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It's a wrap for Sophie...
Sophie Atkinson first tried out for the YKC Agility Team GB in 2019 and made selection, but due to Covid-19, the tournament didn't happen in 2020 or 2021. She qualified, however, for the team in 2022 and travelled all the way to Finland - and what an experience that was! But that's another story. She's agreed to share her recent experience this year in what would be her last year as a Junior.
This year, the Junior Open Agility World Championships (JOAWC) were held in the UK for the first time, proudly hosted by the Kennel Club at Dallas Burston Polo Club from 12th - 16th July 2023.
Selection for the YKC junior team was held at Dog Sports Derby (DSD) back in February 2023, run over a series of courses provided by the named judges for JOAWC 2023.
This year I tried out with all of my dogs - Maddie (10), Skye (5) and Hazard, my young BC I also tried to qualify with a friend's small dog, Lulu (11), a terrier X that I had been running since 2022 when her owner/handler Jo Stewart unfortunately injured her knee badly. I was delighted when I qualified three of the dogs and pleased with young Hazard who performed well under the pressure but sadly missed out.
Unfortunately, as I turn 18 this year, I will no longer be eligible for selection for JOAWC in 2024 so it was now or never.
Despite the rather stressful selection process - or so my parents told me afterwards - I would highly recommend that any Juniors who are interested in representing their country and competing against like-minded Juniors on the international stage do research and practise hard on European style agility courses in order to develop the required skills for both you and your dog. Then get yourself entered into the YKC Team GB qualification process in 2024.
I attended two YKC-organised training and team building sessions, one at DSD and the other at Lechlade, where the whole team came together before the tournament in July to integrate new members into the team through various team building events. It was also a good opportunity to practise on further sample courses in front of the YKC management / coaching team of Greg Derrett and Anthony Clarke.
Due to the diverse geographic locations of team members, much of the regular skills practice and weekly training was left to the individual team member and their regular trainers. For me, it meant doing more European-style courses including some examples from the European judges with my trainer Lucy Norton in order to help me develop/hone my skills. For my two dogs, it also meant making the transition from UK Intermediate jump height to the FCI Large height for both Maddie and Skye measure above the 48cm FCI cut off height for Intermediate as compared to the 50cm cut off used in the UK.
After arriving on Tuesday, our first team event was a training session in the afternoon, followed by a BBQ, kindly hosted by Lorna and Simon Peachey. Each team member was presented with a Notch bracelet and charm and a T-shirt as a memento of the occasion. It was also a great ice breaker when all 50 of us had to retreat inside as the heavens opened, luckily after the food was ready!
The following day the squad unofficially trained at the Dallas Burston venue in the morning in order to get acclimatised to the sand surface as well as the Galican competition equipment. In the afternoon, we all went 10-pin bowling, off site in Leamington.
The remainder of the overseas Junior teams arrived and made camp during the morning to complete what was certainly a colourful campsite. Each country was allocated a team tent overlooking the sand arena to use as a base during the competition.
Thursday was the day for our vet checks and height measures in the morning and official training in the afternoon. Team spirit began to really bond everyone together in preparation for the opening ceremony on Friday morning and for us all, the Team Jumping round as well as my U19 Small jumping round.
The Opening Ceremony was held in the rain but it didn't dampen anyone's spirit as we all dressed up - including the parents - in our red, white and blue accessories and entered the arena as the final team because we were the hosts. I was honoured to be chosen by my team-mates to be one of the four flag bearers at the front of the GB squad, something I will fondly remember for a very long time.
Late on Friday, the organisers decided to postpone the competition the following day due to a weather warning for very strong winds and heavy rain. This turned out to be a very wise decision as we woke on Saturday to very stormy conditions, just as you'd expect for July! I'm just glad we were in a caravan rather than a tent as several of the others were. As a team, we took the opportunity between the rainstorms to meet some of the other teams and begin to organise our trinket and shirt swaps. In the evening the majority of Juniors attended and thoroughly enjoyed an on-site disco.
Sunday was a very early start with much better weather. A 6am team meeting in the team tent ensured that we were all wide awake. With the remaining Individual Jumping runs for both my Large dogs as well as all of Team and Individual Agility runs to be shoe-horned in to the final day schedule.
It was certainly a hectic one for me personally, being in the correct ring to walk the course in the allocated time slot, then back at the ring for the correcting running order with the correct dog. However, the GB management team was very calm and well organised in making sure they sent out reminders in good time for us all.
The Team competition is the total of several Individual runs added together, so there was an increased pressure to do well for your teammates, but we all supported each other, and it was very fun!
A big thank you needs to go out to the four tournament judges who created some clever, open flowing courses which tested both dog and handler skills and were a real joy to run, even when the rains came.
Full results and run details for all competitors are available online on Agility Plaza and you can read a summary of Team GB results in the Kennel Club press release - Young agility handlers and dogs break records at Junior Open Agility World Championships as well as on the Agilitynet Show News page so I won't repeat them here.
After all of the competitions, it was time for the closing ceremony and the final podium presentations to be made in the main arena in front of all the spectators and honoured guests from the Kennel Club as well as all Junior team members.
All the members of YKC Agility Team GB got behind each other and were very much involved in supporting those who had made the podium as you will see if you watch the video summary of the event which has been excellently put together to music by Taylor's dad. Follow this link to watch the video and get a real taste of the team GB experience. It is a very close team!
Looking back on the past two years, my experiences this year and last were very different. Finland was full of firsts for me. My first time going competing abroad with a dog, while the UK event was closer to the experience of a UK show, probably due to not having the travel. Both shared an amazing atmosphere.
Good luck to the other Juniors who aged out including Blair Hands, Amelie Selby-Bird, Grace Watts and Will Bacchus. I am sad to know that my Junior days are over, but I'm excited to see what is next to come and I know that I've made some life-long friends.
Thank you to everyone who has been a big part of my achievements, my parents, my trainer Lucy, my training colleagues, all of the team's parents for their organisational skills and additional support in providing all of the extras, my agility friends new and old, but a really big special thank you to Jo and her unwavering support with Lulu since I started running her, not only at the JOAWC 2023 event, but for the many hours of training and competition all around the country and for just being there with Lulu whenever she was needed.
I'm also extremely grateful for the support, advice, banter and general timely words of wisdom provided by all of the YKC management team - Greg, Ant, Ann, Vicky and Tina whose vision for the progress of junior agility in the UK I was so proud to be part of and which will surely provide a secure foundation for my rather daunting transition into the senior team process in years to come.
I'd like to extend my thanks to those involved in the organisation of the whole event which must have been a really stressful time for many and to the YKC Team sponsors for their continued generous support to the team - Natural Instinct, Dog Sports Derby and Galican.
My final words would be that I cannot recommend strongly enough to all agility juniors to aim high with those goals and get involved with the GB selection process. Keep training and honing those skills and always enjoy the journey, whatever happens.
She will be doing her A-levels next year and plans to go to university afterwards to study Canine Behaviour while progressing on her agility journey!
Sophie lives in Lincolnshire.
Photos: JOAWC by Simon Peachey
First published 21st September 2023
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