Lily Chiu Zilo may not have earned a spot as Hong Kong's dressage representative in the 2008 Equestrian Olympics, but the lessons she learned in her effort to represent her home country were priceless. "If had to do over again, I would. I'm a very goal oriented person and I always like to set goals for myself and try to achieve them," she said.
In fact Lily was one the first dressage riders to appear in the Olympic stadium. Lily Chiu Zilo was one of 120 torch bearers selected to participate in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Torch Relay in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Equestrian Federation had 5 representatives who carried the torch in the Hong Kong Olympic Equestrian Venue - President, Dr. Simon Ip, JP, honorary Treasurer, Mr. Michael Lee, Jumping rider, Mr. Kenneth Cheng, Dressage rider, Mrs. Lily Zilo Chiu as well as the captain of Hong Kong Para Equestrian Team, Mr. Nelson Yip.
It would not have been the first time that Zilo, based in Wellington, Florida, had represented Hong Kong internationally. She was a member of the Hong Kong Dressage Team at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, Qatar with her mare Windsor's Mira.
It was right after that event that Zilo begin thinking of the 2008 Olympics. "When the Games were over, the Chinese Federation spoke to all riders and told us that if we pursued, on our own, an interest in going to the Olympics that maybe we could represent Hong Kong," she said.
As her Asian Games mount was only capable of Prix St. Georges and Intermediaire competition, Zilo went on the hunt for a Grand Prix horse. She also linked up with American Olympian Michelle Gibson as her trainer. Zilo went horse shopping in Europe and last spring she found Stradivari 14, a 14-year-old Hanoverian gelding she purchased from Hubertus Schmidt.
As an amateur rider, Zilo said she knew she faced a big challenge in her Olympic run. "The reason we're amateurs is that we have other things in life. We have other priorities. For a professional, the first priority is riding and training the horse. But as an amateur, I have other responsibilities as a mother, homemaker, wife and then rider. Being a rider is not top priority and never has been. Being an amateur rider and trying to reach this goal was extremely challenging."
Zilo was born in Taipei. Her family later moved to Hong Kong, from where her mother is from. Zilo learned to ride while she and her husband, Alex, were living in Italy. In 2001, the Zilos moved to the U.S. and chose the Wellington, Florida as their home because of their growing equestrian interest. Aside from being busy riding, Zilo has also spent some time doing a bit of media coverage of equestrian events for Chinese media, most recently at the Collecting Gaits Farm/USEF Festival of Champions in California.
Lily Gave it Her All
When the Hong Kong Federation made it clear that it would have one spot in the summer's Olympic Games, Zilo dug in and went to work, but her biggest challenge was time. "I went from being a Prix St. Georges rider to trying to get to Grand Prix in a matter of months. It was a very tough goal," Zilo said. "If I'd had a little bit more time, I think the goal would have been more possible."
Much of the problem was that it was late in the process before Hong Kong knew for sure that, as host country, it had a guaranteed spot in the Olympics. Riders, such as Zilo, who were interested, had to cover much of the initial cost of their Olympic run, although the Hong Kong Jockey Club did help out.
"Fortunately, I had my own support team," Zilo said. "I had my own trainer, my own grooms – my daily groom and an international groom who would travel with me. I had my veterinary support, including chiropractor and acupuncturist.
I had my farrier and my own sports psychologist and my personal trainer. This whole process required a lot of effort and a big team. By the time we had it all set up and everyone felt comfortable, the time was really, really short. But everybody gave 120 percent to make this happen and I can't thank them enough."
To make it to the Olympics, Zilo needed two qualifying scores of 64 percent at a CDI and those scores had to come from "O" judges not from her native country. Not an easy task, especially for an amateur rider new to Grand Prix, who was thus not able to show the consistency in competition that judges like to see before awarding higher scores, Zilo said.
"It's also been seen in the past that other Asian nations have been known to buy really good horses to try and make an Olympic Games. And afterward, they just disappear. So there was a sense that this might be the same with me," she said.
For Zilo, however, her Olympic run is just the beginning. She's already targeting the 2010 Asian Games and possibly a World Cup and World Equestrian Games and is hunting for an international-caliber horse. Much depends on whether or not Hong Kong is allocated spots for those international competitions. Regardless, Zilo said aiming for an international team has certainly furthered her real goal as an amateur – becoming a better rider.
"For me, it was always about becoming a better rider. In this sport, everything is always about becoming a better rider," she said. And is she better? Zilo said "yes, definitely. I'm able to make corrections better and faster."
Zilo is proud of her effort to be Hong Kong's Olympic representative, mostly because she believes an Olympic goal is an admirable one for an amateur rider. "The original spirit of the Olympics was that it consisted of the best amateurs in the world. Some how in the process, at least on the equestrian side, the focus has been on the professional riders.
So, for me, to be an amateur and get as far as I did is like 'wow.' I hope that I have encouraged Chinese, especially the younger generation, to try and to realize that they are good enough to be part of the Olympics."
One other thing Zilo said she learned from her Olympic effort is just how kind and supportive is the equestrian community. "I was able to compete with the best riders from the East Coast and Canada and it was a great experience as an amateur rider to be able to compete alongside them. As an amateur, we rarely have such opportunities. And all of them were so extremely supportive. They always had kind encouragement to offer. It was a really good feeling. I appreciate their support and I want to thank them all."
As for travelling to Hong Kong to watch the Games in her home country, Zilo decided to pass. "The cost would be very high to make the trip, and I decided it would be money better spent for my training."