By Sophie St. Clair
Twenty-three-year-old Nayel Nassar and his team of talented horses have racked up some impressive accolades, especially remarkable considering his age. In 2011, he competed in Doha, Qatar, placing fifth individually and winning a team bronze for Egypt at the Pan Arab Games. In 2012, he won the Artisan Farms Young Rider Grand Prix Series at the Winter Equestrian Festival. That same year he qualified for the London Olympics as a reserve rider for Egypt. In 2013, Nayel and his horse, Raging Bull Vangelis S, qualified for the World Cup Final in Gothenburg, Sweden, and to top it off he won the Zoetis $1 Million Grand Prix at HITS Saugerties in New York on his other mount, Lordan. He is currently ranked 98th in the world.
I met with Nayel during the 2014 HITS Thermal Desert Circuit. What I found was that his burst into international showjumping was not as sudden as it had seemed. Years before moving west to attend Stanford University, Nayel was quietly amassing a wealth of knowledge from some of the brightest stars in the sport of show jumping. Whether by design or by chance, each of these masters has provided something unique to his development. Each individual component is an accomplishment unto itself but when all the pieces fit together it completes the image of Nayel Nassar.
Nayel shared some of the major influences in his riding career. While growing up in Kuwait, Nayel would travel over the summers to train with German show jumper and trainer Marcus Beerbaum. “I went out there as a solid 1M-1.20 rider and he built me up,” Nayel said. “I never really had the horses to go above 1.40M but he really laid down on all the basics. He really taught me how to be consistent at that level so that when I actually did make the jump, it was easy.”
Later, he went to train with Dutch and Belgian Olympian Jos Lansink. Nayel says that his time with Jos was more of a “fine tuning” as he still didn’t have the horses to get him to the big classes. The focus, Nayel said, was primarily on getting all that is needed for jumping from the flat work. He also took away the importance of maintaining a management and training program to keep the horses in high performance shape.
In 2012, Nayel trained with American Olympian Laura Kraut during the Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida. He said, “Laura is great. She was my first trainer at a high level. That was a big step for me. She just gave me a lot of confidence. She told me to be a fighter, to always go for it and to persevere. You’re going to have a bad day and I would always get down on myself when I did. She would pick me up and say, ‘You’ve got to move on to the next one.’”
German show jumper Jorg Naeve is another of Nayel’s influences. He helped Nayel find both of his top horses, Raging Bull Vangelis S and Lordan. “Jorg is more of a young horse trainer. It was really a great experience to be over there at his barn and watch him produce young horses. He taught me the process of taking a horse as a youngster who doesn’t know much and producing it into a Grand Prix horse,” Nayel said. Jorg’s methods are plainly successful. He crafted the early development of Nayel’s superstar mount Lordan who was purchased at 6 years old.
On recommendation from Jorg, Nayel also purchased Raging Bull Vangelis S. Skeptics doubted that after an already long career, the then-13-year-old Vangelis would be able to take him to the bigger classes. But, Nayel said, “It just clicked with Vangelis from the first show.” In their first Grand Prix they placed 12th, the next week 9th, the next week 4th and the next week they won. Four Grand Prix in a row where things were going right. He had found the right horse for him.
He says that all the time spent without the luxury of horses that could help him get to the big classes forced him to focus on being consistent and laying down the basics. When it did finally happen with Vangelis and Lordan, it was very rewarding to have success come so quickly.
Today, Nayel has no trainer. He says he has grown as a rider from running his own program. He feels it gives him the opportunity to reflect on himself, his riding and the overall performance. While Nayel likes to be self-sufficient, he gives a lot of credit to his groom of 11 years, Linda Algeborg. “She knows my horses, my program and everything about me as a rider,” he said. Undoubtedly this is a successful partnership.
His advice for young riders is to persevere through the ups and downs. He believes there is benefit in being hard on yourself because it pushes you. If you don’t push yourself, who will? Nayel encourages riders to analyze their mistakes and learn from them so they avoid repeating them. While he says it’s easy to get down on yourself and want to give up, things will get better. “Have faith, work hard, stick to your plan, learn from your mistakes and it will happen,” he said.
So what’s on the horizon for Nayel? In the near term he’d like to set up a small family operation in Northern California. This would provide a permanent base for him and his horses. Nayel is already qualified for the World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France, this September. The WEG is where he will compete to qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He hopes to be selected to represent team Egypt. His plan is to keep going until the Olympic Games in Rio. He says with a beguiling smile, “I will reassess then if I’ve been a complete failure or not.”
Right now this is his passion and what he wants to do for the rest of his life. Nayel’s success is not a lightning strike of serendipity but a byproduct of laying a comprehensive foundation in riding. His education, commitment and perseverance have prepared him for this moment in his career.
Author’s Note – On Sunday, March 16th, the temperature was hot and the sun was blazing in Thermal, California. I returned to the desert to see some of the best riders in the sport compete for their share of $1million dollars in the AIG $1M Grand Prix. I have to say that I was especially rooting for Nayel since I had only recently interviewed him during the HITS Desert Circuit. He was almost at the end of the class just before my other favorite, Ashlee Bond Clarke. There would be eight to return for the jump-off. Nayel went next to last. He laid down a smart and calculated round. The most exciting moment was as he galloped toward the last fence. You could feel everyone hold their breath as they watched to be sure he cleared it. And he did. Then it was Ashlee Bond Clarke’s money to lose. Nayel had banked on her catching a rail with her speed. She rode an equally stunning round and edged Nayel out by just enough. The rest is history as Ashlee Bond Clarke took home the lion’s share of the winnings and Nayel placed second in his second $1M Grand Prix.
About the writer: Sophie St. Clair is a high school freshman from Southern California. She has an interest in the psychology of high-performance athletes. She is also a Junior Ambassador for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles where she works to raise funds and awareness for the hospital. Sophie is working toward becoming a professional show jumper but is taking it “one jump at a time.”