Reprinted from the October 2017 USDF Connection magazine.
Each year at the FEI North American Junior and Young Rider Championships dressage competition, the overall highest-scoring young rider is presented with a trophy, called “Pursuit of Excellence” and named in memory of someone named Fiona Baan.
The passage of time has a way of eroding memories, and before long a name on a trophy is just a name. After all, today’s NAJYRC competitors weren’t even born yet in 1994, when Baan lost her battle with cancer at the all-too-young age of 55.
But our dressage youth—the entire American dressage community, actually—should know who Fiona Baan was, and why that trophy exists. Let’s find out.
Like many people, Baan wound up in a career quite different from the one she started out in. Born in Scotland, Baan first worked in the hotel industry. An avid horsewoman, she began riding in England and would go on to enjoy various equestrian sports, including dressage (in which she competed successfully up to the FEI levels), jumping, eventing, and foxhunting.
Baan’s hotel career took her to England, Bermuda, Florida, and Nevada. In 1966 she accepted a secretarial position with the United States Equestrian Team (now USET Foundation) at its Gladstone, NJ, headquarters, and settled with her husband, Leslie, and daughter, Natalie, in nearby Far Hills.
The USET soon realized that it had hired “a master at fitting 50 hours into a 24-hour day,” as one tribute to Baan put it. Before long she was managing programs: dressage, combined driving, and even eventing for a time. Baan also became a nationally and internationally licensed dressage judge as well as a driving judge, and to serve on American Horse Shows Association (now US Equestrian) dressage and driving committees and on American Driving Society committees.
It was in her position as USET dressage director that Baan made her greatest contributions to our sport. She served as dressage-team manager or chef d’équipe at a total of six Olympic Games, World Equestrian Games, and Pan American Games from 1976 to 1992. Baan also managed the dressage teams for four Olympic Festivals and two North American Dressage Championships, and she organized the 1991 and 1992 USET Festival of Champions competitions.
A crowning moment of Baan’s career came in 1992, when the US Olympic dressage team of Carol Lavell on Gifted, Charlotte Bredahl on Monsieur, Robert Dover on Lectron, and Michael Poulin on Graf George won the bronze medal at the Barcelona Games. It was Team USA’s first Olympic dressage medal in 16 years, since the team bronze in Montreal 1976.
The forward-thinking Baan knew that developing and sustaining excellence in American dressage requires providing opportunities to promising youth. She devoted much time and energy to the Advanced Young Riders program, as it was called then, a signature achievement being the securing of the previously hard-to-get German master Conrad Schumacher as the program’s clinician for many years. Baan also was responsible for developing and refining dressage selection criteria for the North American Young Riders Championships, as it was known at the time. And that’s why the Fiona Baan “Pursuit of Excellence” Memorial Trophy was established in 1994, the year Baan died.
Baan was inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame in 2008. At the time, one of “her” riders, six-time Olympian Robert Dover (who now holds a position somewhat similar to Baan’s at US Equestrian), remembered her thusly:
“Fiona had to deal with all of us self-absorbed, supremely focused athletes, making each of us feel like we and our horses were the most important things in her life; and to a certain degree that was true. For all these years, the USET, and especially dressage, were not a job to Fiona, but most definitely her raison d’être. She is, and will always be, one of the greatest reasons for every bit of success I have ever achieved in my life.”