Fouaad Mirza: I was drained after Tokyo Olympics, my horses kept me going

Indian equestrian rider Fouaad Mirza looks back at his challenging maiden Olympic experience, the burden of expectations and its impact on his mental health.

Fouaad Mirza and his horse Seigneur Medicott (Mickey) after the Tokyo Olympics   -  Instagram/Fouaad Mirza

It's been more than two months since Indian equestrian rider Fouaad Mirza featured with his horse Seigneur Medicott aka Mickey in the Tokyo Olympics.

While the rigmarole of felicitations, appearances and celebratory events is just about starting to wind down, Mirza's has been missing from the fanfare. He never returned to India from Tokyo. Instead, he headed to his base in Bergedorf, a village in Hamburg state, Germany, to continue training his horses.

Mirza finished 23rd in Tokyo. Established names took notice of this rider and his steed from India. He desired a better showing, but has processed his experience and is coming to terms with it.

"I'm not one to complain or sit and sob about this, but I'm so drained out. Not that the motivation is gone, but it's just felt like something died inside. I don't know how to explain it," Mirza tells Sportstar from Bergedorf.

The Tokyo experience was unusually demanding. A large part of his workload in the times of Covid-19 came from figuring out the logistics for himself and his horse. Based remotely, this was not a hassle-free process. In addition to elaborate paperwork procedures, he also had to handle a delay in receiving his official kit in Germany.

"The bags with the kit were supposed to be sent here to Germany, but they got stuck in customs in Leipzig, which is miles and miles away from where we were. We called the Indian Embassy in Berlin. The officials were very helpful. They managed to move the bags from Leipzig to Cologne, which was about 70 km away from Aachen where I was. We drove to Cologne to get them to release the bags, but the German bureaucracy is very strict, and it had to go through a process. The bags were right in front of me, but we couldn't take them. It took making some calls to the Embassy once more to release the bags — for me and my vet. We had to get the third bag sent directly to Tokyo. We went well ahead of the Games, so we were able to manage this on time," Mirza explains.

"I was already spent before I got there. I felt a little sick and weak. Could be all the work before leaving and the fact that we were going from one air-conditioned bus to an air-conditioned room and back to another air-conditioned space. We were tested regularly, and I had consistent negative COVID tests, but I couldn't take any medication for how I was feeling because of the doping rules," he adds.

READ: Fouaad and Mickey in Tokyo: A man, his horse and their work behind the scenes for Olympics

Mirza and a team of three others had accompanied 15-year-old Mickey to Tokyo. By then, the 29-year-old rider had not met his family for the better part of the three years since his double silver-medal haul at the 2018 Asian Games.

"I remember telling my dad to not tell mom or anyone at home [about his ill-health], because I knew that my phone would be bombarded with calls and messages. I would just go every two hours to the dining hall and drink some soup. I was worried about it coming in the way of competing but was, thankfully, able to get back to full health before the event," Mirza says.

During the Olympics, he had to deal with his fair share of problems. After an impressive performance in the dressage stage which saw Mirza and Mickey enter the rankings placed ninth, a 'technical difficulty' saw him earn 11.20 penalty points despite finishing the course with no obstacle penalties, sending him down to 22nd. This stemmed from health guidelines that hindered Mickey's warm-up. 

"A lot of horses were overheating before the cross-country test in Tokyo. I was informed that Mickey, after his initial warm up, was starting to overheat. So, they asked us to cool him and bring his temperature down. You do this by removing all the equipment and pouring ice cold water on their body. I had planned to do a 20-minute warm up with him but after 10 minutes of warming up they asked me to cool him down.

"Then there was the stewardess who was managing the starts. She came and said, you have to start now, I said I had not warmed up. There was a whole lot of confusion. It ended up not going really in my favour as I hadn't warmed up properly," says Mirza, explaining that this delay made him cross the permitted time limit despite the error-free run.

An 8.48am local time start got pushed to close to an hour later and Mickey was exposed to the humid conditions at the Sea Forest course. This wasn't a part of the plan.

RELATED: Tokyo Olympics, Equestrian: India's Fouaad Mirza, Seigneur Medicott finish maiden Games in 23rd place

"These things can happen; it was just unfortunate that it happened to me. Life really threw a spanner in the works for me there," says Mirza, with a helpless chuckle.

"Because the horse was not warmed up, it would have been very unfair for me to go all out. Despite that and the tough track, he did really well, so you know I can't tell you how happy I am with with his performance. But it is what it is.

"This is part and parcel of the sport and life, I suppose. You take it on the chin and crack on.  There's bigger stuff going on in the world, and people are going through so much worse. I think if you just look at the bigger picture. it's not a big deal," he adds.

Expectations not met, Mirza is dealing with the disappointment. His degree in Psychology and Human Resources from the University of Northampton in England has helped him not dismiss mental health concerns.

A rigid schedule and a number of dependents — his horses in this case — do not afford him the 'luxury' of taking a break. However, he looks to his horses to find his escape, with Mickey proving a huge source of inspiration.

"What an amazing story his is! He is out of the sport for two years, comes back to compete. I didn't start him at a lower-level but at an Olympic-level competition. He almost picked up from where he left and then went out there and gave the performance he did. He had not even competed for half the year. There were horses that had been competing the whole year and they struggled to manage even half of what Mickey did," Mirza says.

His younger horses — Mokatoo, Kenki, and Kal — also inspire him to wake up every day, hit the fields and keep at it."I've been training a few younger horses and one of them is shaping up really well [he doesn't share which of the young ones has him excited]. And that kind of lit a fire inside again. I sometimes can't sleep well because I can't wait to ride them again. My home is where the horses are," says Mirza.

The rider is back to participating in local shows in Europe and has chosen Mokatoo to be his partner for his next outing in Sweden later this month.

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