Last July Jill Gougeon-Irving (far left) and her teammates won Canada’s first dressage Pan Am gold in 27 years. (Jill Irving, Tina Irwin, Lindsay Kellock and Naima Moreira Laliberte.)
BY LAURA E. YOUNG
Jill Gougeon-Irving was a member of the 2019 Pan American team champions in dressage which won the gold medal in Lima, Peru. The win qualifies Canada for its first spot in Olympic dressage since the 2012 games in London.
Her spot on the team is not guaranteed. The tryouts began Jan. 1. The Sudbury native, who now lives in New Brunswick, is training to qualify for Tokyo 2020 with the knowledge she may not make the team.
What matters most is that Canada sends its best riders, she says. “Hopefully that will be me and that’s what I’m working towards.”
She recalls training camp for Pan Ams with the two reserve riders, “who were with us all the way. They helped load the horses and kept sending me inspirational quotes.”
She says athletes understand who should be there and who is ready to do their job. “I’ve witnessed that in the last two years on the (Canadian) team. Good athletes respect other athletes who are ahead of them or behind them. We all know how much it takes. We all work hard. We’re all deserving. And there can be some bad luck.”
She comes by her competitive genes naturally, although much of the Gougeon family prowess was celebrated on the ski slopes. Her late father, Richard – who was killed in a plane accident on July 4, 2013 – was the Canadian Junior 4-Way (downhill, slalom, cross-country and ski jumping) champion and was the former chair of Alpine Canada. Her sister, Judy, who now operates Gougeon Insurance Brokers, also competed in skiing.
Gougeon-Irving, now 56, found her niche with the Sudbury Pony Club where athletes competed in all events. At first she, naturally, hated dressage. She wanted to jump. As she was exposed to higher levels of dressage, she discovered her love of and talent for the intricate art of canters, trots, and walks.
She married Robert Irving, the Maritime businessman in 1987 and settled in New Brunswick. In 1994, the couple built Windhaven Farm in Moncton, After taking a minor hiatus to support their four children’s activities, Gougeon-Irving, then 45, returned to full-on, competitive dressage in 2008.
She had the right pieces for that comeback: an excellent friendship and working relationship with her coach, Ashley Holzer. She had good horses and training. She knew how to work hard.
In 2013 she broke onto the international scene. In 2017 she helped Canada win its first-ever gold at the Nations’ Cup and the silver in 2018.
This July she and her teammates Tina Irwin, Lindsay Kellock, and Naima Moreira Laliberte won Canada’s first dressage Pan Am gold in 27 years.
“I was elated but I was relieved that we did our job. We were there (as a team) to get a team spot to Tokyo. It wasn’t about how Jill felt.”
And so – despite loving and returning often to the family cottage on Lake Panache in Sudbury – the horses have their needs, too. Gougeon-Irving loves every moment of the full days in the Windhaven barns, caring for the horses, wrapping their legs, riding them.
She says it will take all that and a measure of good luck as to qualify for Tokyo.
“Nothing will change. Just train harder, be better. Piece of cake,” she laughs.