If you learn from defeat, you haven’t really lost.
Although we didn’t come home with the international results we went for, we did come home with amazing experiences, friendships and the determination to go back and do it all again.
James and Willow set off at 11pm on 22nd July to meet their friends and fellow team mates along with their dogs in London. First stop from there was at the Eurotunnel at 5am, followed by a 4-hour drive to reach their hotel and event venue in Arnhem (the Netherlands!) We had initially considered flying Willow to Amsterdam as it was such a short flight, however due to the restrictions on flying dogs back into the UK it seemed more hassle than it was worth.
Arriving a few days prior to the event allowed Willow to acclimatise to the new country and surroundings. Fortunately, she’s a very adaptable dog and the 37*C heat didn’t seem to affect her. Our hotel room had a bath, so she enjoyed a cool dip most evenings. We also went prepared with an industrial cool box to keep our Cotswold RAW frozen, cool coats and cool gel mats for the dogs and fans for the van crates. In all honesty, I think we prepared better for the dogs than we did for ourselves!
The event was held at the amazing Sports Centre Papendal, which is one of the biggest and most highly regarded Olympic training centres in the Netherlands. The surface was a sand/wax/carpet mix which suits Willow well because if the grass is a little long we can almost loose her in it!
During the days building up to the competition, the GB squad had workshops for the dogs, health checks with the international vets and Team meetings with the management – as well as giant inflatable races in the hotel pool – just as vital.
All competitors were given the opportunity to do a practice run at the venue the day before the event. However, due to the heat this was being held at sunrise and James (along with a few other team members) decided that rest and mental prep were more important. One important consideration to bear in mind is that if anything goes wrong in a practice run, e.g. a knocked pole or missed contact, you’re not able to correct the dog and re do the obstacle. This means that with Willow being a patterning learner, if she does something wrong, and you don’t correct it, she assumes she is to do exactly the same the next time (a very common trait in spaniels). As mentioned before, Willow is a very adaptable girl, and the surface and new equipment was never going to faze her. However, not being able to retrain an element would definitely have been detrimental to their competition runs the following day.
The competition was meant to start Friday 26th July at 8am. However, this was the week of the extreme heatwave and the animal welfare authorities in the Netherlands put restrictions in place – the show was not allowed to run if the weather exceeded 35*C. These restrictions also applied to the rest of the country, meaning no livestock could be transported. It was really great to see animal welfare being taken so seriously.
This did however mean that the organisers decided to start the competition early and the first round of team runs started Thursday evening at 8pm. Although this was definitely in the dogs’ best interests, it meant James and Willow didn’t run their first round until 11pm in the flood lit venue. The only issue with this is that neither Willow or James had ever ran so late, and that despite the flood lighting, visibility wasn’t great for either dog or handler. Also due to Willow being a red spaniel this meant she blended in with the beige surface at night. That said, they pulled it out of the bag and ran a clean round placing them 16th out of the 215 that ran!
After the excitement of a clean run and achieving a relatively highly position, all the competitors were told that due to the weather peaking the next day at 40*C at midday, they’d decided to start the next day at 5am … basically in 6 hours’ time. So, the team travelled back to the hotel which was around 20 minutes away. James fed Willow, let her have a quick late-night tub swim before getting into bed; 3 hours of sleep later everyone was up, feeding and walking the dogs and then travelling back to the venue for the next day of competition.
The plan was to run the second round of team runs before midday before the heat soared. Although it was a struggle to get up, it made sense as that day the Netherlands experienced record-breaking temperatures of over 40*C! James and Willow again put in another solid clean run placing them 21st. Unfortunately, James’s teammates didn’t have the same success and had picked up faults and eliminations in their runs which meant no final for the medium team “Bring the noise” on Sunday.
The competition for the day was over by early afternoon which meant the team could relax and recover from sleep deprivation, get an early night and put their game faces on for Saturday – the individual events.
Lucky the weather had cooled down (slightly) by then, around 32*C which meant the event could run to a normal schedule starting at 8am.
To qualify for the individual final, you must place 18th or below in either the Jumping or Agility round. If you place in both, your lowest placing stands and your higher placing gets scratched and the next competitor in line gets in (basically via clearing). James and Willow unfortunately placed 45th in the agility due to them picking up 5 faults on the sea-saw, in a moment of madness James changed his handling option during the run and this meant not giving Willow the information soon enough, so instead of stopping on the sea-saw before it touched the ground she flew off the end of it. Then, in another moment of madness, James stopped and walked back towards the sea-saw intending to correct it, before he realised he was at the European open and should probably continue, ha-ha! Then in the Jumping round they put in another good clean run, however finished 20th, so just out of the placings.
Feeling disappointed, we returned to the hotel. Willow often places higher in Agility rounds as oppose to Jumping as she is technically very good. She turns tightly and doesn’t lose any time on her running contacts – so the 5 faults in the first round were disappointing as this was their real chance to qualify.
Amazingly, later that evening the GB management messaged James to let him know he and Willow had made the final through clearing!!! To say we were ecstatic would be an understatement. We were bouncing off the walls! To make the individual final at their first international event was such an amazing achievement.
Sunday morning, finals day came. Nerves were high, but the excitement was higher! First went all the team events, although sad not to have qualified, they were still amazing to watch. Through training days in the UK, James has made quite a few fellow agility friends from around the world, so supporting them in the final was a great experience. The individual runs for small passed, then it was time for medium. James, alongside two other medium handlers from the UK, had qualified so the excitement in the air could be felt by all. Looking at the course plan, on paper it suited Willow. There were technical elements; there were lots of opportunities to go wrong (Willow does best in these runs as she is glued to James’s side and very rarely takes an incorrect obstacle). However, in the final, it was all or nothing. There was no time to play anything safe. The shorter routes had to be taken; the independence of the dog had to be tested and the nerves HAD to be overcome.
James and Willow got to the start line, and flew off. From the videos of the final you can see she and James are leaving nothing behind! Sadly, halfway round the course, James sends Willow to a tunnel and runs off. Willow, being the honest little spaniel she is, pulls off the tunnel and comes with him, as she isn’t quite committed enough to taking that tunnel. In doing so and taking the next jump they receive an elimination – it’s all over. No overall placings.
Sadly, due to them receiving an elimination they don’t record a time for the run. However, due to the speed they were both going – I (James’s partner – and biggest critic!) believe they could have been up there, on the podium – or at least very close.
After the initial disappointment, the realisation of how far they’ve come in just over twelve months, James and Willow picked themselves up and enjoyed the closing ceremony.
At their first international event representing their country, James and Willow put in 3 clear rounds with good placings, 1 unfortunate fault, and an amazing elimination that they should be proud of!
Next year, the European Open is being held in the UK – so fingers crossed they get selected again and can represent their country on home soil.