Fans of Canadian Olympic champion show jumper Eric Lamaze got a rare peek inside his life on April 20th, when he became the first rider featured on Unbridled, an online web series. The new channel, NEE TV, was founded by Ali Nilforushan of Nilforushan Equisports Events. For $50 USD fan could submit questions but after a brief delay due to technical issues, the live video interview lasted over two hours. Moderated by Nilforushan, Lamaze was candid and emotional discussing his storied mount Hickstead and his recent life-and-death health concerns.
All proceeds from the web event were donated to Lamaze’s charity of choice, the Children’s Wish Foundation of Canada. Lamaze has long supported the non-profit organization in his home country and has been involved with making wishes come true by presenting horses and ponies to children with life-threatening illnesses.
Here are some highlights from the interview.
On his early years: “I don’t know my father, never met him,” said Lamaze who also acknowledged that his mother was involved in heavy drugs. He witnessed many drug deals and strange people growing up and would would visit his mom in jail with his grandmother.
As a result, he said that he didn’t know right from wrong, but from a young age he knew that his situation wasn’t good and he decided to leave and hang out with different people.
Though he admits to being lousy at school, “sport came easy to me. I’m a lucky guy that way. I was able to throw myself at sport and go that way. I would say to any kid that is in a household that doesn’t feel right that there is a lot of avenues to get out of that home. I’m not saying leave home because your mom is mad at you, but if you really are in a place that isn’t good for you. My journey started there.”
On Early Influencer Eddie Creed: Torrey Pines was created on Eddie’s facility in Schomberg, ON. Eric had done some work for Jay Hayes and Hugh Graham and wanted a place of his own but had no money.
Eddie, who was a shareholder of the Four Seasons hotel chain, “was intimidating with cigar and fur coat,” but he gave him his first start. He told Eric that if he wanted to empty out an old arena on his property full of hay he could rent the stalls. At first, Eric started selling racehorses that could jump and within a short time Torrey Pines grew. During this time Eddie became a mentor – like the father he didn’t have – and counselled Lamaze to stay grounded.
On Ian Millar: “He’s been Captain Canada for so many years and our anchor for so many years. When I came [on the team] with Hickstead, a few times I rode last and Ian rode first. I felt bad taking his spot. But he never said a word. To have a good day, we have to both be on.”
(Ahead of the web interview, Nilforushan had spoken to Millar, who called Lamaze, “was a genius on a horse.” Eric was visibly moved by the compliment.)
On being a part of Team Canada: “I love the Nation’s Cup. I love to see [riders] grow within the Nation’s Cup. There is not a better way to have to prepare to represent your country than to ride and be part of a team and your score is that important, you’re going to ride above what you’re capable of doing and learn to deal with that pressure. The only way to do that is to make the team… I’m not the chef d’equipe, but I’m intrigued by how [the other riders] are feeling, how their horses are feeling… I live and die for the Nation’s Cup. I wish Canada did more [of them] than we do. I think it makes a rider and shows you who has nerve and who doesn’t.”
On Cagney: Lamaze talked about the Irish Sport Horse that was the first mount to give him a taste of international success, winning the Derby at Spruce Meadows several times. While told the horse was only 9 years old when he came to Lamaze, it was discovered he was quite a bit older. Still he carried Lamaze to his first world championship and first Grand Prix at Spruce. Cagney was, “a great horse in that era. A very odd horse, but that’s where I started to get noticed by some people.”
On Addiction and the 1996 Olympics: Lamaze was named to the team, but tested positive for cocaine and banned from competing. “First of all, you’re ashamed, you want to hide. It’s hard to get up in the morning. You realize you’ve made a big mistake.” Lamaze went on to discuss his lawyer, Toronto attorney Tim Danson, now one of his best friends, who supported him throughout the ordeal, including handling the media. The rider admitted he wasn’t honest in the beginning, but Danson saw right through him, and he admitted to taking cocaine. Of the entire experience he said, “Boy, it’s tough. The world hates you. It’s very difficult and lonely. You think your career is over, but you do have three or four people that will stand by you and push you to keep going.”
On the 2008 Olympics: Nilforushan told Lamaze that Ian Millar said of that moment in the sport’s history, “He knew that you were the one to beat and most of the Canadians knew you were the one to beat at the Olympics.”
Lamaze and the incredible Hickstead had gone double clear, leaving only two horse-and-rider combinations in the jump-off for gold – Lamaze and Swedish rider Rolf-Goran Bengtsson on Ninja. Lamaze recounted that in the warmup he didn’t do a lot of practice fences because the wonderful stallion knew “where he was going, he had the medal around his neck, he had a great sense of what was important.” He and Hickstead entered the ring second, after Rolf had one fault at the wall. A clear would clinch the gold. Nilforushan revealed that Ian Millar said of that moment before Lamaze and Hickstead rode into the ring. “You just open the gate and let him have at it. You looked like a lion.” The rest is, as they say, history; Hickstead jumped clear and the gold was theirs.
