On a dreary Sunday afternoon at Thunderbird Show Park, a most dedicated crowd filled the sold-out grandstand seating around the Thunderbird Jumper Arena, and, dressed in ponchos and rain boots with colorful umbrellas, they came prepared to weather the elements.

They must have missed World Cup competition as much as I did.

The Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ North American League kicked off for the first time since the 2019–2020 season Sunday afternoon, and the tbird faithful were rewarded as their favorite local athletes put forth performances that were ever-worthy of their cheers.

Adding an exclamation mark on a week that was sensational even by his standards, tbird’s winningest rider Conor Swail (IRL) topped the $150,000 CSI4*-W Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Vancouver with Vital Chance de la Roque, his third win of the week and second with his own and Adeline Hecart’s talented bay gelding.

Swail managed to take the win even after implementing a higher degree of difficulty to his jump-off. He lost his outside stirrup after the track’s vertical-oxer combination and jumped the following 1.60m-wide oxer without it before regaining it for the final two fences.

“I’m extremely proud [of my horse],” Swail said. “He’s had a wonderful week: He was first, second and first. He jumped so well today, he deserved [the win] for being so good.”

Conor Swail and Vital Chance de la Roque. Photo by tbird/Quinn Saunders

It wasn’t as if there wasn’t a formidable challenger for tbird’s resident Irishman. In fact, the two most widely considered contenders—World No. 13 Kent Farrington (USA) and Rowan Willis (AUS)—also navigated clear first rounds over Peter Holmes’ (CAN) World Cup track. And they went for it.

First to return, Farrington blazed the trail aboard his longtime mount, Austria 2. As the pair bounded toward the final fence, a winning round seemed to be a foregone conclusion. Then the last rail fell.

“[The riders] in the jump-off were very competitive,” Farrington said. “My horse is naturally fast, so actually it suits that horse to work out of a high tempo and a lot of pace. Unfortunately, I had one down today, so that cost us the win, but we have a great winner in Conor, and he deserved the win today.”

Kent Farrington and Austria 2. Photo by tbird/Quinn Saunders

Willis also arrived in Langley with a naturally quick horse in Ashton Dakota, and his jump-off time, too, was faster than Swail’s. But similarly to Farrington, he took a rail down along the way.

That left only Vanessa Mannix, Swail’s student, to challenge. The sole Canadian in the jump-off produced the only other double-clear effort on the day to finish second. Mannix qualified for the 2020 Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Final, but its forced cancellation kept her on the sidelines. She’s set off on the right foot to return.

“At the start of [this] summer, I said, ‘I’d love to look at the World Cup qualifiers,'” Mannix said. “When I knew that there was going to be a competition here for World Cup points on Canadian soil, which is so much fun, as a Canadian, to be part of the home crowd, I knew that I wanted to make [this event] a priority.”

Vanessa Mannix (CAN) and Catinka 25. Photo by tbird/Quinn Saunders

The North American League continues next in Sacramento on Oct. 9, where Swail and Mannix will be back and looking for more World Cup points in what I believe, with a newly restructured calendar of just eight cohesive qualifying legs, will be the league’s most competitive season yet.

That really is the beauty of #FEIWorldCup. There are no team selections or opinions. Riders truly earn thier way, with points the sole determining factor of who makes the World Cup Finals. Only an athlete’s four best results count, meaning the feat can be accomplished with one horse. And after a year away, the North American League’s return brings with it a bit of hope that our sporting calendar—and our fans—are getting just a little bit closer to “normal.”

I sure did miss it.