Willeman Wins Big At IHSA Nationals

Jun 13, 2006 - 10:00 PM

She’s back.

Six years after winning the USEF Medal Finals in this very arena, Sarah Willeman, a senior at Stanford University (Calif.), returned tothe Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg (Pa.) to claim the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association’s highest honor, the USEF/Cacchione Cup.

“I thought my equitation days were over,” said Willeman with a smile.

Willeman took a commanding lead from the start in one of the featured classes of the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association National Championships, May 4-7, and remained on top after each phase to finish on a total score of 179.

In addition to the coveted Cacchione title, Willeman won the team and individual open flat classes, the individual open over
fences, and placed third in the team open over fences.

Originally from South Hampton, Mass., Willeman, 24, joined Stanford’s team last year, intending to ease back into casual showing after a long hiatus. She was delighted to discover the perfect opportunity to be of service to her school.

Stanford’s program, under the direction of head coach Vanessa Bartsch, was in the midst of a renaissance (see Stanford University’s Red Barn Gets A Facelift, March 31, p. 16). Willeman joined the coaching staff, which includes Gwynne Gordon, Jim Hagman and Lise Quintero, as a volunteer, eager to share what she’d learned during her reign as a one of the nation’s most formidable junior competitors.

“When you spend your life doing something and accumulate some knowledge about it, it’s so satisfying to be able to
help other people with what they’re doing. I feel so lucky to be at Stanford at this time,” she said.

Willeman drew on her decade-long association with trainer Missy Clark, of New York, a partnership that produced innumerable victories in the equitation division, including the 2000 USET Talent Search Finals-East, and a fourth in that year’s ASPCA Maclay Final.

Clark said of her star pupil’s triumphant comeback, “I’m so thrilled that Sarah has had this success. No one deservesit more. Learning is a constant thing, and her success is the product of being a great student.”

Having learned from the best, Willeman is also a great teacher. Though the vast majority of Stanford’s riders had never set foot inside a show ring, Willeman was undeterred.

“We’d have ‘Missy Clark lessons’–I’d set up a more difficult, technical course, like Missy tends to do, with the idea that after mastering that in practice nothing that got set up at Nationals would look intimidating,” said Willeman.

The strategy worked.

“By the time we got to Nationals, I was already so excited by what they had achieved at home that I would have been happy no matter what happened. They were ready,” said Willeman.

In its first team appearance at the Nationals in 10 years, Stanford tied with Penn State for second in the Collegiate Cup, only a single point behind the winner, Mount Holyoke (Mass).

“I can’t believe how far the team has come. Finishing as reserve is perfect, because the team realizes that they have the capacity to be champion, and now they’ll be hungry for it,” said Willeman, who will graduate this spring, having earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in education.

Willeman’s intercollegiate experiences, independent of their attendant laurels, brought a new perspective on her relationship to her sport.

“My most satisfying moments in the IHSA have been when I’ve come out of the ring and the owners of the horses have told me that they’re happy with the way I rode their horse. To me, that means that I did what was right for the horse and helped the horse to perform its best. That’s even more satisfying than winning the class. Bringing out the horse’s best performance is really what the IHSA is about to me.”

Willeman reported that this task was made significantly easier by the exceptional quality of the mounts providedfor the show. “I was very impressed with the horses–they were all really excellent,” she said.

Her parents, Anne Meyer and Conrad Willeman, were on hand for the win.

Willeman will continue coaching the Stanford team next year while pursuing a new passion, western reining. She has a star horse named Hollywood Dun It Different, a 5-year-old Quarter Horse.

“That’s the great thing about horses–there’s always more to learn,” she said. “I’m having a blast!”

Consistency Captures Collegiate Cup
The Mount Holyoke team captured the Collegiate Cup without winning a single class.

Going into the final class of the team competition, the open over fences, Mount Holyoke and Stanford were equal second, just 4 points behind the leader, Penn State.

Fortunately, senior Kyla Makhloghi, last year’s Cacchione Cup reserve champion, is no stranger to pressure. She rode a beautiful round that, while placed second, ultimately secured the championship for Mount Holyoke.

“We were excited about this group. We have many previous national champions on our team, and they rose to the occasion and rode really well,” said assistant coach Gilly McPhee.

Reserve champions in 2005, Mount Holyoke took home the championship twice before, in 1986 and 2000.

The team’s preparations for the Nationals were almost derailed when head coach C.J. Law was bucked off only a week before. Her injury was initially believed to be a broken pelvis but later proved less severe, allowing Law to travel to Harrisburg.

