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easy riders

They're back in the saddle again

Jillian DiFazio '06, Fiona (a.k.a. Thief of Hearts), and Ashley Hamilton '06 at Sage Farm in Dover, MassachusettsOn a chilly afternoon, their hands stiff and chapped from the cold, their breath white in the air, four BC student horseback riders practice hunt seat equitation under the watchful eye of their trainer, Beth Giroux. She calls out instructions as they circle around her in the indoor arena 10 miles southwest of campus, her voice barely rising above the soft thuds of the horses' hooves on the packed dirt floor. "A little shorter rein on that left side," she says. "Open up your chest, put your hands out a little more." Or, "Don't forget to breathe." And, "Switch directions. Now back to the sitting trot."

The four young women are members of the BC Equestrian Club, the newest of the University's athletic clubs, which now total 20. This is the first-ever equestrian team at BC, and it was started by a group of freshmen, Stephanie Johnson among them.

A youth championship rider in a competition class known as Arabian Mounted Native Costume, Johnson had made a tough choice in coming to BC: If she wanted to leave her native Nevada for college, her family had told her, she would have to give up her horse. When, a few weeks after arriving at the Heights last fall, she received an e-mail from a classmate whose return address (three consonants followed by a catch phrase) mimicked a familiar pattern (breeder's initials, horse's name), she knew that it came from a fellow Arabian horsewoman.

The sender, Ashley Hamilton '06, who'd left her horse behind in Florida, had searched the freshman face book for students who listed riding as a hobby and had written each of them to see if they were interested in forming an equestrian club. Johnson, who says she was "feeling naked without riding, because it is such a life-consuming sport," met with Hamilton, who had been a national champion in the Arabian English Pleasure class, and the two students immediately set about organizing.

According to the Office of the Dean of Student Develop-ment, there have been several attempts over the years to establish an equestrian club, but none have succeeded. The only precedent was a short-lived polo club in the early 1950s, says BC historian Thomas H. O'Connor.

Hamilton and Johnson started posting flyers around campus, and by Thanksgiving they'd collected the names of 35 prospective members, including several upperclassmen who helped find a faculty advisor. Some of the older students had taken an economics course with adjunct senior lecturer Catherine Schneider, and they'd noticed riding photos in her office. After years of joking with colleagues about "training to be the advisor of the BC equestrian team," Schneider instantly accepted Hamilton's invitation to serve. It was she who led the students to the facilities at Sage Farm in the woodsy suburb of Dover, where the riders could rent horses and train. Since January, 16 BC equestrians have been taking weekly, hour-long lessons with Giroux.

Now, on the last Saturday in March, nine of the club's members feel ready to compete in their team's first Intercollegiate Horse Show Association meet. They leave Chestnut Hill at dawn, in rented and borrowed cars, to get to Hebron, Connecticut, where nine other teams from Massachusetts, among them Wellesley College, Boston University, and Framingham State College, await.

"We all went in nervous about how we would be accepted and not wanting to make fools of ourselves and trying to be taken as seriously as possible," Johnson recalls. They needn't have worried, she says. "The show captains from every school got together and came up to us and said, 'Welcome, we're really glad to have you.'" The captains offered advice to the newcomers about the horses (all competitors draw names from a hat for the horses they'll be riding in an event), and they loaned BC students their stepladders for mounting when they saw the club had none.

Though many of the BC participants in this predominantly female sport competed in high school, most have not done so in hunt seat equitation, which requires the English saddle. Hamilton and Johnson, for example, both experienced on Western saddles, enter this meet at the novice level.

Within each skill level, there is a flat course of walking, trotting, and cantering and a jumping course. Riders earn points for individual performance (seven for first place); when they've accumulated 16 points, they move up a level in the next meet. Team scores accrue based on the performance of the team's designated "point rider" in each category.

Freshman Taylor Goodell is the first BC rider to compete this day, and she does so in the show's first event, intermediate jumping. Jumpers take the course individually and scores aren't announced until everyone has finished. For 15 agonizing minutes, Goodell's teammates wait. When it's announced that Goodell has won third place—and BC's first equestrian ribbon—her schoolmates erupt with shrieks and applause.

