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Mark Laker's Olympia 2015 Blog

Talking to winners...

Right after the KC Olympia Agility Stakes at  the 2015 London International Horse Show, Agility Team GB Manager Mark Laker asked three members of the GB Squad to write a bit about their experiences at Olympia for his blog. What he got was more than an account of who did what and when but an interesting insight into training for top international events. Mark has kindly agreed to share their stories with  you. Photos thanks to Yulia Titovets / The Kennel Club.

First up is Stacey Irwin-Burns who won this years Small dog final. Over to Stacey.

For me this past year in agility had been a bit of a whirlwind, with nearly every single one of my goals and dreams being met. I currently run three Grade 7 dogs – Sam who is 5 years old, Pixie who is 6 years old and Boo who is 7 years old. All three of them have had brilliant season, and have been offered places on the GB Squad. Between the three of them I have won, a Champ CC, a Reserve CC, a couple of Champ individual round wins, WAO 4th place overall, qualified for the British Open, and a couple of 1st places in the YKC ring at Crufts. This is something I was very proud of achieving.

Yulia Titovets / Kennel ClubQualifying for Olympia 2015 has been one of the highlights of the season. I've qualified for the Semi-finals on a couple of occasions. However, it has never quite worked out. This year I was determined to make it my goal to qualify for the Finals, and I’m pleased to say that Sam ran well at the Semi finals at the KCI which gave us our spot in the top ten qualifiers.

I must admit Sam's build up for Olympia wasn’t as thorough as I would have liked, mainly because I chose to give him a rest from agility during October and the beginning of November. This may seem a bit odd with such a big event coming up, but it was the only time in our calendar where I knew he could have complete rest from any training days / competitions. One his period of rest was up, I began to slowly build up his jump fitness, and it wasn’t until the first GB Squad training day that he had actually ran a full course.

I was a little bit nervous as I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the training day. On the whole, I thought it was very well thought out by the management team, and boy did it put us through our paces! I came away with lots of little things to work on - one of those being my fitness and speed which is something I've had to work hard on this year as I tore one of the ligaments in my knee at Christmas last year - something that I hope I won't be repeating!

One of the other things that I also identified was the need to be able to execute certain skills at a greater speed than what my dogs are normally used to doing. The European style courses allow the dogs to gather a lot more speed than the courses they experience over in the UK. Therefore, making skills such as weave entries a lot harder than normal. It is something I am going to be adding to the top of my training list.

Yulia Titovets / Kennel ClubThe morning of Olympia then came around, and I was surprisingly calm. I managed to stay calm until about an hour before the event, and then the nerves started to kick in. This time, however, it was more of an excited nervousness as opposed to worried nerves. The afternoon’s warm up course was a fast and furious course to get us relaxed and used to running in the arena. I went into this run with a bit more of a relaxed head on as I knew it was just about giving Sam experience in the big arena before the evening final. Sam absolutely loved the atmosphere and put in an excellent run which put us 3rd, just behind Sam Lane and David Wright, who both put in superb runs.

It was then time for our 6-hour wait before the evening final. The time seemed to take a long time to pass, and this is when my nervous started to kick in again. Finally the time came for us to start warming up. Sam was more than ready to get into the arena again, and I also couldn't wait. I had been drawn as running order number 1. At first this made me more nervous as it meant I wouldn’t get a chance to see how the course had ran, however this wasn’t helping my nerves. So I flipped it on its head and looked at it in another way. Running first meant that I could hopefully put in a round that meant all those behind me had to push. I knew that there were a lot of amazing dogs to run after me, and never in my dreams did I think I could get near any of their times on such a fast course. So my main aim was to just go out there and try to put in the best run that we were capable of.

