Equestrian-Canadian Laliberte eyes the 'perfect' route to Paris 2024

Canada's Naima Moreira Laliberte, with her horse Statesman during the FEI World Championships 2022 in Herning, Denmark August 14, 2022. Leanjo De Koster/FEI/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) - In a sport where experience counts for more than anything else and athletes often vie for medals well into their 40s, the world equestrian championships have come as a huge learning curve for upcoming Canadian dressage rider Naima Moreira Laliberte.

The 25-year-old, the reigning Pan American Games champion in team dressage, finished 59th on her horse Statesman in the individual Grand Prix last week in Denmark's Herning, a creditable result given she was contesting her maiden worlds.

"The opportunity to be on the international stage, in a big stadium in one of the world's best competitions is amazing. This is a step in the right direction for me," Laliberte told Reuters.

"There are so many things that could have been better and it's so hard to go mistake-free. It's a difficult sport and that's what makes it so interesting. But overall, I'm very happy. Just being there is an achievement."

As the daughter of Guy Laliberte, who co-founded the popular Canada-based contemporary circus act Cirque du Soleil, performing were an ubiquitous part of her childhood but dressage was a late addition despite her early love for horses.

Tired of seeing Laliberte tumbling off her horse while show jumping, her worried father introduced her to a friend who had an equestrian show, which eventually allowed her to transition to the seemingly safer discipline of dressage.

"I remember him taking me there and in my head I wasn't convinced. 'I was like, where is the adrenaline?'" said Laliberte. "But luckily for him, I fell in love with a Lusitano horse and he became my best friend growing up."

The perfectionist in Laliberte eventually took a liking to dressage and while the quest for constant improvement can occasionally get tedious, she sees it as a great way of challenging herself.

"This is the worst sport for a perfectionist," added Laliberte. "You're competing in front of five or seven judges, but the way I see it, dressage is a competition with myself trying to get the movements and combinations right."

With the intense media spotlight on the family due to her famous father, horses were like a safe haven for the young Laliberte, who often slept in the stalls on weekends.

"It wasn't easy with people surrounding us all the time," she recalled. "Growing up can be chaotic and horses were my own little universe."

She has been helped along the way by Ashley Holzer, a bronze medallist at the 1988 Seoul Olympics who was one of Laliberte's early inspirations and later came on board as her trainer in 2019.

Laliberte went to last year's Tokyo Games as a reserve rider for the Canadian team and is now determined to make the cut for Paris 2024.

"Before Ashley I wasn't an international Grand Prix rider. She really guided me. There is still much to absorb and learn. I'm still scratching the surface," said Laliberte.

"My eyes are on the next Olympics. That would be a dream come true."

(Reporting by Dhruv Munjal in New Delhi, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

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