Law said that the team’s strength was in its unity: “It’s a cohesive group that’s working strongly together. We had a fantastic weekend.”

Mount Holyoke riders put points on the board in six out of the eight classes. Seniors Melissa Rabbitt, Falls Village, Conn., and Sarah Royston, Portland, Ore., were fourth and second in novice flat and walk-trot-canter. Junior Kelly Reardon, Waltham, Mass., placed fourth in walk-trot, and freshman Natasha Rabinowitz, Westport, Conn., finished third in intermediate over fences. Makhloghi, Putney, Vt., also accounted for fourth place in the open flat class.

Captain Crissey Hewitt, a senior biology major, said, “I can’t say enough good things about these women–I can think of something unbelievable about each one of them. This has been one of the best experiences of my life. It’s so much more than the blue ribbon.”

The Mount Holyoke riders dedicated their victory to the memory of Alyssa Stevens, 15, a long-time member of the college’s community riding program who died of cancer on May 4. Cheerful and energetic, Stevens was a constant presence in the barn and regularly assisted at shows.

HSA Winners Are Made
In spite of a successful junior career spent showing ponies and jumpers, Jaime Graham, a freshman at the Savannah College of Art and Design (Ga.), had little equitation experience prior to joining her school’s intercollegiate team. But that didn’t stop her from winning the individual intermediate over fences class aboard Centenary College’s Karat.

“I’m not really the best equitation rider at all. [Trainers] Andrew [Lustig] and Ashley [Kelly] have helped me a lot. They really gave me confidence.”

That confidence was the natural product of relentless practice, with her coaches “harping on me until I got it right!” said Graham with a wry laugh.

The 20-year-old native of Kitnersville, Pa., was initially attracted to SCAD for its arts-focused academic curriculum and warm southern climate. After hearing about her older sister Lexi’s positive experiences on the team, she decided to try out herself.

She found the supportive atmosphere a welcome change of pace from the stress and pressure of her junior days.

“It’s such a change from riding as an individual. I was skeptical at first, but everyone was so nice right away. I’ve had fun at all the shows, and I think that’s important,” said Graham, an advertising design major.

Conversely, Danielle Johnson, the individual walk-trot champion, arrived at Mount Holyoke without ever sitting on a horse, though she’d heard vaguely about the school’s renowned equestrian program.

“I knew they had a reputation for being good, but I didn’t really understand what that meant,” she admitted.

The junior biology major from Stow, Mass., began riding 21�2 years ago in a physical education class. “I’d always wanted to ride, and I caught on really quickly,” remembered Johnson.

Noticing her natural talent, team member Nathalie Cooper began giving Johnson private lessons on her own horse, teaching her how to steer and post, and urged her to try out for Mount Holyoke’s team.

Johnson made the cut and has since become a valuable contributor to the team. At the 2005 Nationals, she won the team walk-trot class, helping Mount Holyoke come second in that year’s Collegiate Cup.

“I’ve never been so proud of anything,” said Johnson of her impressive achievements. “I feel like my riding reflects the team’s riding, because they all have a part in it. If I do well, it reflects how well they’ve taught me.”

Johnson intends to become an exotic animal veterinarian and work in a zoo.

After earning a score of 82 as the second rider on the novice over fences course, Amanda Balonis of Ohio State University had to endure a long and nerve-wracking wait as 16 other riders tried to best her score. But the wait was worth it, as her first appearance at Nationals turned out to be a winning one.

“My goal was just to get to Nationals,” she said happily.

Balonis, a 22-year-old senior, said her mount Mitch, a bay gelding provided by Cazenovia College (N.Y.), was “a really good draw. He was great.” She has been on Ohio State’s team for four years, and she credited coaches Blaine Newsome and Ollie and Debbie Griffith for her success.

Originally from nearby Shamonkin, Pa., Balonis enjoyed having most of her family watch her show. She was particularly pleased to have
her grandmother, Betty Balonis, in attendance for her win.

“She’s the one who got me started riding. She drove me to my lessons and bought me my first saddle. She’s good to her grandchildren,” said Balonis fondly.

An architecture major in a five-year program, Balonis plans to show next year in the alumni classes.

Judges Robert Bielefeld, of New York, and Linda Andrisani, of Maryland, said they were impressed with the depth of riding ability in the college programs. IHSA founder and executive director Bob Cacchione wholeheartedly concurred. “I was awed by the caliber of the riders here. My hat’s off to all of them and their coaches. I’m honored to have them in the IHSA,” he said.

Category: Juniors
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