding hopeful young equestrians by awarding her the Cacchione Cup/USEF Coach’s Award after she helped guide Tara Brothers to the hunt seat championship.
The following year only brought more accolades. While USC had already become the first major Division I school to declare equestrian as an emerging varsity sport, the squad earned their first Varsity Equestrian National Cham-pionship and Varsity Hunt Seat Championship that year.
But it wasn’t in the Gamecocks’ nature to rest on their laurels. In 2006, Duncan’s hunt seat team won another national championship, while this year’s finale kept the black and maroon streak alive with a third consecutive title.
“Frankly, I think this year and the previous couple of years have had a lot to do with chemistry and confidence,” Duncan said. “Of course, you have to have talented athletes, which we do, but you could have the most talented athletes in the world and if there’s not chemistry between the coaches and teammates, things aren’t going to work out.”
Like Duncan, assistant coach Ruth Sorrel’s Gamecock heritage helps inspire the western team. She represented USC from 1998 to 2000 and capped her collegiate competition era as captain of the western squad. That same year she earned the Sportsmanship Award and High-Point Rider title for IHSA Zone 5, Region II.
But before Sorrel returned to her college as a coach, she helped guide Fresno State’s varsity western team (Calif.), then moved on to assist at Auburn University (Ala.) in 2005. At that year’s Varsity Equestrian National Championships, she watched the Gamecocks win the overall title and at last returned to her roots.
“I rode on one of the first teams Boo ever had [at USC],” Sorrel remembered. “When she asked me if I wanted the job I said yes. It was a chance for me to give back to my alma mater.”
In Duncan’s 10 years of coaching at USC, she’s seen the sport at a collegiate level grow from virtually nothing to the closest it’s ever been to NCAA championship status. She’s also heard cynics understate the athleticism of riding in the shadow of those hulking superstars of the NCAA gridiron and courts.
“I think we’ll get a little more credence to what we’re doing in the sport,” she said, looking ahead to achieving official NCAA recognition. “It’s been a learning curve for other sports to understand that it’s not an easy sport, and these girls really are athletes.”
Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better
Let’s face it, when most think of NCAA, visions of strapping 6’8″ basketball players and brawny 250-pound football giants come to mind. But even standing head-to-head with helmet-laden goliaths and robust bear-palmed ball players, these horsewomen can hold their own.
“Yeah, we are a team of girls, but we can do anything the guys can do,” said Lindsay Williams, a senior at USC and next year’s western team captain. “I think the sport will become recognized because it’s growing so fast, but that also makes it important for us to keep the reputation of NCAA athletes as good as possible.”
Williams considers her team as family while away from her home in Sand Springs, Okla. For her, USC’s equestrian program has merged the two worlds that most enrich her life and eliminated a very tough decision many juniors face upon their 18th birthday. She sees official NCAA recognition opening that opportunity to more riders.
“Your horse show buddies are your best buddies in the world, but when you go to college you usually have to leave them,” she explained. “But here you get to keep your friends and make more along the way while continuing to compete and getting a good education.”
The western division finished reserve to Texas A&M at the championships this year, but “next year I think we’ll grow even closer as a team,” Williams said sincerely. “And I know it’s much easier said than done, but if we’re all on the same page at the same time we can get the western title and national title.”
USC’s athletic department offers 15 scholarships to aid in recruiting the best and brightest young equestrians. Full and partial rides to USC are dispersed sparingly, of course, but if prospective or current riders can’t make the grade, that’s tough. “We’ve had to turn away some great talent we didn’t want to,” Duncan said.
Where, then, do coaches Duncan and Sorrel find such dedicated ability to represent the USC colors? Where many of the nation’s best young equestrians compete, of course.
Sorrel scouts the American Quarter Horse Youth Association World Championship Show, the Quarter Horse Congress, the NRHA Futurity, NRHA Derby and various local North and South Carolina shows each
Likewise, “we can go to [the Pennsylvania National] and see 250 of the best kids in the country compete in the [USEF] Medal class,” Duncan added. “Since we do have a small recruiting budget, we kind of have to pick and choose where we go.”
There’s No “I” In Team
Kristen Terebesi, a USC senior, will be the captain of next year’s hunt seat squad. She’s competed on the varsity team since her freshman year in 2005. While going four-for-four in national hunter seat championships would put the cherry on top of her college career, “my main goal is to just keep things on the right track like the way it’s been,” she said. “But to win another national championship would be really awesome.”
You won’t find any prima donnas on the Gamecock squad—English or western. Nor will you find any hands-off, hand-the-horse-to-the-groom types. While Duncan holds the utmost respect for her riders, she also insists they do the same for their teammates, the horses and the sport in general.
