Sönke Rothenberger & Cosmo, The Kids on Germany’s Powerful Olympic Team–Part 1 of 2
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Aug. 4, 2016
By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
Three years ago, some Americans came to try a horse for sale at the stables of Sven and Gonnelien Rothenberger in Frankfurt, their son Sönke watching but not saying a word until they were leaving without making an offer.
“You might call me crazy,” Sönke, 17 years old at the time, said to his parents as the Americans were driving away, “but I want to try it with this horse.”
With his focus on jumping after riding dressage ponies to earn a bunch of European Championship medals in 2007 through 2009, Sönke had watched the visitors try the horse that had the breeding to compete in dressage or jumping.
“Thank God they didn’t take him,” said Sönke now 21 years old. “I saw him when they tried him out and and I was like, ‘I want to ride this horse’.”
The horse is Cosmo, now nine years old and next week the pair that may be the youngest combined age of rider and horse ever to make the German dressage A-list will ride down the centerline at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Cosmo of total jumper blood lines (Van Gogh x Fruhling/Landjonker) is the only dressage horse to give Sönke the goosebumps that he had felt previously only on a good horse clearing a 1.60-meter oxer.
“I saw the horse every day,” he recalled, but the horse that had been bought as a four-year-old for his younger sister to do Juniors and Young Riders and was ridden by his father for a year was too frisky and had too much power for a young girl.
“I was into jumping and I never really put my head into it, until I saw him that day before the Americans even got in the car.”
“I saw his quality but it was like a puzzle,” he said, “you had to put it together. He certainly had everything already.
“I thought, ‘if this fits together then we have a once in a lifetime horse’.”
Since starting Grand Prix a year ago and progressing faster than he thought, the pair have sky rocketed to No. 16 in the world, up from 468th in their first appearance on the International Equestrian Federation rankings.
With team mates Kristina Bröring-Sprehe on Desperados, Isabell Werth on Weihegold and Dorothee Schneider on Showtime ranked No. 1, 2 and 3 in the world, Germany is hot favorite to win its 12th dressage team gold medal in 104 years of equestrian competition in the Olympics, and ninth team gold since World War II.
Getting the ride on Cosmo when the horse was six and after his father had ridden him for a year, meant switching back and forth with jumping on other horses while developing Cosmo, winning European Young Rider Championship team gold in 2014.
With college and an intense training and competition schedule over the past year, he dropped jumping for now but hopes to return to the sport when he has more time on a young horse being schooled by a young girl in the north of Germany.
Sönke describes Cosmo as a bit of a clown who playfully nibbles leaving black and blue marks on human caregivers like his groom, Robbie Sanderson, but starts each day with a drive to work like no other horse he’s ridden.
As for Sönke, he has an attitude that takes his riding seriously but not himself. While he has only one more semester to go to complete an international business degree, he’s considering enrolling in a masters in business so as to extend a schedule that allow him more time to ride rather than having to get a job either in investment banking with a 24/7 schedule or real estate with more flexibility so he can continue riding.
Riding is in Sönke’s genes–his mother, Dutch-born Gonnelien, and father, German-born Sven, rode together along with Anky van Grunsven and Tineke Bartels on the Netherlands team that won silver at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
And the successes of his sisters have been spectacular. Sanneke, 23 years old was the star on Germany’s gold medal winning team as well as taking individual and freestyle golds at the inaugural European Under-25 Championships this year. Semmieke at 16 years of age has built a European Pony and Junior Championships record of six team and three individual golds, six silver and a bronze in the past five years.
Impressive to observers is the obvious closeness of the family, providing their own cheer leading squad seemingly wherever and whenever one of them competes.
“We all hope for the best,” he said of his sisters. “Of course everyone wants to do their best possible. But if we compete against one another you first hope that you do the best but then you’d rather have her win than somebody else if you can’t win.”
He admits that he and his sisters are very competitive with each other–“It’s always good. You want to do the best possible at home. They say ‘I can do this better’ and you get better yourself. You see what’s possible and you want to get better yourself.”
“It’s nice to have my sisters, my parents, everybody seeing things from a different perspective.”
Part 2: The Talent of Cosmo