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May 8, 2008

Story By: Clary Wright, South Carolina Media Relations

Sarah Stephen’s parents had an interesting approach to deterring their daughter from riding horses. “When I was 14 months old, they put me on a horse, hoping it would scare me,” Stephens says. “But it didn’t.” Thank goodness for that.

Stephens, an English rider on the University of South Carolina equestrian team, has brought home two national titles with her teammates, in 2006 and 2007. She posted a 9-4-1 record this year for the Gamecocks and was recently named Most Improved at the team’s end-of-year banquet. Throughout her career at South Carolina, Stephens, a rising senior, has competed in three Southern Conference championships and three national championships.

Other than South Carolina, Stephens looked at Brown University and the University of Georgia when deciding on a collegiate equestrian program. “I knew Brown would be too challenging with schoolwork and equestrian, and I wasn’t ready for that,” she says. “Between UGA and USC, I just thought that Carolina had the more attractive program. Everyone on the team was really close, and I could see that on my recruitment trip.”

So did the Chalfont, Pa. native have a hard time adjusting to the southern way of life? “I’m from right outside Philadelphia, and everything is so fast-paced,” Stephens says. “Here in South Carolina, everyone sort of slows down and takes a breath every now and then. I’ve adjusted to this culture now, and I love it.”

Stephens has also learned that on South Carolina’s equestrian team, which has claimed three national titles in the past four years, success is an expectation, not a goal. In March, the Gamecocks hosted the SEC championship, which it had never won. Stephens and her teammates were hoping that the home-field advantage would give their team a boost, since the host school in years past always went on to win the SEC title. The Gamecocks faced off against Georgia and Auburn, but suffered a heartbreaking loss after tying with UGA, 10-10, in the championship round. The raw score tiebreaker put Georgia on top by a slim margin, 1331.5 – 1330.

“Losing SEC’s was probably the most disappointing moment in my college career just because we were so close,” Stephens says. “It was frustrating and really heartbreaking.”

The Gamecocks had to put their disappointment behind them pretty quickly, however, to focus on the Varsity Equestrian National Championships held in Waco, Texas from April 17-19. Hoping for vindication after their SEC loss, South Carolina’s Hunter Seat team looked to take their fourth consecutive national title at the tournament. However the team fell to Auburn in the second round in a 5-3 upset. South Carolina finished out the weekend placing a disappointing fifth.

“The expectations were really high,” Stephens says of the championships. “But I think we just weren’t as prepared as we needed to be.” Indeed, South Carolina was one of the only schools that did not take their own horses to the tournament, and therefore did not get to actually ride until the day they competed. They also had a bye in the first round, which Stephens says did not work to their advantage. “We sat there for three days watching other people ride and compete, so our muscles were a little tired and the days were really long,” she says. “I think it really took a toll on our team in terms of morale.”

Stephens has mixed feelings about her individual performance at the championships. “I was not happy with the way that I rode the first day,” she says. “I lost my focus halfway through my pattern and I forgot to do one of my elements. But I bumped up my riding the next day and I did really well.” Stephens also says that the amount of downtime at nationals and watching countless competitions during South Carolina’s bye affected her performance. “When it is finally your turn to compete, you’ve had time to let your nerves get to you and you’ve sort of psyched yourself out.” Still, she says, “I was happy with the way that I rode and I was happy with the way the team rode. It just wasn’t our year.”

Stephens is optimistic about the upcoming 2009 season, her last year as a Gamecock. She says one positive thing about the equestrian team is that all the girls “are really spread out. We have great seniors, great juniors, great sophomores and great freshmen.” South Carolina also has an exciting recruiting class coming in, and Stephens is particularly looking forward to helping them get adjusted to Carolina’s equestrian program.

“Our team is really good at bonding, and I think that’s a big strength of ours,” Stephens says. “We’re a strong group of girls.” She also credits her team for being able to bounce back, even after disappointing losses at SEC’s and the national championships.

“After the initial shock (of losing nationals), I think everyone just sort of realized that it’s fifth (place),” Stephens says. “It’s not like we lost. We certainly didn’t win, but we’re still happy that we made it to nationals and we’re one of the top 10 teams in the country. We just realized that we’ve got to do the best we can with what we have.”

Now that the season is over, Stephens and her teammates will do their own individual riding and training over the summer until the Gamecocks return to campus in August. “We’ll figure out where we stand in terms of what we need to do to be better for next year,” Stephens says. On an individual level, Stephens says her goal for next year is to make it to the individual national championships, a new element in the national championship picture that was introduced this season. Graduated senior Kristen Terebesi won both Hunter Seat individual national championships to set the bar for Carolina.

Although losing their national title was “so surreal,” Stephens tries to take it all in perspective.

“Fifth place is not the worst, but it’s not the best,” Stephens says. “We’d be happier with first, but next year,” she says with a smile, “we’ll be out to get it.”