Sonja Johnson Excerpt from An Eventful Life book | An Eventful Life

Sonja Johnson Excerpt from An Eventful Life book

In June 2020, An Eventful Life celebrated 10 years since the launch of the book that started everything for us

The book, An Eventful Life, published in 2010, provides a written and pictorial insight into the lives of five elite Australian Olympic eventing riders; Megan Jones, Sonja Johnson, Shane Rose, Wendy Schaeffer and Stuart Tinney and a young professional rider just starting out, Emma Scott

We’ll be sharing some excerpts from the book over the next few weeks; this exerpt is taken from the chapter on Olympic silver medallist Sonja Johnson, who is still hoping to be 'standing on the top level of the podium holding a gold medal'



      “Sonja Johnson – Australia, penalties zero, position 1"                                          Photo: Franz Venhaus


Sonja Johnson

For Sonja, the Olympic Games in Hong Kong and winning a silver medal was amazing, but it is not what she immediately thinks of as a career highlight.

For her, coming second at the Pony Club State Championships when she was just thirteen is still a wonderful, vivid memory and one she rates as a major highlight in her riding career.

Wins at national level, such as the Melbourne Three Day Event in 2006 and the Sydney Three Day Event in 2008, are certainly great achievements, but she sees them as stepping stones to where she really wants to be – at international championships such as the Olympic Games or World Equestrian Games.

Making it onto the World Equestrian Games team in Aachen in 2006 with Ringwould Jaguar (Jag) was, for Sonja, a great achievement and yet it was also a great disappointment. As she rode into her dressage test she admits to thinking, ‘Wow, I’m at the World Games’ instead of concentrating on her riding. Consequently the mark was not what she wanted.

It continued to go wrong on cross country day when a simple mistake coming out of the water saw her and Jag fall on the flat, where she broke her ribs and suffered concussion. The team went on to win a bronze medal, but the event left Sonja feeling she had let everyone down. She thanked her team mates as she stood on the podium receiving her bronze medal knowing that she hadn’t, in her own mind, done anything to contribute to their success.

“I was pretty low and lots of people thought I would quit, but I’m not a tenacious, pig-headed thing for nothing. Sam Lyle, the assistant national show-jumping coach, and [Equestrian Australia’s High Performance Manager] Brett Mace were a big help during that time and I kept going because there was a job very much undone – [and] I don’t like that.”

It was a hard fight for Sonja to overcome the experience at Aachen and to convince the selectors that she should go to Hong Kong for the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008.

She struggled on and a trip to New Zealand in 2007 was rewarded when she clocked up a good win with Jag in the CCI Three Star at Taupo. This, together with her great performances winning the Sydney International Three Day Event and coming fourth at the Melbourne International Three Day Event, found Sonja taking her spot on the plane bound for Hong Kong.

Determination to succeed is what got Sonja to Beijing. She doesn’t consider herself particularly talented, but she has willpower in abundance and will work hard to succeed.

Prior to the announcement of the Hong Kong team Sonja admits to planning unbelievably slow, painful and unpleasant deaths for all of the Australian Olympic equestrian management team. The whole process of team selection was taking its toll and Sonja just wanted to know what was happening. She does admit that she finds the whole selection process much easier to deal with these days than she has in the past, which she says is thanks in part to the efforts of Matt Burgen from the Western Australian Institute of Sport, but back then she just wanted to get on with things. If she was going to Hong Kong, that was great; if she wasn’t going, she had other things to do.

As it transpired, the team riders for Hong Kong were told, well ahead of anyone else, who was on the team, in order to allow time for the appeal process. Sonja describes the phone call telling her she was on the team as “strange” and something she wanted to share with one of her team mates.

“After my phone call I knew that Megan [Jones] was on the team so I phoned her to say ‘well done’, and asked how she felt when she had been told. She sheepishly told me she had said, ‘Oh, right, that’s nice, thank you’. I laughed and told her that I had reacted in exactly the same way. We both thought we should have had this feeling of euphoria, but I think we were practical enough to think we still have eight more gallops to go before we get to go cross country and that’s plenty of time for things to go wrong.”

One really positive thing that happened after the team announcement was the attitude of management towards Sonja, as they suddenly couldn’t do enough to help her. Those same people, whom a few days previously she had wanted to kill, were now being very kind and considerate and treating her like one of their favourite children.

She discovered there had been some in the “ranks” who didn’t think she should be there, but now that she was, they were all behind her and she was on her way to that Olympic medal.

Compared to Aachen, Sonja found the Olympic trip much more relaxed, probably partly due to the fact that the air had been cleared between her and Wayne (Roycroft ) and she was now happy to focus on the job in hand. In lots of ways Sonja treated the Olympics like any other event.

She went out and did her dressage test, walked the cross-country course several times and then successfully jumped the round and produced perhaps not a classic round, but it was a clear show-jumping round and at the end of the day that was all that mattered.

She remembers the most amazing moment when she completed her team show-jumping round, came through the finish, galloped around the arena and saw the big screen, which read “Sonja Johnson – Australia, penalties zero, position 1”.

“My clear round had, for that moment, put me into the lead and 20,000 people went berserk for Jag. He felt like a million dollars and I thought to myself, ‘I have repaid my stuff-up at Aachen’.”

At the medal ceremony itself Sonja looked down at her medal and had a moment of “Wow, this is special”. Then she looked across to the Germans who were standing in the middle and thought, “How am I going to beat them?”

Sonja believes her journey will not be complete until she is standing on the top level of the podium holding a gold medal. After the ceremony Wayne asked Sonja how it felt to be an Olympic medallist, probably believing she would be in awe of what she had achieved. He should have realised that this farmer wasn’t going to give him the answer he expected.

“I told him that I knew over in China they were holding the Olympic Games and here in Hong Kong we were having a horse show. I was just a normal person and really didn’t see how I had won an Olympic medal so this couldn’t really be the Olympics. He just looked at me, shook his head and said, ‘I hope we can get you over that Sonja’.”

It wasn’t until Sonja got home that the realisation of what she and Jag had achieved really hit her.

Her family and friends had made a DVD of all the television coverage that the Games had received in Western Australia so she allowed herself to sit down and watch. In past years she had watched other people winning medals, but this time it was her riding in the Olympic stadium and jumping that medal-winning round.

So, since her conversation with Wayne, Sonja has worked out that it must have been her at the Olympic Games because she saw it on television, but she still seems perplexed as to how it all came about.

© An Eventful Life - Life Stories of Eventing Champions

Read the excerpt from the chapter on Megan Jones here

Read the excerpt from the chapter on Shane Rose here

Read the excerpt from the chapter on Wendy Schaeffer here


     Sonja and Misty Isle Valentino - 3rd in the CCI4* (now 5*) at the 2018 Australian International 3 Day Event