Brazil’s Marina Azevedo is the first female jumping course designer in the history of the Pan American Games. On Sunday she built the influential eventing show jumping track that shook up the medal standings, and this week she has four courses to create for jumping, including today’s two-round Nations Cup competition that will determine team medals.
“The biggest challenge at the Pan American Games is building courses with challenges for all riders and horses—fair courses that are interesting for everybody,” she told the Fédération Equestre Internationale. “We are lucky to have beautiful material to work with at these Games and these jumps give us a history lesson about Chile. It was a great effort from the committee to create unique jumps for every day”.
Learn more about her in our profile, originally published in March 2022.
Marina Oliveira de Azevedo likes to think of a show jumping course as a good story.
“I always say a course is like reading a fiction book: At the beginning you learn a little bit, so I like to start the class light over the first jumps,” she said. “And then in the middle there is a big problem to be solved, and in the end, I like a last line or fence that keeps the rider’s attention until the finish line.”
In the story of Azevedo’s own life, she’s risen to be one of 30 Fédération Equestre Internationale Level 4 show jumping course designers in the world and the only woman who is currently active at that level.
One of Azevedo’s mentors is Linda Allen, an FEI Level 4 designer who is now retired. “Marina made her mind up to do it, which is what you have to do, and she’s done it. It’s not easy to come up because you have to prove yourself a little bit more than some of the men do,” Allen said. “She had to work hard to prove herself and has done that every place she’s been. She’s earned every bit of her success.”
Azevedo does her research, keeping current with the top horses and riders. Once the jump crew brings her design to life, she’s out there walking the course with the riders, examining the lines and making sure each detail is attended to. And once the class is over, she asks riders for their opinions.
“I ask how it rode and what they thought of the course. The riders have always been very open to sharing their thoughts, which is nice,” she said.
A native of Campinas, Brazil, Azevedo had a successful junior and young rider career. She competed in the South American Games as an adult and spent two years in Europe with show jumping legend Nelson Pessoa.
Azevedo began designing courses in 1998, and she’s worked throughout Canada, the United States, Mexico and Europe. She’s been an assistant course designer at Olympic Games, World Equestrian Games, Pan American Games and World Cup Finals. She’s built at South American Games, the FEI North American Youth Championships and numerous five-star classes. But the thrill of watching riders tackle one of her creations hasn’t faded.
“Even if it’s just for a 1.30-meter class or a smaller grand prix, it’s always like the first time,” she said. “My heart beats faster during the first few horses; there’s so much anticipation.”
Layers Of Difficulty
Azevedo is frank about the challenges she’s faced as a woman and as a mother on her way up the ranks as a course designer.
“It’s very hard,” she said. “This is one of the biggest problems for women, I believe. As a mother, you feel like you have to be with the child. I’m very glad that I have a wonderful family who helped me a lot with my baby, but I remember many times that I was on the airplane leaving and crying because I felt guilt for being away. I remember so many times I couldn’t go to a presentation he did at school, or a birthday party, or family event. I missed a lot. This is the hardest part.”
Azevedo’s son, Gustavo, is now 26. She’s asked him if he felt her absence in his youth with all the traveling that’s necessary as a course designer, sometimes more than 30 weeks a year, and he’s assured her that it did not impact him. And with some hindsight, Azevedo realizes that the compromises she made have inspired a generation of female show jumpers.
“I worked so hard to arrive, and I arrived at the top level, so this made me feel much better,” she said. “I don’t have guilt left because I feel that everything that I did, I helped many riders. There have been girls who told me, ‘I look at you like my mentor.’ This makes me feel comfortable and happy.”
In addition to the conflict she felt between her professional and personal lives, Azevedo also had to contend with a bit of an “old boys network” when seeking to be hired at shows. She found it hard to break through, but she found encouragement from the riders jumping her courses.
“Every time they told me, ‘I like your course, perhaps it could be better this way.’ Or, ‘I have fun when you build. I’m glad you’re here,’ this encouraged me to keep going,” she said. “I always had goals. I wanted to prove that a woman could be course designer, so I worked hard for that. Then I wanted to be FEI Level 1, then 2, and now I am Level 4. This was my goal, and here I am. So now I have to find another goal!”
“She was always very eager to learn, so I think that helped her career’s development,” said Guilherme Jorge, an FEI Level 4 course designer who hails from the same town in Brazil as Azevedo and helped her start designing. “As much as she tries to deny it, she was always very ambitious and looking for ways to learn and improve her course design and to be able to be present at more important events. We have been working together for more than 25 years, so it is very nice to see how far she has gotten.”
Allen noted Azevedo’s calm demeanor. “She works well with the crew and earns their respect. She keeps a sense of humor. She’s just a competent and nice person to be around, which helps when you’re putting a team together, which is what you have to do at every competition,” Allen said. “Every competition that she was at with me, everyone respected her very easily and naturally. As a woman, if you’re too domineering, it doesn’t go over well, and any mistakes you make are going to be taken very seriously, especially in the beginning. Being able to have that level of modesty combined with confidence is important, but hard. It’s a fine line to walk.”
Meanwhile, Azevedo has been committed to her “day job,” running the K-12 private school that she started, Colégio Múltiplo, in Campinas.
“Course designing is a hobby, because I really like to be with the horses and the riders,” said Azevedo, who studied pedagogy, the theory and practice of learning, in university.
“I learned so much with the horses, with all the shows I did around my teenage years, traveling with the horses,” she said. “At that time, there wasn’t any internet, so it was harder to find things out. I learned a lot about different cultures and languages, and how different people live in different ways. With the education, I try to bring this a little bit into the school. My school is very open to the world, and we try to bring in a lot of knowledge that we can share with everyone.”
Step By Step
Azevedo’s riding career was in full swing, and she was married to a fellow rider when everything changed in 1996, when she was 26.
“I was in the warm-up for a grand prix, and I didn’t know I was pregnant,” she recalled. “But I felt something that wasn’t good. I called my father and said I wasn’t jumping, that something was wrong. I went home and went to the doctor, and I couldn’t imagine I was pregnant. I had very good grand prix horses. I hadn’t planned to be a mother at that time. But I was pregnant.
“I cried because I didn’t know what I was going to do. It was hard, but it was also a big happiness in my life. When I had Gustavo, I felt afraid that I might fall and get hurt. I decided to stop riding,” she continued.
As she transitioned from riding, Azevedo started training young riders. She also grew interested in course designing, first as a way to better train her students. She started helping Jorge and learning.
“Many designers came to Brazil, like Arno Gego and Leopoldo Palacios,” she said. “I’d ask if I could follow them and learn a little bit. Then I start to learn how to put the plan on the ground. For me, it’s the hardest part, to get the idea onto the ground. I had great experiences with that and went step by step, and here I am.”
Allen met Azevedo through Jorge and was immediately impressed with Azevedo’s talent and determination. “You sort of only pick this job if you’re really fascinated by it, and for sure you don’t keep doing it unless you really enjoy it, because there are a lot of easier jobs to do,” Allen said.
Azevedo aims to create courses that are fair, that she would like to jump. “I like it to be fluent and forward,” she said. “I don’t like to create hard lines with very short or long striding. I don’t ever like to put a triple or double combination somewhere where it won’t work well. I like that when the riders finish the course, that they’ve enjoyed it and that they’ve learned something. People always ask how many I want clear, but all I really want is for the riders to enjoy it and the crowd to have fun.”
Top Canadian rider Erynn Ballard looks forward to jumping at shows where Azevedo is course designer. “When I know she’s building, that’s a good vibe for me before the week even starts,” said Ballard. “Course designing is a unique art, and you have to really think about the horses and riders that you’re designing for. I’ve jumped Marina’s courses in Wellington, and I’ve jumped her courses in Palgrave, which are two different groups of horses and riders. She understands who she’s building for and what she’s building for. She always tries to get the best results for the field that she has.”
Ballard said Azevedo understands the subtle differences in levels at grand prix.
“She understands the modern sport,” she said. “There’s so much discussion about the difference between a three-star qualifier and a five-star qualifier. It takes a special course designer to understand what level they’re building for and to be comfortable and confident if in the three-star they’re probably going to have a few more go clean if you’re building fair to the three-star level. Being a competent course designer is understanding the level you’re building for and being OK if you have more than an ideal number clean. And she does that well.”
Allen notes that Azevedo has a flair for designing appropriate courses for young horses, as well as those at the top of the sport. “It’s very different to build for young horses than for experienced horses at the top level,” said Allen. “Your job is more education than it is competition. Her skills with young horses are very important as well.”
Azevedo and her first husband divorced after 17 years, and she’s been remarried for 11 years. She lives in Campinas surrounded by her close-knit family, including her parents and two sisters. Gustavo, who was never interested in horses, has moved to Germany to pursue a career following his passion for soccer.
Azevedo now designs for about 15 shows a year. It’s a pace that suits her lifestyle and keeps her skills sharp. “If you stay a long time without building, it gets hard,” she said. “You have to stay in practice. I watch live streams a lot, the important ones.”
And while she’s achieved so many of her goals, she has a few more on her list. “I applied to be course designer for the Pan American Games next year in Chile,” she said. “It would be great to have a woman course designer for the first time for a championship in South America.”
Allen hopes to see that championship opportunity come along for Azevedo.
“I’d love to see her do one of the big ones,” Allen said. “She’s definitely due.”
This article originally appeared in the March 21 & 28, 2022, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.