Show jumper Uma O’Neill has been called on at the 11th hour to compete for NZ at the Tokyo Olympics. The girl from Hawaii, whose grandfather was a surfing legend, explains to Suzanne McFadden how she ended up riding for the Kiwis.
Uma O’Neill’s grandfather must have known something no one else did seven years ago when he bought her a brash young grey stallion named Clockwise.
Jack O’Neill wasn’t a horseman. In fact, the American was a surfer, credited with inventing the surfing wetsuit (who hasn’t heard of the O’Neill brand?).
But he loved his 17-year-old granddaughter, Uma, and was an ardent supporter of her show jumping career.
Uma never got to ride Clockwise of Greenhill Z before Jack bought him. The horse was in Germany, trained by two-time Olympic show jumping medallist, Paul Schockemöhle. They’d only seen him on a video.
“When we got him, it was never said: ‘Clockwise is going to be an Olympic horse for you’,” Uma O’Neill says. In fact, the two of them didn’t exactly hit it off on when they first met.
“Although my grandfather didn’t quite understand the sport so much, he thought he was the best horse in the world and he would take me everywhere. And he truly has. So maybe he saw more than any of us.”
Clockwise – who goes by the barn name ‘CW’ – has now taken 26-year-old O’Neill to the pinnacle competition of the sport.
Next week, the pair will ride for New Zealand at the Tokyo Olympics – called into the team when Sharn Wordley was forced to withdraw a fortnight ago when his horse, Verdini D’Houtveld Z, suffered an injury.
O’Neill and Clockwise, the team’s travelling reserve pairing, had just arrived in Germany from their farm in Santa Cruz, California, when O’Neill heard the news.
But sadly she couldn’t share it with her grandfather. He passed away in 2017, at the age of 94. “We very much miss him,” the talented equestrian says.
So how did a girl born in Hawaii into a renowned surfing family, who’s lived in California ever since she was 13, end up in the New Zealand show jumping team?
O’Neill’s father, John Impey, was born in New Zealand, just outside Auckland. Most of his family still live here (his brother, Brent Impey, is the former chair of New Zealand Rugby).
Her dad, and mum Shawne, settled in Maui, where Shawne was a professional windsurfer. Growing up, O’Neill – who had dual citizenship – would often visit her family in New Zealand.
It was her dad her took her to her first pony camp in Maui when she was nine.
“I’d been going every once in a while for lessons, but it was all very casual,” O’Neill says. “Then one summer, my father got me a pony camp package. I just had so much fun. Then we started taking lessons, and I leased a pony at the pony club.”
A few years later, O’Neill and her mother moved to the US mainland to be closer to grandfather Jack in Santa Cruz, and she took one pony with her. As her equestrian talent blossomed, she began representing the United States as a young rider, but brewing in the back of her mind was the idea of one day switching to compete for New Zealand.
“The United States is such a competitive nation, and I knew New Zealand would give me lots of opportunities,” she says. “And I hoped I could help New Zealand build up its show jumping too.”
Let’s get back to that initial relationship between the girl and her star horse. O’Neill was about to turn 18 and was looking for a horse to ride in the North American Young Rider championships when she was first introduced to Clockwise.
“It was a little bit of a tricky beginning,” she says. “He was young, a seven-year-old stallion, and he’d always been ridden by a professional, much larger rider than myself. It took a bit of time, but we eventually built a great relationship. It’s been quite the journey we’ve been on.”
Clockwise is quite the character, it seems.
“Life revolves around him quite a lot, we’ll just say,” laughs O’Neill. “He loves attention, but he doesn’t like to show it so much. He wants everything to revolve around him in the stable, which it does. But he also wants his alone time.
“He knows he’s the main guy around.”
For the past three years, O’Neill has worked closely with trainer Mariano Maggi, an Argentinian who rides for Sweden.
“Mariano has come in and done a lot of the flat work with Clockwise and really helped me with him. It’s taken everything to a new level. He’s an incredible horse,” she says.
Initially, O’Neill had not expected to jump Clockwise in “the big classes” – fences up to 1.6m high, like at the Olympics. But she would represent the US on board the stallion, including her biggest victory yet, at the 2018 FEI World Cup North American qualifier in Vancouver (where they had the only clear round of the competition).
It wasn’t long after that she switched her riding nationality to Kiwi.
O’Neill readily admits the Olympics weren’t on her radar growing up.
“I didn’t have it as a big goal in my childhood as some do. I wanted to make it to the top level in show jumping, but the Olympics is a big goal and I never thought I’d be in the right situation – with the right horse, at the right time with the right ability,” she says.
“It’s a very tough sport in that way. Timing is so much of it.”
But when the New Zealand equestrian selectors asked her if she would be the “fourth rider” – the team’s travelling reserve – for the Tokyo Games, O’Neill was over the moon.
“I was very excited,” she says. “To have the opportunity to go is an incredible thing, and it was a long way to go as the fourth rider, but we knew it was an important position. If something happened, I felt I was a strong enough reserve to come in. And it was worth it for the team.”
It’s a massive undertaking to fly a horse halfway around the world knowing it would only get called up to compete if disaster struck a team-mate or their horse.
And Clockwise has done it the hard way – flying anti-clockwise to get to Japan.
“From California it’s just under nine hours flying to Tokyo,” O’Neill says. “But Clockwise has made a 12-hour cargo flight to Germany, and he’s been doing his 10 days’ quarantine in Aachen [Denmark].” Today he starts the final leg, an 18-hour flight to Japan.
“It’s quite an adventure around the globe, but he’s a very seasoned traveller and very relaxed about it all.” And fortunately, he didn’t know there was a shorter route.
“In the end, we’re doing it for the team – it’s about having the strongest team representing New Zealand.”
O’Neill has met her Kiwi team-mates Daniel Meech and Bruce Goodin (at 57, the most senior member of the New Zealand Olympic team) at events around the world. “I think we will make a great team,” she says.
She’s hoping Clockwise will handle the heat and humidity at Equestrian Park – the same venue that hosted the equestrian events at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. But she’s unsure how they will react to an empty stadium.
“I haven’t yet experienced jumping at an event that large without a crowd. At the five-star grand prix I’ve jumped, there’s always been a crowd, and I feel that brings you up a little more. But we got used to jumping with no people last year with Covid, so it’s just something we’re going to have to experience there,” she says.
“Yes, it’s going to be strange to be in a big stadium without a single person in a seat, but we’re so grateful to even be going.”
O’Neill had always imagined if she got to go to an Olympics, her close-knit family would occupy some of those seats.
Her mother lives with her at their O’Neill Show Jumping base. “She’s so supportive, she’s there all the time for me, so she’s definitely disappointed not to be there,” O’Neill says.
Shawne O’Neill could have been an Olympian herself. But at the time that she was the world champion in windsurfing, she was classed as a sponsored professional – and the Olympics were open only to amateur athletes.
It’s Uma O’Neill’s hope to come out of her own Olympics with a “positive experience – for myself and the team – and that we all make it out healthy.
“We’re walking into such an unknown situation, that’s the most important thing at this time,” she says. “Like with everything now, we have to be prepared to be flexible.”
- The New Zealand show jumping team will compete in the individual qualifying on Tuesday, August 3, with the final the next day. They will then jump in the team qualifying on Friday, August 6, with the final on the 7th.