Kersten Klophaus Vaults to Success

It’s a lazy but sunny Sunday afternoon and Kersten Klophaus is lounging in the hammock his daughter gave him reading a book in his hometown just outside of Cologne Germany. It could well be a chapter or two of a recent Harry Potter book that he and his daughters will discuss later that day over dinner. This image of Kersten may last up to two hours if he is lucky but these days even finding a few minutes to slip in a page or two from one of his favorite novels is rare.

Although Kersten was thinking about retiring a few years ago, the invitation to head up the Vaulting at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games was one of those opportunities that were too good to refuse. So, instead of relaxing in that hammock, Kersten is taking trips back and forth to the United States for meetings or to handle Test Events.

While at home he is going through every detail of every day of the actual WEG to ensure that no stone is left unturned. He and his six key volunteers have discussed every scenario, from getting the teams to the U.S. to timelines, the outlining of the schedule, rules and regulations, awards ceremony and even what the vaulters can do in their free time.

As one of eight discipline directors for WEG 2010, Kersten feels the vaulting group’s needs are a bit different then for some of the other sports.

“Vaulters are a big family. They are helpful and friendly and like a big party. So in addition to planning the competition schedule we are also organizing outside activities,” he explained as we sat discussing his life and his job.

While vaulting does take place throughout the United States it’s not as popular as it is in Germany and so the tall striking German views his present job as an opportunity for vaulting to gain more visibility in the United States. He reminded me that at the annual CHIO in Aachen where dressage and show jumping have always been the main focus that now as a result of WEG 2006 they have added vaulting into the mix.

“The broadcasters were interested in vaulting and did two hours of live TV at the recent CHIO Aachen,” he commented. Could you ever imagine that happening in the United States? Not very likely, but Kersten hopes to change that. “WEG is a great platform for the U.S. Vaulting sport to make it more popular,” he explained.

It’s a Vaulting World for Kersten

Kersten understands the vaulting template because of his past experience, especially having had the same title of Vaulting Manager at WEG Aachen in 2006, but also at the European Championships and the 2009 CHIO Aachen.

Up until 2008, Kersten was also Chairman of the German Committee for Vaulting (since 2000) and was FEI-General Steward Vaulting of the German Equestrian Federation. Since 1993 he has been the Chief Steward at World Championships and European Championships as well as at different CVIs that took place in Germany. So Kersten knows the ins and outs of this gymnastic sport which bodes well for his role at WEG.

Yet his upbringing offers even more because Kersten was born (January 23, 1963) into a life of vaulting. Growing up his mom Lilo (who passed in 1986 from cancer) was a gymnastics instructor at a time when vaulting was an unknown sport in Germany. A local riding club asked her to start a vaulting program at a nearby stable and naturally Kersten and his brothers (Walter, Torsten and Wolfgang) soon became part of the vaulting team. Kersten was only about five years old when he started as a flyer but as time went on and his physique changed he soon moved from the top of the pack to the bottom.

“We were strong and so we were the base and we enjoyed to work with the girls,” he commented as a devilish smile ran across his face.

While Kersten has fond memories of those early vaulting days he’s not as thrilled with his experiences on horseback.

“I had some bad experiences with a horse,” he commented to me, his German accent clearly adding richness to his words. “We had our own horse stabled nearby the riding arena and we had to ride the horse from a barn three or four kilometers past a farm with geese.”

To those of us who have ridden, Kersten doesn’t need to say anymore. We can envision the horse putting on the breaks, attempting to whirl, even doing a hop here and there with hopefully no rearing or bucking to follow. And as Kersten emphasized, ‘’the horse didn’t like this and every time we had problems because the horse wanted to go back to the barn. It was a not so funny experience because you were always late thanks to the geese.”

He recalled being reprimanded many times because of those darn geese and you can just envision as a young boy the frustration he felt each time he tried his best to get to the training sessions on time.

While Kersten’s team never reached the highest honors they had fun and he especially enjoyed the exposure he had to other things happening at the barn or at a competition. While his mom continued working with other vaulting teams, he and his brothers would have a chance to wander.

“Because mom was the trainer, while she was teaching we got to do other things,” he explained. It was also the experience of working in a team environment with vaulters of all ages that he enjoyed then and still enjoys now. And it was finding that balance.

“To work with the team and the horse and to learn how to find the best balance for each routine was part of the challenge,” he commented.

At 18 Kersten aged out of the team and attempted to compete as an individual but “after two times I decided to get out because I had not the time or interest to train very hard,” he admitted.

However, since Kersten still wanted to be involved with vaulting when he was 20 he took a three-week training course followed by an exam to get his vaulting trainer’s license and eventually also got his judge’s license.

