Chantilly High senior Caitlin Gregory, 16, won the United States Pony Clubs' national championship last week for the second year in a row. She and good friend Allison Larkins, 13, an eighth-grader at Liberty Middle School, both represented the Dominion Valley Pony Club in Clifton.
"I was very happy," said Caitlin afterward. "I trained, my entire summer, so it was nice to have everything go smoothly. Now I can relax for awhile."
IT WAS HER fourth time competing in this event, and Allison's first. Caitlin's parents are Natalie and Fred Gregory of Franklin Glen, and Allison is the daughter of Courtney and Mark Sebastian of Centreville's Village at Mount Gilead Community.
To be eligible, both teens had to qualify by attaining top scores at the Regional Rally, July 1-2, in Cockeysville, Md. The competition at both the regionals and nationals consists of the tetrathlon of riding, running, swimming and marksmanship.
Only girls participate, and each event is timed. The riding portion is a show-jumping course with 15 different jumps and several obstacles. Riders must also open and close a gate while on their horses. The running is a cross-country course. For Caitlin, its a 3K (more than 1.8 miles); for the younger Allison, its a 1K (.6 mile).
The swimming section is 200 meters. Swimmers may select any stroke they want; both Allison and Caitlin chose freestyle because, for them, it's fastest. And marksmanship consists of shooting at targets with an air pistol.
"The tetrathlon is a feed into the pentathlon in the Olympics, which is all four events plus fencing," said Caitlin. "Usually, the run and swim are on two different days because they're both cardio events."
Allison has been riding five years and rides a half paint/half quarterhorse named Pinky. Caitlin's ridden 13 years, and her 16-year-old horse named Isabelle is a thoroughbred. Caitlin's had her three years and rides two hours every day — an hour each on Isabelle and on another horse. "My mom had horses her entire life, so she passed the love on to me," she explained.
Allison leases her 15-year-old horse and has been riding him, the past five or six years. "I tried a lot of other sports and wasn't very good at them," she said. "But when I tried horseback riding, it just clicked. I go to the barn every day to help teach lessons [to other children] to pay off my loan for my other horse, and I ride an hour every day."
Caitlin's strongest event is the swim since she swims regularly for the Curl-Burke Swim Team. But marksmanship is another matter. Prior to nationals, she said, "My weakest part is the shoot, so that's what I have to focus on. Once I get past that, I can do anything."
Her words turned out to be prophetic because, in the nationals — last Thursday-Friday, July 27-28, at the Lexington Horse Center in Lexington, Ky. — shooting was her best event. "It was the one I was most pleased with," said Caitlin, who wielded a Russian, IZH-47 air pistol. "It's a five-second, timed fire and it can be pretty nerve-wracking. But I shot better than I had in a long time."
IN THIS competition, running was toughest for her. "It was a difficult course," she said. "But it was difficult for everyone." She also noted that nearly 70 girls participated in nationals — 45 from the U.S. and 24 international competitors — so "it was our largest year, yet, and it was very exciting."
For her efforts, Caitlin won a medal, a long blue ribbon, a handpainted plate (for winning her age division) and a silver plate (given to the senior girls scoring the most points). There's also a team competition, and Caitlin's team — comprised of her and three other girls from different regions — amassed the most points to win the overall team championship.
She said the equestrian portion had a challenging course, but her horse did very well. Allison, however, couldn't say the same. "My horse didn't want to jump," she said. Normally, said Caitlin, "He's got a lot of spirit; he's very spunky."
And though she enjoyed regionals, Pinky gave her trouble there, too. "My horse did not want to move," she said. "He got freaked out at all the bright colors on the jumps [because he's used to just seeing white]. In the end, he came through, but he sometimes cracks under pressure."
Still, Allison likes the riding portion of the tetrathlon best. "It's a challenge, but it's fun," she said. "And it's probably the thing I'm best at. I hate running." At nationals — which, like regionals, she was in for the first time — she said, "I learned I have to practice running and swimming more. But it was a good experience overall."
Usually, there are just six or seven people competing in her age- and skill-based division, but she vied against 16 others in the nationals. Allison's best event there was shooting; she came in fourth. And her team took sixth place overall.
As for the more-experienced Caitlin, she was thrilled with her second national title. "All my hard work paid off," she said. Girls are allowed to compete in the championships until they're 21, and that's just what she intends to do. Said Caitlin: "I can't imagine a summer without it."