Florida High Schooler Juan Matute Puts Olympic Dreams On Hold To Focus On Under-25
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By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
AACHEN, Germany, July 17, 2016–Juan Matute, Jr., the 18-year-old Florida high school senior, put on hold his dreams to ride in the Olympics for his homeland of Spain so as to continue to compete in Under-25 events with a barn full of horses at all levels of development.
Juan, who has lived with his family in Wellington for half his life, turned in performances at this World Equestrian Festival that would make him a contender for one of the four places on Spain’s team at Rio de Janeiro next month.
But he and his family decided instead for him to go to the inaugural European Under-25 Championships a month ago where he won an individual bronze medal that essentially took him out of Olympic consideration, a decision about which he has no regrets.
“No, I don’t regret it,” he told dressage-news.com after winning the Under-25 Grand Prix at Aachen, probably the world’s most prestigious horse show where he also rode on Spain’s team in the top-rated Nations Cup as well as the highly competitive Small Tour.
“I think it’s been a great experience having the dream of being an Olympic athlete at such an early age. It has pushed me a lot, made me more ambitious and trained with more focus and more determination. I think it’s helped me a lot as a rider and as a person.”
This event has also been an emotional experience for both Juan and his father-the three-time Olympian for Spain whose last competition before going to the 2008 Beijing Games on Wie Atlantico was in the same Deutsche Bank stadium where Juan rode this week.
“I rode in the ring where he had his last ride,” he said.
“It was like he has passed me the baton. We had a good test and a good score. He was very emotional.”
Riding horses in the three divisions here was much like being home in Wellington where he recorded 41 starts in divisions from Young Rider, Under-25, Small Tour and Grand Prix over the seven weeks of CDIs during the Adequan Global Dressage Festival this winter.
In the Nations Cup, he rode Don Diego Ymas to a score of 69.743 per cent in the Grand Prix, the third highest among the Spaniards here. Beatriz Ferrer-Salat on Delgado was given a bye as the top Spanish combination that won Freestyle bronze here at the 2015 European Championships.
In the Prix St. Georges where there was a display of some of the best riders on the finest up-and-coming horses, he and Yeguada de Ymas S.L. were awarded 70.658 per cent.
On Quantico Ymas, he won the Under-25 on a score of 71.977 per cent.
U-25 is one of the most competitive and rapidly growing divisions as a bridge between youth and adults, and will now be the focus of Juan, who has developed his dressage skills living and competing mainly in America. However, he has not shied from pitting himself against the best horses and riders at the European Championships in 2012, 2013 and 2014. In 2015 he won the freestyle bronze at the Europeans. And rode in the World Young Horse Championships for the first time.
The experience of riding at Aachen against the cream in the sport in the dressage stadium that seats 8,000 spectators “gets really intimidating, especially when there’s a crowd.”
For example, Dhannie Ymas was “feeling perfect” schooling in an empty arena days before the Prix St. Georges. On the day of the competition, though, “as soon as soon as I walked in I could feel him boiling up. We didn’t have so many big mistakes, but the feeling overall was that he was intimidated.”
Juan has friendly relationships with many of the top riders, beginning with when he was a toddler when his father was competing. An Aachen tradition of years, some times generations of volunteers from the same family made him smile when one of them recalled Juan as a child, though he’s grown at least twice as tall since.
He would like to spend more time in Europe, as do most ambitious American riders.
“Even being here in Aachen just a couple of days I’ve learned so much. I think I’ve improved a lot by watching and then putting it into my own riding.
“The level of quality in the States is improving by the year but Europe is much more ahead.”
Juan and his family have a realistic view of going to the Olympics now.
“To be honest, at this stage maybe I could have gone to Rio and would have done a good job,” he said, “but it’s not like I would have gotten a huge score because I’m still in the learning process.
“We didn’t think that for my career it was beneficial to forget about all the years and the championships I could go to in the other categories. That would have been a disappointment because we have a lot of young horses coming up. I would always have to be in the open championships, adults only.”
Another factor that weighs in his thinking is that in April next year he will be eligible to become an American and, with dual citizenship, decide whether to ride for the United States or Spain.
“For now I enjoy being a Spanish rider,” Juan said, “but I’ve spent half of my life in the States. I feel very attached to both countries–Spain because it’s the roots of me and my family but as a rider I grew up in the States, started competing there in dressage.
“It’s going to be a tough decision… but closing doors is very stupid and time will tell what happens. I will have to make a wise decision, weighing all the pros and cons.”
He enjoys studying, especially math and history, and plans to go to college when he finishes high school next year. He hasn’t decided whether to pursue an online college or attend a physical instutition that, he said, would need to be near his home in Wellington so he can continue riding every day.
“I want to keep being an equestrian athlete, be like my father, a professional equestrian.
“Riding for me is a big priority. I ride in the mornings and go to school in the afternoons. I also go to the gym to make sure I’m fit.”