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Observations of a Starter at Olympia

Nicky Deakin stands in the entrance of the main arena. Behind her is the tunnel leading to the collecting ring, stables and competitors’ bar. In front, stretching before her is the main area itself – and it is immense! The great glass roof arcs majestically above and the galleried seating is filled with beaming, expectant crowds. She feels very small and her heart is pounding with pre-competition nerves and adrenalin. There is just one thing missing – She has no dog with her…..and then she remembers that she is just here to observe and report!  

This is Olympia and the event is the Medium Dog Agility Stakes Grand Final held on Thursday, 14 December 2006. Having competed in 20 heats around the country and then qualified in the semi-finals, these are the top ten dogs with their respective handlers who have come from all around the country, as far a field as Poole in Dorset and Edinburgh in Scotland,  to battle it out for the title and prestige of being Top Medium Dog.

Earlier in the day I met up with the competitors and their dogs in the collecting ring. They had cleverly managed to set up camp and bag the best seats right next to the entrance to the main ring thus getting the best views of the comings and goings of show-jumpers and celebrities whilst also maintaining some space for the dogs to relax. A shrewd move I thought!

This was my first ever visit to Olympia (in any capacity) and, as a mere Starter handler myself, I was impressed with how well the dogs accepted all the alien sounds and surroundings; horses coming and going, PA systems blaring and the general hubbub of a massive indoor extravaganza. Indeed the handlers seemed to be quite chilled as well at that stage. However, the nerves did begin to kick in once the course plan for the speed jumping was circulated thus indicating that it was all about to actually happen! 

Although it seemed generally accepted that the afternoon speed jumping class was effectively a 'warm-up' class, particularly useful for those who had not competed at Olympia before, there was no mistaking the fact that it was a competition with prizes and prestige at stake!  And what a competition – fast and furious... and noisy, with the crowd cheering and clapping each heroic round.

For a professional analysis of the each individual performance, please do see Heather Noddle’s daily report  - if you have not already - also on this website. I will just say that from my novice (or rather starter!) viewpoint it looked incredibly close. Even so, the cheer which went up for Fiona Vaughan’s little WSD, Nell, confirmed that her 30.08 second clear round had definitely clinched first place for her. – and having had a big ‘E’ at this point last year, she was justifiably delighted.

Back in the collecting ring, after the presentations, adrenalin was still high and there was the usual breathless jump by jump dissection of each individual round. Generally however, everyone seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed themselves and they were glad to have got round. And it was quite a long way round, too!

One down and one to go.
But what to do in the meantime?  Well, Olympia is renowned for its shopping of course – so I headed off to investigate the ‘village’. The amount of equestrian paraphernalia was overwhelming and in a former life (when horses were my first love) I would have been hooked for hours. However, in my dog handler guise I naturally gravitated towards The Kennel Club stand which was very welcoming if a little short on agility info and displays considering this was the sport they were supporting here. Perhaps a little room for improvement for next year... on up to date info maybe, but not hospitality which was abundant.

Back at the collecting ring the competitors were beginning to congregate again prior to the 'main event,' the Grand Final. Hamish, the Sheltie from Edinburgh was chilling out under handler Pamela Keith’s chair whilst Compo, Carol Wallace’s Jack Russell and Suzanna Dry’s little Collie X, Gemma, were reclining in their portable kennels.

NellAll had not been complete down time during the interim however; our first round winner had been out and about star spotting with owner Fiona and had managed to attract not only celebs in the form of TV Presenter, Jenni Falconer and DJ, Sara Cox but also Royalty and Sports Personality of the Year, Zara Phillips, all of whom were apparently queuing up to be photographed with little Nell! (Fiona, I do hope you manage to send in some of these photos for all to see. They were great!)

And Nell was not the only pooch to draw attention. Never underestimate the pulling power of Poodles! Shanandi Hit and Run, otherwise known as Gem managed to distract the Duchess of Wessex from her official tour of the Grand National Shetland ponies – much to owner Hannah Mitchell’s absolute delight!

But enough fun and frivolity and back to the serious agility event of the evening. Scheduled for 7.30pm, between the Celebrity Jumping and the Dressage Quadrille of the Hanoverian State Stud, there is a capacity audience. Now the atmosphere back stage is really beginning to build with apprehension. The course plan is distributed and it looks good but with some definite points at which good handling will be crucial – this is not a course just for the spectators.

Final warm up exercises are completed – including that well known 'fanny flick' which apparently helps the handler turn quickly?!  Then it is into the main arena under the full glare of the lights and the close scrutiny of BBC cameras.

Hamish with Pamela Keith had the dubious honour of running first and, despite picking up 5 faults with a pole down, gave a gallant performance. Next came 11 year old Dazzling Lady Gemma with handler Suzanna Dry in her dazzling red cut off trousers with a very proficient clear round. This was followed by another fine clear by Gem, the miniature poodle. Then came The Cartoon Classic, Disney, and handler Rosie Ison who ran a really cracking round. As a fellow Pachesham Club member, my heart was really in my mouth at this point as Disney easily took the lead.

Both Petra Craven-Houghton with Rattie and Amanda Hampson with Minx, the NSDTR, followed, both picking up faults in their enthusiasm. (Incidentally, it made me smile to see that even here in the spotlight Amanda was being a conscientious dog owner, with her poo bag tied firmly to her lead!) Karen Smith was next with WSD, Gypsy, from Leicester and they completed a lovely but slightly slower clear round.

So it was down to the last two dogs to try to beat Disney – could they do it?  Well, little Nell, friend to the stars, was obviously having the time of her life and knocked a good 1.05 seconds off Disney’s time. (Rosie regrettably puts their extra time down to Disney’s rock solid – but momentarily stationary – contacts. Something I would die for at my stage of competing!)

Last, but by no means least to run was Jack Russell, Compo (Last of the Summer Wine) who had the audience holding their collective breath as he waited and waited on the start line for Carol to release him. The crowd loved this distinctive unique character and cheered him on enthusiastically, but this was not his year, and so the second trophy of the day and for the second year running the overall champion was Ag.Ch. Hooligan Nell.

I can honestly say I was exhausted – and I had not run a step!  It was an honour and a privilege to be able to attend this Grand Day Out at Olympia; to meet all the competitors with their wonderful dogs and to toast them all at the post event champagne reception.

 As a Starter handler who has been competing with two (gorgeous!) collie x spaniels for only a couple of years, it made me realise just what can be achieved when real effort and commitment are put into that very special relationship which develops between dog and handler. Maybe one day I will be there not just as an observer - just maybe!

About the author...
Nicky Deakin lived most of her life in North Yorkshire until (reluctantly) moving 'down south' in 2001. She has worked in-house for a variety of firms as a Public Relations Officer representing such diverse products as training aircraft, plastic pipework and Scottish fish farms! She also ran her own business to business PR Consultancy for three years before moving to Reigate in Surrey for her husband, Nick's, career.

She now works just three days a week as an office manager in a law firm in Haywards Heath - more low key, but allows much more time for her two sprollie rescue dogs, Harriet and Billy. She started to feel much more at home in the south when she discovered agility and the friendly community of agility addicts!

Nicky trains Billy and Harriet at Pachesham Agility and was absolutely delighted to win out of Elementary with three year old Billy this summer