“Weird” isn’t a word that often comes up when an athlete describes her Olympic journey. “Thrilling” maybe, or “emotional”—“exasperating” even—and for Lauren Billys, all those words might apply. But “weird” is the word Billys chooses, and it’s not hard to see why.
The 28-year-old California-based event rider has had quite a year. After a chance encounter at a competition made her aware of a potential Olympic opening for Puerto Rico, where her grandmother was born, Billys decided to go all in.
A Hail Mary Bid
“In January …I left my business in Fresno, sold my top two horses and moved away from my family to Carmel Valley to train with [Bea and Derek Di Grazia] full-time. So I did like this Hail Mary of, ‘We’re going to go the Olympics, we’re going to go to the Pan American games, we’re going all in,’ and so we did it.”
Like the making of so many Olympic dreams, Billys’ quest began with a horse: Castle Larchfield Purdy (“Purdy” around the barn), a 14-year-old Irish Sporthorse who’s been her ride for the last two years. When talking about Purdy, Billys doesn’t try to contain her enthusiasm.
“He’s 17.1—I’m 5.3-5.4—so he’s like riding a dinosaur,” she laughs.
“When I’m in the start box, I just have so much faith in our partnership. He will squeal leaving the box, he just loves it. And he looks for the flags. He’s just so invested in us and in going well and being safe and having fun.”
Billys calls Purdy an “inspiring” horse, and she doesn’t just mean on the cross-country course. He was purchased by the Purdy Syndicate in 2014, a three-partner group comprised of Lauren’s family members and a former riding student. “It’s that expression of love that they believed in this Olympic dream, that I got this horse I now get to ride. He’s a really special horse that way because he’s a gift to me,” she says.
As it happened, landing an Olympic-caliber horse would be the easy part of a qualification process that took the better part of a year. When Billys learned she would need one more CIC*** under her belt in order to qualify for Rio, she turned to Twin Rivers Horse Park in Paso Robles, California. The facility agreed to add another date to their calendar, and Billys went to work raising the money needed to fund the event herself. But she’d soon come face to face with yet another challenge: maintaining her Olympic berth in the face of a Latin America’s male-dominated equestrian culture.
“I just thought, I could still be the best rider, and not get to go.”
Female riders are notoriously underrepresented in South America, a continent with a longstanding cavalry tradition that still holds sway in the international riding community. It’s a reality that Billys witnessed first-hand at her Pan American Games debut in Guadalajara, Mexico in 2011, as the youngest rider competing against only a handful of other female representatives from Latin America. In the last months of the 2016 Olympic qualification process, Billys says there was a flurry of pop-up qualifying events in Chile intended to oust top-ranked female contenders, including herself and Rolex rookie, Daniela Moguel (MEX). Moguel was ultimately bumped from a spot.
“The last year has been the most emotional, draining journey of my life. You know? So much exhilaration and fun and sacrifice—all those things were encompassed in it. But I just thought, I could still be the best rider and not get to go,” says Billys.
Only Brazil, which receives automatic qualification as the host country, will represent South America in the eventing team competition against 13 other nations from around the globe. But the three individual berths awarded to the continent (to Chile, Ecuador, and Puerto Rico) were selected based on the top-ranked riders in three different categories: FEI Olympic groups, combined FEI Olympic groups (through which Billys earned her spot), and overall FEI athlete rankings. In other words? Points matter. A lot.
In Billys’ case, it all came down to the Twin Rivers event, a final weekend she likens to a roller coaster, waiting to find out if her Olympic hopes would rise or fall. “I had to go and knew that if I won it, then my chances would be increased.”
Run over just one day, Billys and Purdy won the Twin Rivers three-star event outright. It would be another 24 hours, however, before she received word from Ecuadorian rider Ronald Zabala-Goetschel, who was competing at one of the Chilean qualifiers where a number of riders were struggling to get around the cross-country course. The message was short but sweet. “He said, ‘Lauren, you made it to the Olympics. Congrats!!! Big hug to you.'”
Where the Heart Is
Being an ambassador for female riders in Latin America is a part of the journey that Billys says she’s fully embraced. But the horse crazy kid from Visalia, California hasn’t forgotten where she came from. Her first horse, Ranger— “a dead runaway”—was purchased from the newspaper classified section. Bringing him up to Training level took a healthy dose of grit and determination. And there was also fun.
