Unsung Hero – Noreen O’Sullivan

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Noreen with judge Stephan Clark

An “unsung hero” is defined as someone whose contributions are unacknowledged or little-known. In this series, we will feature and recognize some of these heroes from throughout the dressage community. To nominate your own Unsung Hero, visit the USDF website.

Unsung Hero: Noreen O’Sullivan

Nominated by: Johnny Robb

Describe in detail what contributions to the sport or the dressage community makes this person an Unsung Hero.

Noreen has served as the Gold Coast Dressage Association (GCDA) GMO President for more than a decade. Her efforts with GCDA and her company Wellington Classic Dressage brought dressage shows to the forefront in Wellington, Florida (previously known for hunter/jumpers and polo) and eventually caught the attention of the Equestrian Sports Production organization who, with Noreen’s guidance and cooperation, started the Adequan® Global Dressage Festival and put dressage in Florida on the world radar. But that is only one of Noreen’s contributions to our sport; she works behind the scenes on shows, clinics, awards, and so many little details to make the sport fair and fun for so many. She never forgets the new riders coming into the sport and treats them the same as our Olympians. She takes care of all the little details that make our shows and events a pleasure, and makes the sport inviting even in hard times such as our Covid months. Without any fanfare, Noreen always sees the glass as half full. She is innovative and determined when it comes to pressing forward with promoting dressage. Noreen has served in every area of the sport including GMO volunteer, runner, scribe, a scorer, competitor, GMO newsletter editor, sponsorships coordinator, publications director, show manager, GMO vice president, and for over a decade, GMO president. I can count on one hand the number of people I know who have committed themselves to the sport of dressage as Noreen has. She is a doer and rarely a talker. She values results over accolades. Noreen’s attention to detail and fairness to all sets her apart as one of the sport’s true promoters and for sure she is an unsung hero.

What motivates her to make these contributions?

I cannot really speak to what motivates Noreen. Her contribution takes place in spite of holding down a full time (non-dressage) job and running a boarding facility out of her own farm. It cannot be for the money, as most of what she does is volunteer work and on her paid positions, if you take into account the time she puts in, I am guessing it would pan out to less than $2 an hour. It is certainly not for the glory. If you didn’t look closely, you might not even know what Noreen’s contribution to the sport is. She is quick to give credit to others but stays out of the limelight herself. The only motivation I can come up with is a true love of the sport and maybe a desire to leave a legacy in US dressage in her wake.

GCDA President Noreen O’Sullivan (center), Secretary Amy Swerdlin (left), and Show Secretary Ann Sterling Hart

How long have you known her and how did you become aware of her efforts?

I have known Noreen for at least 2 decades, but it was not until I was asked to help the GMO with their newsletters and communications two years ago, I realized just how much time Noreen gives to the sport. Like others who showed, and enjoyed the many opportunities that Noreen was instrumental in bringing to fruition, I was focused on the events and the high profile clinicians and opportunities that were highlighted, not “the little train who could” behind the scenes. That was revealed to me as I had the opportunity to work with Noreen over the past two years . She is an amazing powerhouse that quietly changed our sport in Florida and the United States.

How long has she been involved in your group or the dressage community?

I believe it has been about 19 years, in one capacity or another ….that is some commitment!

How would your group/events be impacted should the nominee be unable to play their role?

I often ponder who will fill Noreen’s “boots” when she decides it is time to step aside . Who will care about our sport and the horses and riders like Noreen with no financial or ego fulfilling gain? I can’t begin to guess the impact it will have on our dressage community. My hope is that through her example, Noreen is inspiring others as she has me, to find the time to give back to the sport. But there is no doubt the sport will feel the loss when Noreen isn’t doing what is so often taken for granted.

Please provide any additional information you would like for us to know about her.

She has worked through some very devastating personal times without faltering, she has persevered under criticism with her laser focus on the good of the sport and never on an individual or a celebrity/star rider. I have watched as new organizations and individuals have been credited for what she has contributed and Noreen didn’t care, as long as the end result was good for the sport. Noreen is one of a kind, and we are so lucky she chose the sport of dressage as her passion.

Provide a brief biographical description.

I don’t have a bio on Noreen, but an article I found online chronicles her contributions: Longtime GCDA President and Show Manager Noreen O’Sullivan, who has not only seen the amazing transformation of the sport of dressage in the community but has personally been a catalyst for the advancement of dressage in South Florida. O’Sullivan has served as the GCDA president for more than 12 years after pitching in at almost every position. Early on, she served as a volunteer, a runner, a scribe, a scorer, and a competitor. When O’Sullivan was sidelined from competing for a year after a car accident, she wanted to stay involved in dressage even though she couldn’t ride. “The club probably benefited from me being sidelined because I still wanted to be involved with the sport, and that spearheaded my movement into management,” she explained.

Her commitment to the sport has had a profound ripple effect in making Wellington known around the globe for world-class dressage. In fact, while spearheading the GCDA, and holding down her full-time job as a financial planner, O’Sullivan and her husband, John Flanagan, started Wellington Classic Dressage, a show management company that would work side-by-side with the GCDA to further the sport of dressage and attract more riders from around the world. In 2013, O’Sullivan made history in Wellington by hosting the World Dressage Masters. Today, GCDA and WCD host as many as 16 shows and educational events a year, and Equestrian Sport Productions hosts an additional 11 dressage shows in the high season at the Adequan® Global Dressage Festival, which O’Sullivan also had an influence on.

Back in 2013, Equestrian Sport Productions approached Wellington Classic Dressage with their vision for the Global Dressage Festival and negotiated to purchase several of WCD’s high season show dates to facilitate the startup of the Global Dressage Festival. “Equestrian Sport Productions saw the high level of interest in dressage, and I saw it as an opportunity to again further our sport,” O’Sullivan explained. The result is that Wellington became a world-renowned mecca for dressage at the highest level, something that thrills O’Sullivan. “Wellington is known all over the world for dressage, and I take great pride in that. I have friends in the dressage community worldwide, and we all share a common thread – the love of our sport,” she explained.

But O’Sullivan is quick to note that the GCDA is much more than just dressage competitions. “We are about a sense of community and advancing the sport through education as well,” she said. The GCDA’s track record in the education arena is equally as stellar. O’Sullivan beams when she talks about the many social and educational events that make the GCDA such a great organization for the sport. “We host adult camps, unmounted events, symposiums, and ride-a-test events throughout the year as well,” she explained. O’Sullivan is proud of her role in the GCDA and the organization’s contribution to dressage, but always is quick to give credit to the other people who play key roles.

Related Links:

Unsung Hero – Lisa Dean

Unsung Hero – Helaine Crawford

Unsung Heroes – Tammy and Tom Lisi

Unsung Hero – Dottie (Dorothy) Dawson

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