It was then time to go and walk the course, as I knew I was running first, I tried not to be out walking the course for too long, as I wanted to get Sam focused on me before we stepped onto the start line. The final bell went, which meant the moment I had always dreamed of was about to happen. Sam was flying, and loved the crowd shouting and screaming! Before I knew it the run was over and I was so pleased that he had gone clear. The next 5 or so minutes were quite a blur, as all I remember hearing was the commentator saying that I was still in the lead. It got to the final dog, and Sam was still hanging onto first place, Jeanette Tandy was last to run, with the amazing Betsy. I knew that this pairing could easily beat me. Betsy had an unlucky pole at number 4, which meant Sam and I had one the final.

To say this was a dream come true is an understatement, never in my wildest dreams did I think we would get to Olympia, let alone win the Final! I am so proud of Sam for what he has achieved this year, and would just like to say a massive thank you to all of our family, friends, sponsors and supporters for making it all possible.

Yulia Titovets / Kennel ClubMy second Olympia guest blogger is Greg Derrett. Greg has won Olympia five times, a fantastic achievement and a record I think. I've asked him to write a few words on preparing and winning Olympia 2015. Over to Greg...

Olympia has - and always will be - the biggest and best event of the year. It's the reason I started agility and the event that gives me the biggest buzz by far. Quite simply there is no agility event in the world that compares and I think the vast majority of the British Agility population would agree. This means it's the easiest event to prepare for as the motivation to win is at it's highest.

Preparation for Olympia began a few weeks ago with fitness programmes in place for both Rehab and me so we could cope with the bigger distances and longer running times that we are presented with at Olympia. Running the different style of courses plays some part in the preparation but is, by no means, the biggest part. 

In training, I put far more emphasis on the basics with very high reward levels. My last preparation was five days before Olympia at a UKA show which had three Agility classes. This enabled me to reward every contact three times in the competition environment on a surface identical to Olympia. I believe a vital part of my success is from these training runs as they not only reward the good behaviours, but they also keep the dogs completely focused on me due to the high ratio of reward. When we step into the big arenas, with the added distraction of 9500 people cheering and screaming, the focus remains on me and the cues I give.

Tactics
As GB Team Manager, Mark knows that one of the more difficult aspects of competing internationally is the problems with travel. As an individual at Olympia and not part of a team, I can travel considering what's best for my dog as well as keep her in an environment where she is chilled and relaxed in throughout the 10 hour wait between the Semi-final and Final. I know when I step to the line that my dog and I are in the best physical condition possible. This knowledge also plays a big part in the mental game with the belief you are both ready and able.

For me, the Semi-final run is a huge tactical part in trying to qualify for the evening Final but not being too far up the placings. My goal is always to come 10th in the Semi, so running in reverse order, I can go first in the Final. This year I This year I was 7th and, therefore, 4th to go in the Final - not the perfect place but a position I was more than happy with.

Yulia Titovets / Kennel ClubWhen I run early in a Final, it's all about building pressure on those to come. Knowing they are watching you put down a great run is not only a great motivator but more essentially builds the pressure. If you achieve the run you have planned, the others know they now have to go for it. Rehab only measures 450mm, so you would think realistically she would struggle, yet I knew when I crossed the line that the bigger dogs would now have to be really pushed to beat me. In the 10 evening Finals I have been in, this tactic has helped me win five times but, on five occasions someone has stood up, beaten the run and pushed me into 2nd place four times and 3rd on the other occasion. At that point, you have to give the winner complete respect and walk away knowing you gave it your best but, on this occasion, someone was better. That essentially is the goal of the Final, being able to walk away with 'no regrets.' Then if the result goes your way... happy days!

One of the great things about Olympia is the experience it gives both handlers and dogs on the international stage. The winning and / or the losing - essentially running in the big environment with all the nerves - is a big learning curve. In addition, it desensitises handlers and dogs to the distractions of these environments and events. I've no doubt this year's Gold medal winning team, both handlers and dogs, have benefitted greatly from the many previous Olympias.

For me personally, it is a great shame that next year only 20 dogs will qualify for the two Large finals. I believe that GB teams are potentially weakened as some of our future top dogs will miss out on this opportunity in Novice. This lack of experience for current and future GB Teams - not being in that pressured environment on a regular basis - has to be detrimental, and I hope this is something the KC reverse as soon as possible. The old adage, don't break what's not broken seems to be a message sadly missed.

