By MARTY KLINKENBERG
Saturday, June 8, 2019
CALGARY -- On her first Christmas, Tiffany Foster's parents bought her a rocking horse. She spent hours atop Holly in her bedroom in North Vancouver, B.C., tilting the little play pony forward and back.
"That was my parents' first mistake," Foster says. "I was one of those horse-crazy girls that stayed horse-crazy."
Her dad was a firefighter and her mom was a customer-service instructor for airline companies.
Nobody in the family other than Tiffany fancied horses. Nobody could have ever predicted she would turn into one of Canada's greatest show jumpers.
She is 34 and has been to two Olympic Games and is vying for a third. On Saturday, she will compete at Spruce Meadows in the $500,000 RBC Grand Prix of Canada, the premier show-jumping event of the five-day National at the equestrian facility in southwestern Calgary.
The field for the Grand Prix includes world No. 1-ranked Steve Guerdat of Switzerland, 2018 champion Kent Farrington of the United States, 2017 winner Patricio Pasquel of Mexico and fellow Canadians Mario Deslauriers and Eric Lamaze.
The latter has won the RBC Grand Prix twice and is the leading money-winner in history at Spruce Meadows after collecting more than $3-million in purses.
The 51-year-old Olympic champion was diagnosed with brain cancer 18 months ago and has returned only recently after taking time off for illness to be treated.
"He doesn't want us to treat him any differently," Foster said.
"He would rather win knowing everyone else was going real hard, and I think he is still capable of that."
The road that has taken Foster from starry-eyed hopeful to an elite professional matching skills against the top show jumpers in the world has had a few peculiar turns along the way.
At eight years old, she began taking English riding lessons at the North Shore Equestrian Centre in North Vancouver. A year later, her father bought a pony from a riding school. The horse itself cost $900, the expense of keeping it was exorbitant.
"I had to start working to help pay for it," Foster said on Friday between jumping events on a cold and rainy day at the National. Snow fell in the Rockies less than an hour's distance away.
To help pay for the horse, she filmed one commercial for Hasbro, a U.S. toy manufacturer.
Then she did a "Totally Hair Barbie" ad for Mattel. She even appeared in one movie - Hideaway - playing the daughter of Jeff Goldblum and Christine Lahti.
Alicia Silverstone was also in the cast.
She eventually trained with Brent and Laura Balisky in Langley, B.C., and by the time she turned 21 she was working for them, riding, teaching and managing their stables.
In 2006, she began working for Lamaze, who would go on to become the Olympic Champion two years later. In between then and her first major victory in 2011, Foster had to fight to overcome an injury that nearly endlaunched her head over heels.
Knocked cold in the fall, she woke up with her face in the sand and with a searing pain in her back.
After losing consciousness again, she woke up strapped to a board in a hospital emergency room, from which she was taken to a trauma centre for emergency spinal surgery. In an operation that lasted eight hours, doctors inserted a steel plate, six screws, six clips and two titanium rods to fix her broken back.
They told her she was fortunate not to be paralyzed from her injuries and cast doubt on whether she would ever be able to ride a horse again.
"At six months, I was very much ready," Foster says. "There is a fine line between being young and stupid."
Fosters's first major career victory came at the 2011 Spruce Meadows North American tournament when she won the $80,000 TD Cup riding Victor, a trusty steed who has a sweet tooth for bananas. The same year, she made her Canadian show-jumping team debut at the 2011 Spruce Meadows Masters tournament, helping Canada earn a second-place finish.
In recent years, she represented Canada at the 2012 London Olympics and at the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France, and was a member of the 2016 Canadian show-jumping team that finished fourth at the Rio Games.
On Saturday, she will take to the international ring at Spruce Meadows and try to match her mentor jump for jump over fences 1.6 metres high.
"Anybody that is close to you, you never want to see them go through something like he has been through," Foster said. "You feel really helpless when there is nothing you can do but be supportive.
"He is a strong person and a very good friend. He always has your back. We are all happy he is still here."
Tiffany Foster from North Vancouver, B.C., rides Coolio 40 during the National at Spruce Meadows in Calgary on Friday.
JEFF MCINTOSH/THE CANADIAN PRESS