On the podium: “I always say that national anthems are too long, but this is one I could have heard forever. I was emotional. Having missed two Olympics and couldn’t stop thinking of the people who helped get me there on a dark day and believed in me. It was a movie and a dream. And on top of it I was the only Canadian to win two medals out of the whole Olympics.”
On Hickstead: Lamaze described the stallion as being a quiet horse in the barn and not overly friendly with him. “In his stall he didn’t want to see me that much. But at the ring he was all business.” He continued saying that he can’t remember how many clear rounds they had together, but they were never the same. He had big strong character, and as his rider and handlers would learn you could ask him nicely but if you asked harder you paid the price. “He was a little bit special, one of the great horses in the world. We had to understand him to make it work. He decided how the warmup would be and how everything was going to be. We didn’t have much to say, he was that kind of horse.”
On the stallion’s untimely and very public death in the indoor show ring in Italy, Lamaze said he thought Hickstead had tripped. But he has since watched the video which is on YouTube. “The horse took care of me how he went down. That horse was going to die as a movie star, as a hero, he was going to make a statement.”
Lamaze considered retiring after Hickstead’s death. Emotionally and mentally, the journey back wasn’t easy. There was the fear and anxiety of a horse going down in the ring again. And there was a return to substance abuse, albeit not cocaine. “I was not well. But I didn’t know. I enjoyed my cocktail, but I was drinking for the wrong reasons. Drinking the pain away, and I thought I was fine but as the year went on, I realized I wasn’t.”
One of his sponsors and owners was the Ziegler family, who purchased a string of young horses for him and he began to rebuild his career. Fine Lady became the breakout star and competed for Team Canada at the Rio Olympics, winning Lamaze an individual bronze medal.
On His Health: Lamaze was diagnosed with brain lesions that developed into an inoperable brain tumor. He put his life in the hands of the private European healthcare system and was taking chemotherapy pills to shrink the tumor. He credits these doctors with saving his life, but it came at a great financial expense. But more stressful than the money have been the major health challenges that came after the tumor was gone. For starters, his organs were in terrible shape. “My heart was inflamed, and my kidney was destroyed. I was in terrible shape. I was in pain. I did Aachen, I was so much pain my back I was crying the whole way home.”
Lamaze describes in harrowing detail how exhausted he has been and the long road to recovery. That he still manages to ride seems astounding, but no surprise given the toughness of a person who had already overcome so much. “I had my ups and downs, but the only time I felt normal was riding a horse. I forgot all about [the pain and sickness]. It was incredible.” He continued saying horses were the best drug he received and was glad he continued riding. He regretted not being able to attend to all his clients due to days when he couldn’t move from pain or exhaustion, or nausea from the medications. “Rest is your best friend in that circumstance. You have to treat your body and give respect to it.”
Lamaze also shares that two years ago he weighed only 93 lbs. and watching others compete on television was heartbreaking. He said his doctors could not restart his body; it was as though his body had had enough. He also withdrew socially, not wanting to burden friends and also wanting to be alone with his suffering. “I was very uncomfortable being in any social situation. I lost my way of communicating,” he said. “To this day I still am I’m not completely comfortable because I’ve been alone for so long by choice… I’m trying to leave what’s left in me for riding or teaching.”
He remembers being a social butterfly who loved going out, but he’s lost all of that. “For the moment I’m very happy being alone and just going through this.”
On His Kidney: His doctors discovered that his kidney was the main problem in his recovery. It was infected and releasing toxins into his body that also affected his heart. He was given an artificial kidney that is controlled by a computer. This is a rare operation but given he had few options – he was told he was too weak to survive a traditional transplant – he said he felt better almost immediately.
As for his prognosis, Lamaze didn’t want to talk too much about it at this stage. He tries to train every day, but he says his next challenge will be weaning off of the drugs that have kept him alive and out of pain. “The tumor is very much under control, basically at this point they would like me to gain weight and try to cut the medication and see if the old Eric will come back,” he says. “But when they cut all the drugs that were keeping me getting up and smiling, that is the hardest thing to do. [I’m] going to live in a dark world for a while but if I succeed then I have a chance to rebuild my body without medication and start being who I am versus a person taking drugs to stay alive.”
Lamaze knows he will need help, including with depression that accompanies such a drug withdrawal. But he appeared optimistic and hopeful. “I’m not out of the woods, I have one big fight ahead of me, and hope to win that fight. But it’s not going to be an easy one.”
To subscribe to the series and/or watch the entire Lamaze interview, click here: