In this monthly series leading up to the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in September and October, we watch a different competitor each month prepare for competition.
Winning an individual gold medal at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games had been Megan Benjamin’s goal for years. So when she stood atop the podium and looked at the gold medal hanging around her neck at the 2006 WEG, her mind spun.
“I’d actually hoped to win with the team—that had always been my first and biggest goal,” said Benjamin, who helped the U.S. team take silver in 2006. “Winning the individual gold wasn’t something I’d planned for or worked for that summer. It was something that was pretty surprising. I’d been crossing my fingers that I might get bronze.
“I think as an athlete, having lower expectations and winning is less emotional than having high expectations and winning,” she added. “When I was little, like 8 or 9 years old, I always imagined myself on the podium, crying as they played the national anthem. But it never happened that way! I never cried, and I wasn’t even particularly emotional about it. But my mom always talks about how the week after the Games was hell for her because she could see me realizing that I’d just achieved my biggest goal. And then I started wondering, ‘What am I supposed to do with my life?’ ”
Benjamin, who was 18 in 2006, had spent years working toward the 2010 WEG, so earning gold four years early snatched the rug from underneath her.
“My ultimate decision was to take a break from vaulting. I needed to figure out what was important to me beyond just winning, so I took two years off,” Benjamin said.
Word went out that Benjamin had retired. And she gave up on her dreams of 2010 WEG gold—until a phone call from a friend changed everything.
Rosalind Ross, a teammate of Benjamin’s from the ’06 WEG, appealed to her to join the U.S. team for the 2008 Vaulting World Championships. Benjamin’s initial reluctance gave way to a renewed enjoyment of the sport and relit her competitive fire. And she’s now traveling the road to the 2010 WEG in Kentucky with a newfound determination.
Not Even If A Miracle Happened
Since Benjamin, now 22, had originally planned to keep vaulting after the 2006 WEG, she’d enrolled at Santa Clara University (Calif.)—close to home, her coach and vaulting team. But after a year there, she transferred to Cornell University (N.Y.).
“I realized that for my own happiness, I needed to pursue my academic passions. When the goal of Kentucky in 2010 went away, I decided I needed to focus on other things,” she said.
Benjamin, a history major, enjoyed experiencing college. “I’ve always been a bit of a nerd, and Cornell is a great place. I’m surrounded by a lot of people who are like me but have all kinds of different passions. I took a lot of high-level history courses and got very much involved in the Cornell community,” she said.
And then that spring her phone rang with the request to return to vaulting.
“At first, I thought, ‘No way is that happening,’ ” Benjamin recalled. “Not only had I spent two years out of the sport, but also the past semester I’d spent doing nothing. I didn’t gain weight, but I didn’t have the muscle mass I once did, and I wasn’t nearly as strong as I’d been. They were asking me in May, and the championships were in August. I thought there was no way I could get ready in four months, not even if a miracle happened.”
Ross convinced Benjamin to attend a few vaulting practices once she returned to California for the summer. If Benjamin didn’t feel comfortable, she’d stay retired.
“The first practice was awful,” Benjamin said. “The second one was slightly better, and then the third and fourth I was starting to figure it out again.”
She was back. Benjamin had planned to travel to Rome, Italy, with a Cornell group but scrapped those plans in order to train with the U.S. Dark Side Of The Moon team in Europe in preparation for the 2008 World Vaulting Championships in August in Brno, Czech Republic.
“I only had two or three weeks of practice at home before we went to Germany. And everyone in Germany was talking, ‘Oh, Megan Benjamin’s coming back.’ And there I was, and I sucked,” she said. “When we first got there, I was the worst vaulter on the team. By the time the World Championships started, it wasn’t like that anymore, but it was tough mentally. It was hard on the ego.
“I did feel that by the time we were at the World Championships,” she added. “I was prepared, and it certainly wasn’t an embarrassment. I had some of the highest scores on the team, but I just felt like it was less than my best. I wasn’t making huge mistakes. But like in scissor exercise, which is part of the compulsory, the idea is that you’re supposed to go into a handstand, and going to handstand for a girl is pretty difficult because of the upper body strength needed. Probably the top five girls in the world can do it. I was at a point that was less than handstand, and everyone was expecting me to go to handstand.”
But Benjamin’s scores helped the U.S. team earn bronze, and she arrived home with a tentative new dedication to the sport.
During her junior year at Cornell, Benjamin kept the 2010 WEG in the back of her mind. But Ithaca, N.Y., where Cornell is located, is far from the center of vaulting activity.
“There is one woman with a pretty nice horse three hours from here in Saratoga, N.Y., and that’s the closest,” Benjamin said.
By that time, Ross was attending Emerson College in Boston, Mass., so the two friends drove three hours together once a month to vault in Saratoga. “It wasn’t real training; it was more just playing around,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin decided that she’d see how she did at three competitions in the summer of 2009 before she decided for sure to shoot for the WEG.
“It was hard to gauge if I was willing to sacrifice my senior year for something I’d actually already done,” she said.
The last of those three competitions was the Kentucky Cup vaulting test competition at the Kentucky Horse Park, the location for the 2010 WEG. Benjamin won the individual women’s CVI**.
“I had such a good time competing in Kentucky and being with the horses and my friends, so I decided it was the right decision to keep going,” Benjamin said. “I really like the people in vaulting.”
Benjamin knew she’d have to devote much of her time during her senior year to training to defend her individual gold medal. She was thousands of miles from her coach, Emma Seely, and vaulting club in California, and her horse, Leonardo, was in Denmark. She negotiated to buy a vaulting horse to practice on, which she boards at a farm close to campus.
The horse, Paradox, isn’t ideal, but his training, generosity and kindness make Benjamin’s practice worthwhile.
She’s also concentrating on her physical fitness to prevent the rough road she had in 2008. She works with a personal trainer and trains with a gymnastics coach weekly and a dance instructor twice a week.
“One of the biggest things in any sport is numbers,” she said. “You have to do the routine over and over again, to music, at the canter. And I haven’t gotten in the numbers yet. I feel physically fit, I feel like my compulsories are good; it’s just physically doing the routines that I need to make happen between now and then. I’ll have plenty of opportunities.”
This Is It
Benjamin aims to compete as an individual at the 2010 WEG, so she’ll have to compile a history of scores in competition to qualify. She’s is currently 21st on the list, since she hasn’t competed since the Kentucky Cup in July 2009, but her scores from last year’s competitions are on par. She has a competition schedule—in Europe and the United States—planned to put her on top of the list by summer’s end.
Once she graduates in May, Benjamin will plunge into preparation. Leonardo, her own horse, on whom she vaulted to gold in 2006, has been in Europe since then with her Danish trainer, Lasse Kristensen.
“We bought Leonardo together, and the deal is I can have him whenever I’m there, but he gets to use him for his upper-level vaulters. So he stays in shape and vaults once a week,” she said.
Leonardo will probably travel to the States for Benjamin to vault on at the WEG.
In the meantime, Benjamin is putting together a routine that will not only get her to the WEG, but also put her on the podium.
“I have all the moves figured out for both my freestyle and my technical, but I’m still working on my perfect piece of music,” she said. “I know for sure, at some point, I’ll use Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer.’ It’s mellow, but there’s a lot of musicality to it, and it’s open for interpretation.”
In planning her routine, Benjamin has to incorporate the 10 most difficult moves to earn the highest scores.
“Then there’s composition—you want to be high, low, on the neck and on the hindquarters. At this point, it’s intuitive for me that all those things need to happen. [My coach Emma Seely] is pretty hands-off; she’s more interested in having me create it and then critiquing it, which is nice because it’s a more personal experience,” Benjamin said.
“My goal is to be on the podium,” she added. “I wouldn’t do this just to go. I’ve had the experience of winning—I don’t necessarily need to win again—but I’ve had four years of life between then and now, and I think I have a whole different and much more mature approach to the sport. I’m hoping to take it all in as a life experience as well.”
And even though jokes about her “retiring” again after the WEG make her pause, Benjamin said, “I’d like this to be the end. Afterward, doing fun competitions in far-off places like Brazil and Australia would be great, but I’d like to be done with the big, pressure-filled competitions. They’re too stressful. I’ll never be done with vaulting, but as a competitor, this will probably be the last.”
While standing on the podium is Benjamin’s goal for the WEG, her true reward isn’t another medal.
“I really like standing on horses—it’s pretty cool. I’ve had the same feeling when I’m riding, but the feeling of standing on a horse, when it’s really working and the horse is in a nice canter, is just so freeing. It sounds like a cliché, but there’s such a connection between the earth, the horse and yourself, and you’re above it all. That’s the moment I shoot for. And I get it pretty much every time, which is what’s so great about vaulting,” she said.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. “Journey To The WEG: Megan Benjamin Will Be Back In A Big Way” ran in the April 23 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.