Heather Blitz was the United States Team alternate at the 2012 London Olympics and, in 2011, earned Pan American Team Gold and individual Silver medals. She recently made another return to an Olympic venue, but this time to coach Annie Peavy, one of four riders who represented the U.S. at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. Annie rode her 2002 17-hand Hanoverian, Lancelot Warrior ("Lance”) and competed September 11 in the Grade III Team test. The pair placed sixth with 68.974 percent. On September 13, Annie and Lance competed in the Grade III Individual Championship, placing eighth with 68.585 percent. Below, Heather answers some questions about the experience of preparing Annie for competition at Rio.
As an alternate for the 2012 London Olympics, what did you learn that helped you form your tactics as a coach for the 2016 Rio Paralympics?
I learned that as far as your training, it's just another step forward from what you're already doing. The added challenges are the stress of being there for a team (which you experience at a Nation's Cup as well) and the organization of your life to afford the time and expense of being away from home. That is a big deal.
How did your Olympic experience help you form a game plan for Rio?
It's not the same this time because of course I'm not the rider, but I advised Annie to have the time of her life and told her that the hardest part, qualifying, is over already. Being there and competing needs to be the icing on the cake. Even before she got to Rio, she was already a winner. I told her to go there with her eyes wide open and absorb the whole experience. I didn't want her to get there and be too anxious about the training. The plan was actually to not have too much of a plan but just take it one step at a time once we got there.
How would you describe the commitment level you require of your rider athlete when accepting the role of Coach for the path to the Paralympic Equestrian Games?
Well it was easy with Annie because she was already totally devoted and took it seriously in all aspects of her life. She keeps herself very heathy and fit, eats right, exercises and uses a personal training coach. She has kept her body in the best shape possible to be able to do her best at the games. That is what I would require, but she already beat me to it!
What was your preparation process for Rio in the weeks leading up to competition?
Actually we decided at the trials that we had super solid quality and that it was reliable and consistent. That is the best combination to take into a major competition like this. We don't want this training peaking and dropping at this point. There may be a few small details we can still pick on but basically, since the trials in June, I've just wanted her to keep him happy, healthy and patiently wait for the day he gets on that plane.
How did you continue to instill confidence in your rider up to the point of going down the centerline?
Mainly by continuing to show her I believe in her and to be there for her in any way she needs. I tell her stories and observations of my own experiences that relate to hers when she has questions or doubts and that helps. That's more than what I had before I went!
What do you want going through your rider’s head when she's in the ring?
To keep her hands forward, think about keeping her left leg still and correctly positioned, to keeping her horse attentive on her aids and to ride every step of the test.
Your mentor and Coach Mary Wanless must have given you several golden nuggets over the years. What is the most important one that you incorporate when coaching?
Hmm. That's a tough one. I've worked with Mary for 21 years so it would be difficult to pick one over the rest. I will say that her ability to teach how to actually teach is unique in the dressage world for sure and I'm the most grateful for that, especially in my position as Annie's coach. There are so many mistakes most instructors make by teaching from their own perspective only. Mary makes it very clear how to teach with individual attention to where the student is in their journey and moving forward from that point.
Being tough is synonymous with the title of coach. How do you transcend this quality when preparing the athletes, horse and rider, for major events like Rio?
Being a top international athlete is also synonymous with toughness: the toughness to push yourself and to have the mental instinct to conquer problems head-on rather than making excuses or avoiding them. So I try to encourage that and it might be without sympathy for why it's hard, but never in a way that takes confidence away from my students or makes them feel bad about themselves. I hear too many instructors being demeaning to their students and it makes me really upset. I push them hard and expect a lot, but only with positive energy!
How will you mentally prepare your rider the evening before competition?
First of all, I have to see what state of mind she's in. We'll most likely review what we think will be the most crucial parts of her test and talk about how the training has gone during the warm-up days. And then we'll have a good dinner, joke around like we always do and get a good night's rest.
What requirements do you have for horse management?
In the case of Lancelot at Rio, we've learned over two years what makes him tick. So, we just continued to manage him exactly like every day at home and made sure was cared for by the same person. He's on a regimented schedule in great detail and we tried to uphold that as closely as possible.
When you watched Annie enter at A, what was going through your head?
I was very proud of my little chick as she made her maiden voyage in the biggest show on the planet. Pretty big deal! And how lucky I was to be a part of it with her.
How has this path to Rio enhanced your skills as an International level coach?
I've certainly learned a million things about Para Equestrian sport and I'm so glad for that. I had not much idea of it before and I still have more to learn but it's a great new addition for me.
When it comes to coaching, what is your motto?
We're all human and in the same boat and no one can avoid the tough lessons it takes to truly become an honest, consistent and fair rider. There's no shame in wherever it is that you are in the learning process. There's only shame in not wanting to hear how you can continue to improve.