This summer, Rolf-Göran Bengtsson is Sweden’s best bet for an Olympic medal. Meet the 49-year-old show-jumper who is fast becoming a Swedish icon.
Photography THOMAS SKOU Text MARIA GRAAE / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.3
Rolf-Göran Bengtsson is a sporting icon in Sweden, famous for his elegant style in the saddle, his humble attitude and, more than anything, for being an incredibly hard worker. He’s probably also the Swedish sportsman with the best chance of winning an Olympic medal in London later this year. He has taken silver at the two previous Olympic Games, and last year he earned Sweden it’s first ever gold medal at the European Showjumping Championships in Madrid, riding Ninja La Silla to a victory proudly witnessed by his 80-year-old mother Elsa, his biggest supporter.
As we walk to the Danish showground-stable at JBK Horse Shows in Odense, Rolf-Göran exchanges greetings with people along the way. He’s clearly in his element, exuding a natural authority and confidence, even though he’s not entirely at ease with both the camera that’s being trained on him and the impending interview. However the bashful show-jumper can’t help laughing when the decidedly non-equestrian photographer asks him if he could wear his dressage jacket for the picture; and when a nearby horse reaches forward to eat straw from the photographer’s hand – an improvised bit of composition used to frame the picture – any lingering reticence finally disappears.
Even so, while the photographer is taking Rolf-Göran’s picture, his colleagues in the stable look on and confirm the obvious: This isn’t someone who thrives on attention.
These days, Rolf-Göran’s home is Breitenburg in Germany where he runs a competition and training stable with the Danish trainer and fellow show-jumper Bo Kristoffersen. But the humble Swede is originally from Södra Sandby, Skåne, in the southwest of Sweden. Born in 1962, he grew up on his parents’ farm and his talent as a rider became apparent at an early age: He won two gold medals in Swedish three-day eventing, first in 1977 and then in 1979. “My expertise is actually in repairing heavy machinery, tractors and so on,” he reveals. “I had two years’ training, and worked full-time as a mechanic for six years helping my father on the farm. But I’d rode five horses every evening. We didn’t have an indoor arena so in the winter I had to drive the horses to Flyinge to be able to train. During those six years I competed quite a lot, and in ’83 I got into in the Swedish observations group for the national team. However it became more and more difficult to keep competing while I had a day job. The shows would start on Fridays, so I’d have to leave work early or sometimes even take days off, as I’d return home late on Sunday night and go into work exhausted on Monday morning. So in ’85 I had to quit my job. And nine years later I got my first world championship, placed 17th with Paradiso in Holland.”
But the climb from Skåne to showjumping’s elite was long and expensive, and there was still a long way to go to be among the very best. Rolf-Göran was 35 when he received a job offer from Dutch rider and horse dealer Jan Tops to join his team. “At that age, waiting wasn’t a option,” he says. “I had to decide. My father has just died and it was a difficult time. I had my own successful horse-training business and I was competing, but at the same time I knew it was now or never. So I made the decision and closed down. I went to Holland to work with Jan Tops in September 1997 and spent the next five and a half years there. I learned a lot about management and how to be more professional.”
And then Rolf-Göran began his climb to international showjumping’s summit, which led him a decade later to his first individual Olympic silver in Hong Kong in 2008, beaten only by Eric Lamaze and the legendary Hickstead.
Working in Jan Tops’s prestigious stable, Rolf-Göran could fully concentrate on improving his skills in the saddle. However this meant giving up the control he had enjoyed as an independent, when he could choose which horses he rode or when a horse was to be sold. In 2000, just a few months before the Sydney Olympics, Jan Tops decided to compete on Rolf-Goran’s mount, Roofs, a real setback to the Swedish rider. The following year he bounced back riding Pialotta, winning his first championship medals by coming third at the European Championship and winning team silver as well. But in 2002 his dreams of competing on Piolotta in the World Championship in Jerez were shattered when Jan Tops sold the mount just six weeks before the contest. “That’s just the name of the game,” he explains, without any regret in his voice.
In 2003 he got a phone call from Bo Kristoffersen, whom he’d met on the showground, and took another life-changing decision, leaving the Netherlands for Germany and becoming his own boss once again, in partnership with Bo. The following year he won his Olympic silver medal in team jumping, and in 2005 started working with Mexican horse owner Alfonso Romos. Asked how he got to his position at the forefront of world showjumping, he says: “I got plenty of experience in my years in Holland. That’s something that doesn’t come free; it takes time to accomplish. Then I’m lucky enough to know Alfonso, and the rest of it is just down to a lot of hard work.”
As he continues, it becomes clear that he’d sooner talk about Alfonso Romos and how the Mexican horse owner has bought some of the best showjumping mares for breeding than tell his own story. He also goes to great lengths to clarify that the former sponsor of Jan Tops contacted him only after he had terminated his partnership with Tops. Ever the gentleman, he wants to make it clear that everyone around him has behaved honourably.
Life is good for Rolf-Göran, who currently has four Grand Prix horses in his stable. “I think it could be amazing to try to be number one in the world rankings – even for one month, just to experience the feeling. The truth is that when you win a medal, you always want one more.”•