“They were undefeated all year, but they did a great job of just taking their time and doing their jobs,” she said. “They all keep each other on the right track.”
Terebesi added, “Everyone kind of recognizes that we’re successful, but it’s never gone to our heads. Of course, we always want to win and do the best that we can, but I’ve never felt like anyone on the team thought we had it made in shade. It’s 110 percent effort all the time.”
Besides, even a hermit couldn’t resist building a team bond with the amount of time these girls spend together, whether they’re riding, studying, eating, or going out. A group of good friends curbs the stress of working a social life into endless ring time, horse care, multiple weight room sessions and study hall periods.
“It’s like showing every weekend,” Terebesi said, remembering her years riding as a junior. “You just have to learn how to balance it. Each one of us comes from a showing background and is kind of used to it.”
She rode on the A-rated show circuit with Frank Madden during her junior career and is no stranger to hopping on unfamiliar horses. “I was lucky enough to catch-ride a ton,” she noted.
While most of the team’s horses are donated, on lease, or semi-retired, there’s a sense of ownership for the girls at USC.
“Even though you end up riding every single horse at the barn, we’re each assigned a horse to take care of,” Williams explained. “So even though you don’t have a horse there, you still have one to take care of. You keep him clipped, brushed and healthy, and even though other people ride him, when a show comes it’s your job to get him cleaned and saddled. So even when you’re not riding, you’re still proud of how your horse does.”
There Is “I” In Believe
Five years from now, Williams and Terebesi hope to watch the Gamecocks sensation continue, but they hope it comes accompanied by a more diverse campus following and a little recognition in the university’s Colonial Center.
“When I first visited the school,” Terebesi recalled, “I saw pictures of all the athletes for all the sports and records of their victories hanging on the walls. As corny as it sounds, I would hope that in five years, if we’re as successful as we are now, we’d have some banners of our own and more students coming out to the events. Just little things that other sports take for granted.”
She also remembered the genuine hospitality she found during that pivotal campus tour. The smiles and congeniality of the coaches and team virtually signed and sealed the USC application she’d originally set aside.
Her father played on USC’s golf team, but, “I originally didn’t want to go to college where my parents went,” Terebesi admitted. “When I went on that official visit I was expecting not to like it. But I ended up loving the coaches and the people and everything the area had to offer.”
Likewise, Williams buzzed with excitement after her initial campus visit and turned down a spot on the Georgia Bulldog’s varsity team (2004 Varsity National Champions) after resolutely settling on USC.
“The University of South Carolina makes it as easy on us as they can,” she said. “Our grades need to be there before we can compete, and our coaches make sure we have tutors and are in class. Plus, it makes it easier when you have a great set of girls going through the same thing, and they’re all there to help you when you need it.”
When finals are finished and all the season’s results have been tallied, Williams bids her teammates a fond farewell, hops in her car and drives west for 151⁄2 hours back home. But while the distance can be measured in miles, the value of Williams’ “family away from home” is far more immeasurable.
“I got home at 4 a.m. last time, but Coach Sorrel still told me to call her right when I got there regardless,” she said. “Even when we’re not at school she just likes to know that we’re safe and happy. Along with being a coach, she’s a best friend, and it’s the little things she says to us that makes all the difference, especially her frog story.”
Sorrel’s frog story is an inspirational tale about a group of tiny frogs racing to the top of a tall tower. With a gathering crowd bellowing pessimism, some frogs gave up or fell in their journey to the summit. But one frog continues to lead against the taunts that he was too small and the top was too high.
Despite all odds, he finally reached the peak, proving the naysayers wrong. The other frogs, standing in awe, tried to ask, “What made you so successful; how did you overcome all the negativity?”
But the exultant frog didn’t answer, of course. He was deaf. The only driving voice he heard was his own.
Though these Gamecocks compete in an inherently individual sport, Duncan and Sorrel inspire the team to act as one—one frog bounding toward the summit.
“We have a big ‘believe’ theme here. It’s everywhere,” Sorrel explained. “It’s so important for the girls, whether they’re riding or not to believe in themselves and their teammates and very important to believe in us as coaches and that we’re showing them the right direction. They’re all talented, and they’re all here for a reason.”
“I think they look at me like their mother, and they look to Ruth as someone they can relate to,” Duncan mused. “It’s almost like good cop/bad cop. But they trust us to listen and know we’ll let them tell us what they want to do. We’re not going to recreate a talented rider. They know what they’re doing, and we know their ability. It’s important to allow them to have their own style and to believe in themselves and each other.”
Joshua A. Walker