Showjumper’s Games dream began with a leap of faith

Japanese rider Mike Kawai was a star attraction at Diriyah Equestrian Festival.
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Updated 22 December 2019

Showjumper’s Games dream began with a leap of faith

  • Diriyah festival is step on the road to Tokyo Olympics for star rider

JEDDAH: Most top-level equestrian riders start their riding careers at a young age, often before their teens. But for 21-year-old Mike Kawai, the journey to the top has been very different.

The Osaka-raised star began riding when he was 15, which many in the sport would say is too old to reach a competitive level, let alone international standard.

However, with his eyes set on the 2020 Olympics in his home country, Kawai’s career took him from Japan to the Netherlands. Now he is hoping to make a return to compete in the Tokyo summer games.

“I started to ride when I was 15 because my father pushed me to do so,” he said. “I used to ride when I was little, but I did not like it, so I stopped.”

But slowly he grew to liking horses, riding and training every day for three years, and competing in junior jumping competitions across Japan. Then he started winning.

“I managed to win in a first-class competition, which changed everything,” Kawai said. 

Seeing that his son could compete and win, Kawai’s father told him that he could become not only a world-class equestrian, but also an Olympic athlete. He urged his son to start preparing for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“When I was 17, my father said: You should go to the Tokyo Olympics.’ I was jumping the 1.20m at the time, so it seemed impossible to be able to make it to the Olympics,” he said.

I started to ride when I was 15 because my father pushed me to do so,” he said. “I used to ride when I was little, but I did not like it, so I stopped.

Mike Kawai, Equestrian rider

At age 18, with his father’s blessing, Kawai quit high school in Osaka and moved to the Netherlands to train at some of the finest stables in the world. “My father said, go to the best stable so you can prepare for the Olympics, so I left school and moved to Europe.”

Kawai’s decision paid off. He won his first international classes in 2018 in Opglabbeek in Belgium and claimed his first ranking class the same year at the Global Champions Prague Playoffs.

Now in Saudi Arabia for the FEI-sanctioned Diriyah Equestrian Festival and with points counting toward qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Kawai achieved a career best in the 1.60m World Cup competition, producing a double clear round in 38.73 seconds. “It was my best-ever result, so it is important that I’m competing here,” Kawai said.

“I will have the opportunity to compete in the Olympics in my home country only once in my life. I trust my horses and I trust myself.”

The Diriyah Equestrian Festival has returned for its second and final weekend as equestrians gear up for what is a crucial event in qualification for Tokyo.

The festival is part of the wider Diriyah Season, a month of sports events such as Formula E, top-class men’s tennis and the world heavyweight title fight the Clash On The Dunes.


Amaala lift champion trophy in Saudi Arabia’s first-ever desert polo tournament

Updated 19 January 2020

Amaala lift champion trophy in Saudi Arabia’s first-ever desert polo tournament

  • Amaala earned the bragging rights as the 2020, and inaugural, AlUla Desert Polo champions

JEDDAH: Renowned Argentine polo player Nacho Figueras scored all his side’s goals as Amaala hammered out an emphatic 7-3 victory over host team AlUla to win the Kingdom’s first-ever desert polo tournament on Saturday at AlUla UNESCO heritage site.

Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki bin Faisal, chairman of the General Sports Authority, presented the trophy to Amaala after the final.

The event forms part of Winter at Tantora festival, featuring international polo players, who had the experience of playing on compacted desert sand instead of grass amid the stunning surroundings at AlUla.

The Royal Commission of AlUla organized the three-day tournament in cooperation with the newly formed Saudi Polo Federation.

In winning the tournament, Amaala earned the bragging rights as the 2020, and inaugural, AlUla Desert Polo champions.

Players from all over the world took part, including team members from the world famous La Dolfina polo outfit from Argentina, including Adolfo Cambiaso, Pelon Stirling and Pablo Mac Donough.

In the match for third place, Al Nahla Bentley defeated Team Richard Mille 4-2 with Sheikha Alya Maktoum scoring a hat trick of goals.

Figueras said: “It’s an amazing place with an amazing history, an amazing heritage and an amazing first tournament for the Saudi Polo Federation. I’m very honored to be here and I’m delighted that we were able to win.

“This country is going through a transformation and there are amazing years to come.”

Mac Donough added: “For us it was a completely new place; polo-wise Saudi Arabia wasn’t something we were doing before. Having the chance to come to such an amazing country and having the chance to play a tournament and promote the sport, all this makes us feel very proud and we hope we can continue it.”

Saudi Polo Federation chairman, Amr F. Zedan, who played for Team Richard Mille during the tournament, said: “I see this event as a launching pad for the future. We have big plans for polo in Saudi Arabia that include the establishment of development programs and the construction of facilities to assist in building a polo infrastructure in The Kingdom.”

Amr Madani, CEO of the Royal Commission of AlUla, said: “Our tourism strategy for AlUla has been built around certain anchors — heritage, culture, nature and arts. Equestrianism has always been a key industry for us, and the surroundings here make AlUla one of the best locations to ride horses.”