But in Buenos Aires, at the 3rd Summer Youth Olympic Games (YOG), the difference between them was just a single penalty, as Team Africa narrowly missed out on a jump-off for gold to take a brilliant bronze in Jumping ahead of teams from South America, Australasia and Asia.
This landmark result didn’t happen by accident, either.
Instead, it was planned a month earlier at an innovative training camp held at the Johannesburg yard of Team Africa’s Chef d’Equipe, Chad Cunningham, which led to the five athletes – Hannah Garton (South Africa), Bunty Howard (Zambia), Brianagh Clark (Zimbabwe), Margaux Koenig (Mauritius) and Ahmed Naser Elnaggar (Egypt) – arriving in Argentina as the best-prepared and closest knit of the six teams.
Cunningham had performed a similar role at the inaugural YOG in Singapore eight years earlier, when he had a difficult job pulling together a group of African athletes who had never even met each other – never mind competed together – just days before the start of the competition.
Surprisingly, that team also managed to win a bronze medal, but this time Cunningham vowed to build team spirit in advance of the YOG, among a group of athletes he knew already through his work delivering clinics in sub-Saharan Africa.
Held from 27-31 August, the camp offered daily coaching sessions with Cunningham using a pool of horses the athletes had never ridden before, mirroring the requirements of the YOG, with veterinary therapist Jana Hager teaching them basic stretches and massage techniques to keep the horses fresh and happy over the four days of competition.
The riders also benefited from one-on-ones with sport psychologist Greyling Viljoen and interactive sessions on CHG Equestrian’s Horse Riding Simulator, and were even interviewed by a local magazine about their road to Buenos Aires 2018, giving them valuable interview practice ahead of an event in which they would become ambassadors for their respective countries.
Also present at the camp was Zimbabwe’s 2010 YOG equestrian bronze medallist Yara Hanssen, who mentored the athletes both at the camp and in Buenos Aires through her role as an IOC (International Olympic Committee) Young Change-Maker.
All of this meant that by the time the athletes arrived in Argentina they had not only received coaching tailored towards their YOG experience, but had become a close-knit group – something that Cunningham believes was key to their excellent performances in the team event.
“I think the camp was extremely beneficial, 100 per cent. It worked tremendously,” he explains.
“I told them that a medal was within their reach, and it was very much about team spirit, sticking together, supporting each other, and knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”
With just five African places up for grabs, each athlete had to see off fierce competition just to qualify for the YOG.
For Hannah Garton, that competition included her twin sister Olivia, who she trains with every day in Durban under the tutelage of Ronnie Lawrence. The pair are evenly matched, so while it was Olivia who took the sole South African spot at the FEI World Jumping Challenge Final in Tashkent (Uzbekistan) earlier this year, this time it was Hannah in the spotlight – with Olivia also making the trip to Club Hípico Argentino to cheer from the sidelines.
“It’s been quite a journey, with ups and downs, but it’s definitely been a great experience, giving me a lot of mileage for my riding career,” reflected Hannah, who had to switch horses for her own safety between the team and individual events after the random draw allocation – similar to a ‘blind date’ scenario – was unkind to her.
“The training camp helped us form a stronger team bond, and we have become so close,” she added of her team-mates. “I think we’ll be friends for a lifetime.”