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Jamie Hocking, the less than ordinary life of an Australian Vaulter

So far, it’s been a life less ordinary for JAMIE HOCKING, one of our two 2020 Delivering Dreams Scholarship recipients. We asked Jamie to share some of his memories, and lessons he’s learned along the way.

The adventures of an Aussie vaulter

Growing up in Woolsheds in rural South Australia was idyllic in many ways. We had a pony, horses, sheep, cattle, cats, dogs and a free-flying tame magpie. And, of course there was vaulting

There are several great things about vaulting, over other sports. The first is that even at a local level, you will meet a whole bunch of vaulters of various ages, because it’s teams based. With barrel and ground work and short performance times on the horse, the horses are often shared, even sometimes at the international level. That made it a perfect sport for me, because although I was a bit shy, I loved mixing horses and making new friends.

When I was still very young, one of my biggest thrills was going to the National Equestrian Centre in Canberra for a week of training with Aussie and international coaches, both of whom I would eventually visit for training and competition overseas. At the end of a jam-packed week every kid was exhausted and ready to go home – but not me. I abandoned my manly pretences and howled my eyes out because it was time to go.  I vowed then to return the next year, which was a vow I kept for fourteen years straight, even after growing up and transitioning into coaching roles.

One of the team

Some of my greatest horse adventures happened while travelling as part of a team.  When I was 11, Tristyn Lowe, a world class competitor in her own right and later my national coach, formed an Australian composite team from vaulters all around Australia. I wasn’t a great vaulter but my other passion, gymnastics, helped me score a place as a team flyer.  It was a tentative start for an inexperienced vaulter, not helped by a curious possum sliding down the arena wall and scaring our horse. Needless to say my team and I got tipped into the dirt quite a distance to the ground for me given that at the time I was flying ™ on top of two other vaulters and three meters off the ground!

With help from the older vaulters, I improved quickly.  At age 12 I went on my first overseas Australia/Germany vaulting exchange – without my parents. I was the youngest and a real day-dreamer. Fortunately for me, the others in my team were older and a lot more responsible. They kept me grounded, both on and off the horse and taught me heaps about sportsmanship, good habits, values and how to look after horses.

The stars in Kentucky

In 2010, when I was 13, the team qualified for the World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Kentucky, an Australian first.  I cheerfully skipped out of school again for 6 weeks, supposedly with a bundle of homework to do on the road ™ but I don’t recall ever doing any. I celebrated my 14th birthday a week or two before the WEG opening ceremonies, and my team mates watched anxiously in case I had a sudden growth spurt and become too heavy to lift. As luck had it, I stayed shrimpy!

When the Games finally kicked off and we moved into the athletes village in Kentucky, I met for the first time many Australian superstars from other disciplines, including Stuart Tinney, Brett Parbury, Lyndall Oatley, para-dressage riders Grace Bowman and Sharon Jarvis, plus Warwick Schiller and champion of champions, the driving superstar Boyd Exell.

It was confidence-building to be in the spotlight alongside your team members, and a thrill to place 10th.  Our team disbanded on a high, and I went home to cope with a growth spurt, a heap of homework, and farm chores to catch up on.  I spent even more time daydreaming about performing in the big stadiums, so I guess by then I’d decided that one day I’d be a world class individual vaulter.

From then on, the desire to find adventure was locked in and vaulting was the perfect sport for it. I struck a deal with my parents about homework and saving for my own airfares, and so began a period where I would plan a six week training and competition trip every year, sometimes with other vaulting friends and sometimes on my own. I was fortunate that my parents believed that childhood adventures and life experience were just as important as school, because I sure missed a heck of a lot of school time.

Globe trotting

In high level vaulting, there is so much emphasis of the human athlete, that local competitors are often willing to share their horses with overseas athletes. Before my mare, French Kiss and I became partners, I had competed on around 25 different European, American and Australian international level horses, which meant I lived and trained with new people for five or six weeks every year.  My vaulting improved out of sight, as did my list of friends and contacts.

In 2012, aged 15, I competed in the EU Junior Championships in Slovakia, followed by the European Junior Championships, where I surprised myself by finishing 12th on a borrowed horse.  After the Juniors came six years of travel, chasing competition opportunities in Europe and the USA. Earning the airfare at home on the farm was the easy part.  Finding horses to borrow overseas before leaving home was stressful, especially as there was never any chance to try the horses beforehand.

Slow and steady

I was thrilled to qualify for WEG 2014 in France, but didn’t go as this was the one time my parents reminded me to keep it slow and steady and gain more confidence and international experience before putting up my hand for world championships, which was good advice.

Now my competition records show that I’ve vaulted in 36 international competitions in 14 different countries, including the USA, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, Germany, France, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark, where I now live and train since leaving high school, somehow graduating with pretty good grades.

WEG 2018

The thrill of being selected for WEG in 2018 was all the sweeter for having decided to take French Kiss to the USA to compete with me, rather than borrow a horse again. I’ve grown tall and French doesn’t look big when we compete together, but in fact she’s 17.3 and a very big girl, so she needed a double stall on the cargo airplane. Gulp! I was desperately short of money and saving every cent I could.

It seemed impossibly expensive but important to do, given all the hours French and I were training and living together [Jamie lives in a barn with French to help make ends meet], and I suddenly realised I just couldn’t go to WEG without her. With support from the Danes, kind friends, family and strangers too, I made it, although it took me another year to pay everyone back.

Being thankful

I’m 24 now and just starting to realise how fortunate I’ve been to have such contrast in my upbringing.  All my memories of the last 15 years are sharp and clear and important to hang onto.  It helps that I’ve never been a drinker although I love a good after-competition party. I’m the guy on a permanent budget, and my drinks are always non-alcoholic. I’ve attended some great parties, partying all night (on milk) and then doing duty as designated driver, normally with someone else’s car. It’s surreal, the boy from Woolsheds driving a manual Citroen loaded full of world famous athletes through the streets of Le Mans. Makes me glad to have grown up driving tractors and manual utes!

I’ve had many adventures, made many new international friends and had the support of many helping hands, but I’ve also had a few moments of fear, and some real disappointments where I’ve stuffed up or someone else has maybe let me down.

I’ve found out for myself that there are options to solve any problem, even when things seem a bit bleak. A little time and a calm mind and things always work out, even if it puts a few character-building scratches on your psyche.

It’s important to pause and realise that it’s all making you more wise and experienced. My sport has taught me that some days I ™ll be the one who loses, but those are still great days because of adventures, friendships and time with the coolest of people and horses.

I really believe all young Aussie’s should experience challenges, not through video games or social media, but in the real world of different people, different countries and different cultures. There is no better way to become resilient and to feel pride in who you are regardless of how you look, your clothes, or money.

Keep up with Jamie’s adventures at www.jamiehocking.com.au, and on Instagram @James.Hocking96/