This past August, I served as Chef d’Equipe at the World Para-Driving Championship in Beesd, Netherlands. It was a very humbling and inspiring experience.

In the world of combined driving, a chef d'equipe is a team leader. At a World Championship or international competition, the chef is the liaison between the team and the organizing committee.

Scott Monroe, a former U.S.E.F. National Champion, performed as the coach for our only American driver, Stefanie Putnam from Lafayette, Calif., and her horse, an American-bred Morgan gelding, Shadow (Bethesda After Dark).

With Coach Scott Monroe as his personal valet, Shadow flew across the pond in mid-July, two weeks before the competition. The day after Scott and Shadow arrived, Stef traveled to the Netherlands with her parents, Ned and Marcia Putnam, and her full-time assistant Samantha Colombus, along with Stef’s ever-present service dog, Kaz. They all reunited at the de Ronde farm in Zwartewall, Netherlands, for their training camp.

During their stay at the de Rondes, Stef trained hard with Coach Monroe to sharpen her skills for her first-ever FEI competition. Due to her California Bay Area home, and because she is relatively new to driving, she had not had the opportunity to compete at the highest level of FEI competition. By competing in this championship, she was making the enormous leap from the ADS Preliminary level to the FEI level in the blink of an eye. Scott Monroe was a perfect match for her as both a coach and trainer because of his experience competing in numerous FEI events along with three previous international competitions.

Marie and Koos de Ronde served as our Dutch hosts and were simply wonderful. They provided horse stabling, living quarters for the coach, dressage ring, and cones course areas for Stef’s training. By the time I arrived, Stef and Shadow had already mastered Advanced cones with the narrower widths and the faster times. Marie de Ronde commented to me that after she saw Stef’s ability to drive the complex and challenging courses created by Scott, she knew Stef was ready for the Championship. In addition, Stef thoroughly knew her dressage test and both she and the horse looked as fresh as daisies without any signs of jet lag. It was time to move on to the show.

The de Rondes were also contracted to deliver the horse and equipment to the show. You can imagine our surprise when only Shadow was loaded into their 7-horse lorry towing the equipment trailer. It's the same rig Koos uses to transport his world-class four-in-hand team and carriages around Europe. The lone 15-hand Morgan had plenty of room. And it only got better when we learned that this whole rig would remain there for the duration of the show. This resulted in unexpected comfort and shelter from the elements when it rained solidly for two of the five days we were there.

In many ways, this is not the same sport for disabled drivers as it is for the rest of us. Of course, the principle reason is the lack of mobility of many of the drivers, something the rest of us take for granted every day. One has to consider and appreciate the time they require for dressing, eating and other preparations needed to meet each new day regardless of their show schedule. Stef and her wonderful caregiver, Sam, need three hours each morning to prepare her to meet the day. Considering that Stef was required to be ready to walk courses or drive by 7:30 a.m. some days during the show, you can appreciate the dedication it takes to be a para-driver.

On dressage day, Stef arrived bright and early and ready to roll. Beautifully dressed and coiffeured (which later earned a well-deserved 10 in presentation), Stef's smile was ever-present as she was lifted into her carriage. Surprisingly, she maintained that smile and upbeat attitude all the way to and from the dressage ring. And for good reason. With a solid and smooth test, she scored a terrific score of 53.58 in her first ever FEI dressage test for a 5th place out of thirteen Grade 1 drivers. (Grade 1 drivers are wheel-chair bound or impaired in all four limbs or upper body. Grade 2 drivers have less physical impairments.) Considering each person above her, including the 2014 Gold Medal winner, had much more experience, she was in great company.

For me, one of the biggest lessons and inspirations of this trip was spending a week with disabled drivers from all over the world and watching them overcome their disabilities with grace, humor, tenacity and love of life. Also inspiring was their love of competition and their passion for the sport of driving – and their animals. These drivers embody the best examples of our sport with fantastic sportsmanship, fierce competition, and grace in adaptation.

This was never more evident while watching the para-drivers ‘walk’ hazards. Because it had rained for two and a half days, the entire grounds were soaked. It was so muddy, Scott and I made a detour to a local sports store to buy new waterproof shoes; the waterproof shoes I brought had failed. Because 13 of the competitors were Grade 1 drivers in wheelchairs, their ability to inspect the hazards was limited. Stef, as well as the other drivers, took it in stride with assistants pushing them in the hazards (and sometimes with several countries helping each other out) or in one hazard, just sitting on the sidelines while the navigators walked the hazards and drivers observed from the sidelines.

