Tuesday, March 9, 2010

2006 WEG Vaulting Gold Medalist, Megan Benjamin (USA)

Megan Benjamin is an equestrian vaulter. She is the 2006 World Equestrian Games (WEG) women’s vaulting champion, 2006 WEG Team Silver medalist, 2008 World Championships Team Bronze medalist, and three time national champion. Following her success in 2006, the US Olympic Committee named her the August Female Athlete of the Month. She was also named the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) Equestrian of Honor and a co-recipient of the coveted Becky Grand Hart trophy. She was named to the FEI Athletes’ Committee by FEI President HRH Princess Haya of Jordan, to the USEF Youth Council, and was nominated by her peers to serve on the American Vaulting Association (AVA) Board of Directors and the USEF Vaulting Technical Committee.
I like to think of myself as multi-faceted, but my friends know well that I have two prominent “facets.”

1. I’m a vaulter, and
2. I’m a bit of a nerd.

I am currently a senior at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York trying to reconcile these qualities while simultaneously gunning for a spot on Team USA and hopefully the podium at the upcoming World Equestrian Games in Kentucky. This has been no easy task.

For those of you who don’t know Ithaca, it’s this great little hippie town in upstate New York (about four hours north of New York City) that just happens to be home to Cornell University. Well… not just happens. Apparently Ezra Cornell (the university’s founder) got a great deal on land in the 19th century and didn’t mind that he was about to found such a great university so far away from any real civilization. When I started my first year at Cornell, my dad, who himself was a Cornellian, explained that I probably wouldn’t be coming home for Thanksgiving, or any trip shorter than a couple weeks, because even though Ithaca is still in the United States, it is really in the boonies. Ithaca has this quaint regional airport with four gates and frightening puddle jumpers, but the trip from Ithaca to California, all said and done, takes at least nine hours. It’s almost easier to fly to Europe.

Needless to say, in signing on to be a Cornellian, I entered a land of self- imposed isolation, which was fine and great as a retired vaulter, which I was after the 2006 World Championships. But then I was roped me back into the sport when my WEG teammate and friend, Rosalind Ross, talked me into competing with the Dark Side of the Moon team for the 2008 World Championships. It was after those Championships I decided I couldn’t bear the idea of letting the World Equestrian Games in my home country pass me by, and I began to figure out the logistics, including a training plan, that would prepare me and simultaneously allow me to finish and enjoy my senior year at Cornell. Although these puzzle pieces have not been easy to connect, I have been lucky to be surrounded by great people, many of whom I have met along the journey, who have reached out to make my dreams possible.

My first and most important puzzle piece was, of course, finding a vaulting horse. My longtime vaulting horse who helped me win the 2006 WEG selection trials, Faronia, is now happily retired in California, and my WEG vaulting horse, Leonardo, is with my trainer Lasse Kristensen in Denmark, preparing for European competitions and eventually for this upcoming WEG. To be prepared for the Games, I needed a horse to keep here in Ithaca who was already trained in vaulting, was high quality, and was willing to travel to the bitter cold tundra of Ithaca to be my training partner. To my fortune, some great friends of mine, the Hamar Family, offered to sell me their pride and joy, Paradox, so I could train for the Games.

But then I had to find a stable in the area… preferably one that had a decent arena, some nice footing, and ceilings high enough for leaps. The first stable I called had all these qualities, was a ten minute drive from my apartment, and had one open stall available. Are you sensing a theme? This stuff literally FELL into my lap.

Before Paradox made his trek east, I had to find a lunger. For those of you who are unfamiliar with vaulting, this is the person who controls the horse from the center of the ring. The lunger is fundamental to the performance of the horse, and therefore, to the performance of the vaulter. My roommate, a member of the Cornell Equestrian Team, had a teammate who mentioned teaching vaulting at summer camp. As it turned out, Kelsey O’Shea had been lunging horses for summer camp for the past four years and knew all about vaulting! And I thought I was the only vaulter around these parts…

It was amazing how quickly all the basic pieces came together with seemingly minimal effort and astonishing ease. Unfortunately, even with my team of random but enthusiastic supporters, I am still training in Ithacan isolation. One of my coaches, Emma Seely, lives in California, and the other, Lasse Kristensen, lives in Denmark. My personal trainer, Stacey Burnett, also lives in California and sends me my workouts electronically—videotaping herself doing the exercises and explaining proper form. My chiropractor, my dressage trainer, and all my vaulting peers are in California, and I’m here, in snowy New York.

For the most part, I have made things work. I coach myself, create my own schedule, and force myself to stick to that schedule. I have found a great local gym where I do my “Stacey” workouts (people look at me as if I’m crazy when I’m doing them). I train once a week with a private gymnastics coach, twice a week with a dance instructor, and I have even found a pretty good substitute for my favorite chiropractor. Sometimes it’s hard to stay motivated when there is snow on the ground, the wind is blowing, and it’s 10 degrees outside, but then I just think about the Kentucky Horse Park, the experience I had vaulting in that brand new arena this past summer during the Kentucky Cup, and how great it would feel to stand on that podium once again.

14 comments:

  1. Great post! Thanks for letting us get to know you!

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  2. Keep up the great work!! Can't wait to watch you compete!!

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  3. What a skillful performer, I am sure she didn't deserve nothing any less than the Gold due to such a well done performance.
    I would like to follow her footprints, that would be very exciting!

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  4. Megan, you are such a talented vaulter! I can't wait to watch you in Kentucky at WEG! I know you and the rest of the U.S. team will do phenominal job!! I really look up to you as a vaulter and hope to someday be half as talented as you are! Congratulations on your gold winning in 2006, your performence was amazing!

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