“I grew up riding with my best friends, sleeping in horse trailers at horse shows, out swimming in the Dough Boy pool in the summertime and eating horse treats for food,” she says. “Anything hokey you can think of with horses, we did that growing up.”
To one day ride for Puerto Rico, where Billys is currently the only FEI-ranked rider, was actually the dream of Billys’ grandmother, Maria Latoni, before it was Lauren’s herself. “My Puerto Rican heritage [comes] through her. She was one of nine, and she grew up on a plantation in Puerto Rico in a city called Bayamón, which is right outside of San Juan. Her house was turned into a rum factory, and the mayor has an estate there. She’s a really cool lady.”
“She wears, like, pink lipstick, has blonde hair, perfect teeth, wears rhinestones. She shops at Ralph Lauren and she’s intense and sassy and she’s [almost] 90. She’s awesome.”
In 2008–2009, the FEI made a push to increase Latin America’s eventing representation in the Olympic Games, a feat accomplished by, among other things, bumping the Pan American Games down to the two-star level. While at a horse show, Billys’ grandmother had a chance encounter with a gentleman from Puerto Rico, who told her about the island’s unclaimed berth in the 2016 Games. That conversation became the catalyst for everything Billys has been working toward since.
“She pushed me, and I did it, and it’s because of her that I ride. She’s one of the first people I called after I found out I was going, and she was crying,” Billys says. Though to be fair, for Maria, that’s not exactly an anomaly.
“She comes to the horse shows and she cries after my dressage test. She cries after my cross country ride. But it’s so awesome,” says Billys affectionately, adding that although Brazil is too far for her grandmother to travel this summer, “she’ll be there in spirit.”
“It wouldn’t be so sweet if I was, like, this manufactured riding product…I don’t think I’d be here if I wasn’t intended to be here.”
Another group of fans that will be waving a flag for Billys during the Opening Ceremony? The Johnson family, whose farm Billys manages in Carmel, California. “The Johnsons are my second family,” says the eventer. “They’re just a support emotionally, and whether or not they know it, spiritually for me. Without them, I really wouldn’t be able to do this. They’re just really good people.”
The Johnsons also train with Bea and Derek Di Grazia, two more key members of the Lauren Billys Olympic Squad. Billys says the Di Grazias had a vision for her and Purdy from day one, crafting a step-by-step program designed to peak in a final picture that only they could see. Much of their training has concentrated on showjumping and dressage, and specifically, developing Purdy’s push from behind in the canter. All of it, Billys says, revolves around building a strong foundation.
“[Bea and Derek] are just so thoughtful, and they’re so stuck to the basics and the technique. They’re driven on riding in a snaffle and riding properly. So having those techniques instilled in you gives me confidence in my training program,” she explains.
It Takes a Village
In mid-May, Billys hosted the last of a series of fundraisers to raise the money required for her qualification and travel costs. The ringside dinner, hosted at Silver Rose Ranch in Clovis, California, featured a silent auction, a meet-and-greet with Billys’ horses, and demonstrations by Lauren and Purdy, which, Billys says, has the added benefit of helping to build interest in the sport of eventing. It’s the family and friends who attended community events like this one that helped to send Billys to both Pan American Games, and now, they’re paving her road to Rio.
“I look out [on the crowd] and it’s my youth pastor from church since I was 13 years old…it’s Laurel who taught me how to post the trot. All these people who were there, they paid $50, and that adds up to $15,000 and $30,000, and that sends us there.”
When Purdy and Lauren make their way up the centerline and deliver their first salute in Rio, a small village will be riding with them. Family and friends in California and Puerto Rico, a team of devoted owners and trainers who brought them here, and the tight-knit community that helped to purchase their ticket. For Billys, that’s the real gift.
“It wouldn’t be so sweet if I was, like, this manufactured riding product—which, you can also be that and be really good. It’s just such a weird story, and it’s been really cool to be in the process of God’s plan for my life. I don’t think I’d be here if I wasn’t intended to be here, and each person who’s been part of that,” Billys says. “Really, it’s about that, I think.”