Luckily, by the time marathon day came around, the hazards had dried significantly and were ‘walkable’ by everyone for a final look in the morning. But while the hazards had dried significantly, the rest of the course had not. Stef expressed some concerns as a California driver with five years of drought experience, but her very experienced Shadow later showed her that he had it totally under control, with no slips or falls in the deep mud. Her marathon results and scores were equally impressive on the scoreboard when Stef maintained her 5th place overall position, posting an 8th place finish in the marathon. We were all quite impressed with her performance especially for a relatively new para-driver, who did not get to walk her hazards as expected.

The cones course ‘walk’ that evening was a spectacular display of adaptation of a physical sport to meet everyone’s needs. At the International Para-Driving Championships, it’s all about the wheels. While American driving shows always have lots of wheels with the carriages, trucks and trailers, ATVs and 4-wheelers, international para-driving had the additional wheels of bicycles, push and electric wheelchairs, ‘Swiss motors’ that pull the wheelchairs, mopeds, and even a Segway.

Stef, still as happy as could be, arrived again at the crack of dawn on the final day of competition to walk the cones course within the FEI requirement of only 1.5 hours before the start. At the chefs’ meeting the night before, the ground jury, at the chefs’ request had agreed to allow an extra course walk the night before. However, after the morning cones walk there was little more than half an hour to return to the barn and get in the carriage before the first to go in cones. That short amount of time is challenging for the Grade 1 drivers because they must be lifted into their carriages and it takes a significant amount of time to attach the safety harnesses, belts and hook the animal to the carriage. Luckily for Stef, she was still sitting in 5th place so had plenty of time and lots of help from her hard-working parents and Sam to be ready in time.

The cones course proved to be another challenging 'Barry Hunter designed' course. Stef and Shadow drove it beautifully with just one ball down and a small time penalty. She placed 3rd in cones and even beat the reigning Gold Medal para-driver and Stef’s mentor, Jacques Poppen, from the Netherlands. Jacques missed 'D' in the zig-zag and incurred a 5-point penalty and lost his first place to Heiner Lehriter from Germany. That mistake almost cost him the entire show when a protest was filed because he had only remembered to drive the 'D' set of cones after his fellow countrymen on the sidelines shouted out that he had missed 'D.' However, the protest was overruled under the determination that outside assistance from bystanders was not physical assistance and therefore permitted under the rules. With her great cones course, Stef maintained her 5th place position overall. What a driver!

Meeting the teams from other countries for the first time is always fun. Spending five days with them during the competition was even more fun. Everyone proudly displayed their national flag at their camps and trailers. Upon arrival, the Germans immediately erected a large hospitality tent that would serve as their beer garden. We are not talking about a 12 x 12 tent. We are talking about a party tent for an entire wedding! On the other end of the spectrum was the family from Latvia. They arrived and parked nearby with their simple two-horse trailer and only one carriage. Clearly, Mama and Papa were the ‘staff’ who took care of the horse and met the needs of the driver. The Latvian driver’s girlfriend was the only English speaking member of the family during the chef d’equipe meetings. As our neighbors, the driver's parents regularly communicated with us via crude sign language and grunts. Their wonderful Latvian horse was clearly inexperienced but was perfect in his behavior throughout the event. What more could we ask?

Para-drivers are the happiest bunch of drivers you will ever meet. I'll share a snapshot of another memory from the Netherlands. On the morning of dressage, the day started with a continuation of the rain from the two days before. As a typical American in a hurry, I took my coffee cup and headed to the stables to braid Shadow. As I passed the Irish lorry, I noticed they were all sitting under a small canopy drinking their morning tea – in the pouring rain. They could not sit in the warm and dry area of their lorry because their wheelchair-bound driver could not negotiate the stairs into it. They seemed just as happy in the rain. They harassed me to stop being so American by drinking coffee on-the-go and join them. And I did.

As I now reflect on the entire experience, I am still in awe of the ability of the para-drivers and their single-minded ability to be the best drivers they can be. Stef is the happiest and most positive person you will ever meet. It makes me think that we all need to enjoy showing more and do a lot less whining. If these amazing drivers can do combined driving with such happiness and dedication, we all should follow their example.

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