Words: Tina Edward Gunawardhana
Photography: Aenne Müller
Adopted by a Swedish family as an infant, Mathilda Karlsson speaks about her new found love for Sri Lanka and her show jumping aspirations. Born to Sri Lankan parents, at the age of six months, Mathilda was adopted by a Swedish family. Growing up in Sweden Mathilda began horse riding as a social activity and soon she was hooked on show jumping. One of Sweden's finest show-jumpers, Mathilda is a regular competitor in the Longines Global Champions Tour circuit which takes her all over the world. After visiting the land of her birth last year, Mathilda has decided to change her nationality and train towards representing Sri Lanka in show jumping at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Have you ever had the desire to meet your biological family?
I was very blessed to be adopted by a Swedish family when I was an infant. My Swedish parents gave me and my brother and sister so much love. They also gave me the opportunity to fulfill my dreams. So as a child I never really thought much about my biological family. However, now that I am much older I do feel the need to find my biological family. It may have been the hardest decision in their life to give me up for adoption. In my heart I have this feeling that my biological parents must be very loving and big hearted people to give me away to satisfy the desire of another couple to have a child. It must have been such a hard decision for them. I wish that one day I do get the chance to meet them and who knows I may even have more brothers and sisters.
If you could tell people who don’t know anything about this sport, as a female equestrian what would you say?
Equestrian sport is the only Olympic sport that men and women compete together. It’s a very time consuming sport and the most challenging part is probably interacting with your partner which in the case of an equestrian is their horse.
How did you get started as an equestrian?
In Sweden the riding schools are very popular. It is almost a rite of passage for girls to take up horse riding as a social activity. Similarly I was eight years old when I first started riding. However while my friends graduated to different interests I got hooked on horses.
What are your earliest memories with horses?
My physique has always been very petite and the first time I got the opportunity to ride I was given a pony. This saddened me as I wanted to ride a horse. That memory still haunts me because now I always make sure I get the best horse to ride.
Why did you choose show jumping over other equestrian sports like Dressage and Eventing?
I like the excitement of show jumping. However every good show jumper needs to have good dressage skills too.
When did you start riding competitively?
I didn't start riding competitively until I was 18 years old. I always loved working with horses, but it was never my ambition to become a noteworthy international show jumper. On reflection, I can not imagine myself not competing.
What is the name of your favourite horse?
I own 15 horses. I love them all so it is difficult to pick a favourite. But I do have a special horse called Chopin VA who is a 10 year old dark bay stallion. He was born in my stables. We know each other very well. He is also the horse of my dreams and it is with him that I plan to qualify for the next Olympics.
How do you select the best horse for yourself?
Despite having 15 horses, I think for me it's important to have an intelligent horse that loves the sport just as much as I do.
You have to work closely with your horse. How do you form that bond with the animal?
It’s important to spend as much time with your horse as possible, not just riding them but also spending time with them in the stable to understand their personality. I also believe that you get what you give. If you treat your horses with love and respect, they will return it all back to you and fight for you in the ring.
Are you involved with the care of the various horses you work with? If so, what is the schedule or routine of that like?
I'm very much involved in the care and scheduling of my horses. I do have fantastic grooms working with me to help me take the best possible care of my horses but still, it's very important to be on top of everything. If the horse get sick or injured, it will always be my responsibility. Horses likes to have routines but when we travel as much as we do it might sometimes be difficult. Therefore it's important to have people around you that know them well.
What are the competitions you have taken part in?
I have competed several times in the Swedish championships. However for me the Global Champions Tour have been the biggest shows. You could compare the Global Champions Tour and the Global Champions League to the soccer Champions League. It’s the highest and most prestigious tour there is in show jumping.
What has been your highest achievement in show jumping?
Undoubtedly the chance of being able to participate in the Global Champions League. It was a huge step up in my career that definitely change my life. This year I will be a team member of the ‘Hamburg Giants’ and I’m so motivated and excited to compete together with my new team. It’s so challenging to compete along with the best riders in the world almost every week.
Where in the world has this sport taken you to?
I compete during 40-50 weeks of the year. Almost every week I compete in a different city or country. Last yearI competed in Mexico City, Miami, Shanghai, Paris, Rome, Monaco, London, Doha and Prague.
How would you describe the teamwork between you and the horses as opposed to teamwork between you and human team members?
The teamwork with your horse is based on the daily work you put in and the relationship you build and nurture during a long period of time. In the ring you and your horse need to trust and know each other so well, that you become one. Whereas competing with a team member can be difficult at times especially when you have just joined a team and may not know the other people well. However, we all work to create a good team spirit and learn from one and another.
In this sport, men and women compete against each other in the same category. How do you deal with those challenges?
We are a bunch of really talented and strong women riding at the top level.I find it very inspiring and fascinating to be competing together with not just women but men too. Men might be physically stronger but I feel female riders have an advantage as we are more sensitive to feelings and can understand the vibes of our horses better.
Do you face a lot of sexism in the sport?
Not at all! I get positive reactions especially from men because they are amazed despite my petite frame I can ride big horses just as good as they can.
How many hours do you train for in a day?
Normally I spend all my day in the stable riding and organizing I would say I ride between six and eight hours a day.
What types of off-horse activities have you found to be helpful to your riding over the years?
My entire day is spent in the stables. I ride for about 6-8 hours and after that I am involved with organising various aspects of the stables. With the remainder of my time I spend with a personal trainer who helps me keep my body fit and strong to prevent injuries.
Who are your role models in the sport you are engaged in?
I try not to have role models, I want to become the best version of my self. But of course there are some amazing riders such as the Australian rider Edwina Tops- Alexander, who is the leading female rider in the world.
Besides equestrianism, what are you passionate about?
I am very passionate about fashion. I might even try in the future to create my own fashion line.
Why did you decide to represent Sri Lanka?
In 2018 I visited Sri Lanka for the first time since I was adopted in at the age of 6 months in 1984. I had been nursing a career goal of representing Sri Lanka in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 and once I arrived in Sri Lanka and felt the vibes and the beauty of the country I felt it was the right decision to make that goal a reality. It would indeed be a proud moment for me to represent my birth country and use the chance to show the world what Sri Lanka has to offer.
What advice do you have for young women?
To always believe in yourself. It doesn't matter where you come from, it's only the matter of finding the right way to get to where you want to be through hard work. Always be nice to people, being nice will take you a long way.