On an afternoon soon afterward, Hamilton and Johnson walk back to campus after dropping off the rental car they used to get to their regular riding lesson. Feeling slightly self-conscious on Commonwealth Avenue in their jodhpurs and boots, they are startled when a car draws up to the curb. A young female passenger calls out to ask where they ride. She tells them she's an applicant to BC and eager to continue riding in college. They tell her about the equestrian club, and she positively beams.

BC cyclists Bonnie Burgett, Greg Lorenzo, Jonathan Keepheart, and Andrew Armstrong, all '05.Competitive bicycling has been a part of the University's club culture since the early 1900s, but it seemed to reach a low point during the 2001-02 school year. Membership in the BC Cycling Club last year dwindled to four or five, and club activities virtually shut down. One year later, however, all has changed, the result again of an influx of underclassmen and spirited recruiting. Now a robust group of 35 mountain and road racers, mostly male, makes up the club, which has adopted a new motto: "Ever to Accelerate."

Consider the scene on a weekend this past March. The occasion is cycling's Boston Beanpot, at Tufts University, one of the most grueling events of the racing season in the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference. Jan Wolfe '05 is hunched low over his handlebars, his face locked in a grimace of determination as he struggles to stay ahead of the pace car and remain technically in the race. He knows he's not going to win—the lead cluster is several lengths ahead—but if he can just hang in there through the 25th lap he will earn valuable points for Club BC.

Several of Wolfe's teammates, including one warming up on a stationary bike, shout encouragement as he passes, as do a handful of friends wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Magic Marker slogans like "tour de Jan" and "Jan so hot right now." The .06-mile course, called a criterium, is a steeply hilly, spine-rattling loop of six 90-degree turns on cordoned-off streets in densely populated Somerville, bordering the Tufts campus. It's a killer route that differs from the weekend's other races—a 9.75-mile time trial and a 13-mile road race—in its emphasis on swift transitions and split-second decisions. Each loop takes only minutes to complete.

Wolfe crosses the finish line tired but triumphant, the last finisher in the Men's C category that dozens of starters don't even complete. His score will count toward the 133 points the team earns during the weekend—an eighth place finish.

The BC students have decided on a racing scheme that sometimes sacrifices individual glory for the long-term strength of the team. Instead of remaining in levels they've mastered, the racers keep moving up to tougher categories where they can learn from more experienced cyclists. "Since we don't have a coach, we figured the best and quickest way to improve was to compete against better athletes," Andrew Armstrong '05 says.

Armstrong hasn't yet moved out of D class, but he seems destined to. Last year's criterium was his first-ever cycling race, and he was out after three laps. This year, he says, he not only rode better, he rode smarter. Early in the contest he fell in with a competitor whose strategy he'd seen and admired. Tacitly they took turns in the lead, each allowing the other to draft and conserve energy. In this way, together, they stayed ahead of the pack. Armstrong snagged second place.

During breaks in the action, the students talk about other teams in the day's race: Army, Yale, the formidable Bowdoin, many of them well-financed groups with vans, coaches, and elite riders. "We really have a heart," says champion mountain biker Kate Riedell '04.

Indeed, the BC group is determined to build a club that will last. "It would be awful if years from now we came back to only one or two riders," says sophomore road racer Greg Lorenzo. "When we come back, we want it to be like [BC football great] Doug Flutie coming back."

Vicki Sanders

Vicki Sanders is editor of Boston College Law Magazine.

Photos (from top):

From left: Jillian DiFazio '06, Fiona (a.k.a. Thief of Hearts), and Ashley Hamilton '06 at Sage Farm in Dover, Massachusetts. By Gary Wayne Gilbert

From left: BC cyclists Bonnie Burgett, Greg Lorenzo, Jonathan Keepheart, and Andrew Armstrong, all '05. By Gary Wayne Gilbert

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