So, since he was five years old vaulting has never left his life and to add to that triangle, when he was 23 he met his wife Monika at a vaulting competition where they were both coaches. Two years later they married and now they along with their children, Ines (12/22/88), Lena (6/28/1990) and Nils (8/8/1992) continue to be immersed in vaulting.

“There is no escape because we are both trainers and I am also an official and our children compete,” he freely commented.

He often plays the role of assistant to his wife, which he quietly admitted is not his favorite job. “Then we are a team and not husband and wife,” he clarified.

And it was with his wife’s blessing that he took on the job at WEG even though they both knew it meant less family time together. They didn’t make the decision quickly though because after he was asked, he and Monika discussed it for four days, even making lists of the pros and cons, but in the end the pro list won out.

His wife’s support had a lot to do with his decision and he willingly admitted that after his mom, his wife is the person he turns to for advice. Kersten is thankful for the fact that both his mother and Monika are two people he was and is able to speak to about anything.

“All the time I was sure that I get the right answer but both were able to say you are crazy do it not this way and not that way,” he expressed in his Germanized English . “Especially my wife who always gives me ideas on how my personality is perceived by other people.” Yet Kersten believes that people may very well view him differently than what he truly is as a person.

No matter, these days thanks to the support and encouragement of his wife and children there are no geese to slow him down and those who know and work with him are okay with his German organizational style. He is a man that follows the rules and gets things done.

Kersten’s Life Beyond Horses

You would think that vaulting is what Kersten does for a living but that’s not the case. In fact his time is spent as a police officer, something he’s been doing since 1980. It was in 1986 that he spent six years in the Cologne Mounted Police. Three of those years were spent training the young horses to be mounts for the officers, which means training them to remain calm in any situation.

Since another one of his passions is being around, in or on the water, in 1992 he was able to also combine that passion with his work by switching to the Water Police unit. Yet his other passion drew him back when a higher position was offered. In 2008 he became the Chief of the Mounted Police, a position he still holds.

Kersten’s day begins at 5:30 a.m. when he gets ready for work. By 6:00 a.m. he is driving to the police station. He likes to arrive early so that he can prepare for the day before the 7:00 a.m. shift of officers arrive.

Breakfast doesn’t happen until after he meets with everyone and it’s often something simple like an apple or banana with some tea. He opts to have a simple breakfast because the typical German enjoys a good meal but only if he can take the time to savor every bite.

As Kersten explained it, “I like to eat very good and very much but for this I need a lot of time and only when I can relax and enjoy it with a good glass of wine.”

Once his meetings are over he also likes being part of the unit and not just staying back in the office. “I try to be on one of the Mounted Police horses once or twice a day because I enjoy it and I like to be with my policemen.” Because he enjoys it Kersten continues to train the horses for their new career.

Interestingly enough many of the policemen he works with aren’t men at all but women and Kersten isn’t shy in saying, “this makes my wife a little angry. She wasn’t happy when she found that out,” he commented with that same boyish gleam in his eyes, a memory of his vaulting days with all those girls.

In between riding, his workday involves meetings, planning for special events and demonstrations, something that he takes very seriously especially when it involves crowd control and often 50-60 mounted police. He specializes in knowing which are the best horses and riders to send for any type of situation.

Once his workday is over, his vaulting day begins. “After work I go to the arena for vaulting training or for trials with my daughters or to a meeting or to have a phone conference with the WEG committee.”

By the time he’s finished and heading home the clock is striking 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. At home he enjoys having some dinner with whomever is there because often the rest of the family is off in different directions. Bedtime is generally no later than 11:00 p.m. because he likes to be well rested for the next day of nonstop activity.

It is on those rare weekends when there is nothing planned that he tries to fit in some of his pleasures, like swaying in the hammock reading a book or even just sitting in the garden – you got it – reading a book. As you’ve probably guessed, reading is one of Kersten’s favorite pastimes and something he tries to fit in whenever he can.

“I like historical books and thrillers. I eat the books and will read five or six thrillers at the same time. Our library is right across the street and so I can change the books all the time. I change books like other people change their clothes.”

The Harry Potter books are high on Kersten’s list because he likes “the story and the way it is told.” The bonus for Kersten is that he then has something in common with his daughters because as Kersten explained it, “Harry Potter has helped them get interested in reading and it also gives us something to discuss.”

Kersten also enjoys historical books, especially those with a water theme because of his passion for anything to do with the sea and water.

Getting to Know the Man

It’s obvious that Kersten is driven. How else could he keep up with the fast pace of his life! Yet, he is also reflective and appreciative and there are even some sad things he continues to work through, mostly the loss of his mother. Her death hit him hard and even today there are times he wants to pick up the phone to call her to discuss something related to vaulting or the family. Growing up, Kersten was one of “her” boys and proud of it and to his mom “her” boys were everything.

“The death of my mother it was very hard for me and still is even today. Not to have the possibility to say this is what I am doing is difficult because I was very close,” he explained.

