One shot left, give it everything you’ve got, goes the adage.
To equestrian phenom Josslyn Tonge, that’s not just a motto, it’s the way she lives her life.
Recently the 12-year-old El Dorado horse vaulter found herself in the Vaulting Nationals in Kentucky, heading into the final round of competition, the freestyle round in fifth place.
As equestrian enthusiasts know, the vaulting performance consists of the vaulter, the horse and the lunger, the leash wrangler who guides the moving animal in a 15 meter circle.
The vaulter runs next to the cantering horse and on musical queue leaps high enough to grab the surcingles, or handles, secured to the animal’s back.
In a single wave of motion the rider mounts the 1,200 pound equine and launches into a series of exercises most people wouldn’t try on their living room floor.
These seven dance/gymnastic poses, called the compulsories, follow rigid international guidelines for all vaulters.
Although the vaulter chooses the music, no stylized interpretations are permitted, just the exact and perfect fulfillment required by the judges.
After the compulsories, the contestant must do a freestyle routine for 60 seconds.
Original dance sequences are performed gracefully and seamlessly while displaying superb athleticism on a well-trained mount.
But winning a national championship in a particular division (copper, bronze, silver or gold) requires top performances across the board. It would be presumptuous to expect a first place win coming off a fifth place ranking.
To the broadcasted strains of her musical program, Josslyn Tonge kicked it off her program with a synchronized jog alongside the cantering horse, MonCoer (Mike).
Using the motion of the animal and her own strength she jumped for the surcingle and swung on board.
Huddled at their station, team members of Josslyn’s Morning Star Vaulters from Novato, watched in delight as the pint-sized gymnast proceeded to execute choreography on Mike’s broad back, moving easily and precisely through a dozen challenging postures.
For 60 seconds the young dancer stood, hopped, crouched, twisted and spun — facing forward and backward, synchronizing music and moves.
At the crescendo, she somersaulted off Mike’s flank and “stuck it” perfectly.
Then Josslyn returned to her Morning Star team station, confident that no matter what the outcome, she had left it all on the arena floor.
There would be no regrets.
The judges revealed their scores. Josslyn’s performance had propelled her from fifth place to second place, and best overall. She had won a national championship in the Women’s Copper Division.
As though that weren’t enough, she also won the championship in barrel vaulting.
Barrels are thickly padded 50 gallon drums and are used for stationary training.
Over the years barrel vaulting has become its own competitive category, and is sometimes compared to the gymnasts’ pommel horse, although the routines are usually quite different.
Does Josslyn have a big head after the competition?
“I’m grateful but I still have a long way to go,” said the young competitor, “Practice and more practice.”
Vaulting demands one’s personal best but is also a team sport.
“As a flyer, I have had to trust others to lift and catch me on a moving horse,” she said. “I still fall off the horse once in a while, but I learn from mistakes,” Josslyn said.
It’s proverbial that many serious athletes have developed good personal management skills. Josslyn agrees.
“I’m a better student because of vaulting,” she said confidently. Mom and Dad nod in agreement. Other lessons for Josslyn include discipline, punctuality and lots of gratitude for the family’s sacrifice.
Parents Patrick and Lu Tonge are pleased to do it. Patrick is a digital network engineer and Lu is an accountant in the school system. Supporting their daughter’s involvement in this sport takes lots of resources. And there are three other kids at home.
“Training facilities are distant, and of course time is precious for everyone,” Patrick said. “And nothing’s free these days. But we love to do it as long as she loves the sport.”
Lu is also resolute about what it takes to succeed.
“These equestrian lessons require mental and physical courage. It’s a great platform for growth,” she said.
Winning in the copper division has made Josslyn eligible for international competition.
Will she go for it? What about the gold division?
“I do want to go for the gold and international competition,” said Josslyn quietly.
Josslyn wants to realize her potential, not just in horse vaulting, but in school, vocation, life and beyond.
She glances at the trophy wall. “I’m getting ready.”