Finally I would like to say a big thank you to Dave Ray and his team. They have run the event at the same consistently high level for the 23 years I have been to Olympia and have made it a very special place to win. The rumour is this team is now calling it a day which is a great shame. So if it's true I would just like to thank all of them on behalf of all the competitors who have competed there over the last 25 + years.

Yulia Titovets / Kennel ClubMy final guest post from this year's Large Novice Agility Stakes winner Martin Reid. 

This story is based on mine and Spring's experiences from our first Team GB squad day this year on the road to Olympia 2015.

This year was Spring's second season competing. There are now lots of events and shows available 12 months of the year as compared to about four or five years ago when I would say agility competing was more of a summer sport with the odd winter show available for the enthusiast. With any dog, especially a young one, I think it's very easy to not give them what I feel is an adequate rest from agility. Thankfully Spring was rested for October and part of November and is being currently rested now for several weeks before we re-start training ready for Crufts.

The first Team GB Squad day was two weeks before Olympia, an ideal time to practice some course running, contacts and weaves on a surface very similar to what we would be running on at Olympia. It highlighted several things that I wanted to improve for myself to aid my personal fitness and movement in order to benefit Spring in the agility ring.

Spring was good. We did not get eliminated in the three runs we had which included a tricky weave entry in the Jumping round which caught us out. Everything else he did well, in the agility round it was an ideal situation to reinforce contacts ready for Olympia in what was like a show environment. Thankfully I was more pleased with our performance in the agility round. He nailed all of his contacts and ran well, just an error in my handling caused 5 faults for a rolled pole near the end of the course. This day really got us working as a team and blew some dust off us ready for Olympia.

In preparation for Olympia, I hired out a few different venues to practise in, bought and made some specialist equipment so that nothing was different at Olympia to what we had trained on before. For instance, most shows use 5ft poles, Olympia use 6ft poles and bigger sized wings. This I believe changes the dogs perception of a jump, making it very difficult if the first time they see this is at the event itself! 

Other things we did was train in loud environments. We trained on big fast flowing courses and worked on fitness. After his break, I wasn't able to get Spring to peak fitness in time for Olympia. There just was not enough time for this, however, we worked on it as much as I felt necessary so he could have enough fitness to cope with the physical demand of what I would ask from him.

Yulia Titovets / Kennel ClubIt was time!
We were running second in the morning event. Truthfully, I felt more nervous for this run than the Final which would take place in the evening.

Spring had a really nice run. There was part of the run which I watch back and think we could have very slightly improved. However, what an amazing boy he was for his first run at Olympia. He took the lead and stayed there till the end of the class. This gave me a brilliant feeling. We were going to run last in the final later that evening in front of just less than 10,000 people. The final was over six hours away, so a long cool down, lunch and rest was in order for us both!

The evening came around and was over quickly. There was not much time to walk the course so this is where studying the course plan throughout the day came in handy! We were running last. I remember watching most the other runs people had done before me, and just thinking wow! The dogs were flying around and people had already done what I would call winning runs. All the dogs were looking amazing!

Then it was our turn. I tried to compose myself, attack the course and make clear absolutely everything I wanted Spring to do. He was stunning. Fast and clear, Spring ran like a dream. He was not put off by the people screaming and cheering us on. His first time at Olympia and he had won! 

Now we both will have some time off and relax over Christmas before recommencing training in mid-January ready for Crufts 2016!

About the author...
Mark Laker lives with his wife Karen, five Border Collies and a cheeky Pug X Jack Russell. He competes in the UK and occasionally travels to Europe to compete and deliver seminars.

His passion is coaching for high performance and, as the Agility Team GB manager, he gets to work with some of the top agility handlers in the UK.

Published with kind permission of Mark Laker

First published 20 February 2016