His mom was ill for about two years and it was tough seeing her slip away with all those good memories he had of her as a child growing up and then more recently as an adult.

“Our mother was not only our mom but someone who liked to build a team with her sons. This was special to be part of her team. She was mostly responsible for us because my dad (Klaus – 78 in 2009) worked so much but she was very proud to be with her sons and we enjoyed it also,” he continued remembering those special family occasions such as his wedding day, or the birth of his children.

Sharing those times with her is something Kersten misses. And while his dad is still alive and he continues to share his life with him, their relationship is different. “It’s a different connection with my dad. Because of his profession he didn’t have the time to be with us. We were mostly together on weekends and holidays and at those times he was one of us. In a way, Kersten has a similar situation with his daughters. Yet, he does the best he can to share his life with them.

“My family is very interested in the things I am doing and I send them a lot of photos. They are proud of what I have accomplished.”  He learned a lot from his parents and is appreciative of all that they left him with and even today his dad continues to be an important part of his life.

“My parents taught me to do whatever I like but they told me to work in a social way,” by that literal translation from German to English Kersten meant that they taught him to work with people with the goal of not only “to make me happy but to make others happy.”

For Kersten life growing up was not only about being a family but about being a team. They were father and sons and mother and sons but they were all also friends. When it was time to work together they did but he also recalled the many “fantastic summer holidays with the family.” It is the combination of work and fun that has helped him form a bond with not only his parents and brothers but also his wife and children.

“Family is important to me and holidays are special,” he commented. Kersten does his best to translate for me why those times are so special by saying, “this is another world for me. If we have a barbeque or family celebration no one is the professional and you can talk about everything. We can talk about issues in the family and other things that have nothing to do with work.”

It was those comments and the realization that Kersten likes the opportunity to escape from his real life to enjoy a private side that allowed our conversation to drift in that direction.

“When I am at work I have a special façade but occasionally there are moments where somebody can see my real face. This may surprise them that I can be very relaxed and that I like to have a lot of fun. But most of the time I have not the time or the head for that and sometimes this makes it very difficult for others to work for me,” he explained as he took the time to help me understand his dual personalities.

Most people who know Kersten in a work environment can’t envision him as a man who enjoys relaxing, reading a book, or seeing him go hiking with the horse or dog. Yet that is a very important side of his life.

“I enjoy going out on the trail with my daughters for a couple hours at a time,” he admitted. What Kersten finds most rewarding about those times is the fact that “as soon as we leave the barn they talk the whole time and it is fun as a father to hear this.”

From horseback riding to water skiing, Kersten also finds great joy with anything to do with the beach. “For 20 years I worked on the water as the river police and I like sailing as a hobby because I find it relaxing; the sun is shining, the waves are breaking, the wind is blowing.” Kersten also enjoys the fast pace of sailing when you work hard with the wind to keep the boat moving at a good clip.

The water buff’s passion for the sea also began in his youth when for years he was a lifeguard at a pool and also competed in lifeguard competitions.

In addition to riding, swimming and sailing the tall, lanky, fit man enjoys an occasional bike ride with the family but beyond that he admitted, “For most of the other things there is no time.”

Getting Inside the Man
While an active lifestyle is how most people view Kersten he also is reflective about who he is and how he wants to be perceived.

“I am somebody who wasn’t able for many years to find the time for myself, because of the way my parents taught me to be,” he responded when I asked about how he envisions himself. Kersten was brought up to first think about how to help others find joy in their lives, but somewhere along the line forgot that he also needs to find joy within himself.

“I have a friend who often tells me to take some time for you,” he explained. And in fact he was finally thinking of doing just that after his position at the World Equestrian Games in 2006. However, it was during that time that he met Rob Hinkle, a member of the WEG 2010 staff, and was approached about doing the same job in Kentucky.

“Okay let me think about this,” the vaulting expert responded and it was at that time that he and his wife debated the issues and decided he should go for it.

For now, if asked Kersten would say that what he is doing now for WEG is certainly the high point in his life but being named to all those other positions mentioned earlier was also an honor. A lot of it has to do with the “recognition,” he explained. The fact that he is being recognized for his abilities and understanding of the vaulting world is important to him.

He also realizes that there are others who admire what he does and hope to one day walk in his shoes and he has some advice for them. “Go your own way. Listen to what other people say but not too much. A lot of people are helpful and friendly but they do it only for their own self. Hear what they have to say but then you must follow your heart!”

For now Kersten’s heart is pumping away. He is on a rollercoaster ride working through all the ups and downs of organizing the vaulting championships for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. He’s focused, alert and is truly the best man for the job. And as much as he his enjoying the challenge, he is also looking forward to another lazy Sunday afternoon lounging in his hammock, basking in the sun, sifting through the pages of another great novel.