Written by: Anna Sharpley

The debate, “is it nature or nurture that leads to success” is a continuing one, but there is nothing surer than the fact that last year’s FEI Rising Star Award recipient, Australian teenage prodigy Tom McDermott, has both in abundance.

Thumbnail for Young Guns Australia’s Tom McDermott

Julie Wilson photo

The debate, “is it nature or nurture that leads to success” is a continuing one, but there is nothing surer than the fact that last year’s FEI Rising Star Award recipient, Australian show jumping prodigy, Tom McDermott has both in abundance.

Tom’s father Greg, was himself a promising young rider whose early talent was polished by Australian Olympic team coach, Franz Maringer. The Viennese former Spanish Riding School instructor emigrated to Australia and was instrumental in Australia winning the eventing team and individual gold medals at the Rome Olympics in 1960.

Greg became a professional rider and married Jennie, Tom’s mother, a country girl and capable horsewoman. In the late 70s and 80s they followed the lucrative Bond show jumping circuit. “We did that for about five years and we had a great time,” remembers McDermott senior, “but I had to win to get the gas money to go to the next show.”

George Morris made his first trip to Australia in 1986 and had a profound influence on Greg. Given the ride on Mr Shrimpton, Greg was a member of the Australian team at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and two years later won the Pacific League of the World Cup. The knowledge of the calibre of horse needed to compete successfully overseas, combined with the arrival of children (Stephanie, in 1992 and Tom, in 1993) and “not wanting to cart the babies around the shows,” Greg retired from competition.

“Tom was not a kid that was interested in toys or computers,” remembers mom Jennie, “he just wanted to be outside.” The McDermotts bought their children a pony but weren’t pushy. “We didn’t overly encourage them to ride; in the beginning it was just riding for fun. They would ride to visit friends and be away half the day.”

Tom’s first pony was 31-year-old Flicka. At five years old he could saddle her up if he stood on a crate.

Both Tom and Stephanie eventually became keen and competitive in the jumping arena. “Tom had that natural ability,” says Greg. “We realised he was gifted when he won the Australian Junior Championships as a twelve year old in 2006.”

Tom had a real desire to win from day one, notes his father, “as well as a wonderful eye for a stride and sense of timing.” From the beginning his parents tried to teach him the right way to go about things and they made sure to buy him the right sort of horses. “Not horses that would win everything, horses that would teach him.”

Most of them in the early days were ex-racehorses. “There is a difference between riding well and riding well enough to make a horse,” says Greg. “We brought Tom up to make horses, to educate them and get them going well enough so that if they didn’t suit us, they would be good, saleable horses.”

Since that time the awards have been coming thick and fast. Tom’s been National Junior Champion twice and Young Rider Champion in 2010 and 2012. Tom also scored the unprecedented double of winning both the national Young Rider and Senior show jumping titles in 2012.

In 2008 Tom won a competition, the prize for which was a period spent with the famous Klatte jumping family in Germany. “They gave me a couple of young horses to train,” explains Tom, “and they were surprised at how quickly and how well I got them going.” The following year Tom rode on the 2009 Australian Youth Olympic Team in Sydney and in 2010 was a member of the silver medal winning Australasian Team at the Singapore Youth Olympics. “The Youth Olympics was a huge thing, just like the senior Games,” Tom observed. “It really tested the quality of your riding.”

On seeing Tom in Singapore, FEI Jumping Manager, John Roche, likened him to a young Marcus Ehning. For the past two years, Tom has spent about three months of the year in Germany training with Australian Jumping team coach, Gilbert Böckmann. “I was young and homesick the first time I went to Germany,” remembers Tom. “At one stage I did not want to stay but since then, I have been overseas a few times now and I am keen to go back. But I would like to go with a horse or horses of my own.”

Tom McDermott Stepping Up

Now 19, Tom is casting a serious shadow over the senior competition in Australia and still has another two years in Young Rider classes. He won two World Cup qualifiers in his first season, including at Sydney’s Royal Show riding the Tripp family’s imported mare, Romantic Dream, formerly ridden by Edwina Tops-Alexander.

Following a formal collaboration with Sydney businessman, Simon Tripp, the McDermotts moved to the historic, Fernhill Thoroughbred stud, just 60 minutes from Sydney and 20 minutes from the 2000 Olympic Equestrian venue at Horsley Park. The magnificent 1000-acre estate is now Tom’s Australian base where he trains the two Tripp girls, Samantha and Jessica. Tom has also stepped up in horse power. Simon Tripp has paired him with the seven-year-old stallion, Fernhill Quintago (by Quidam de Revel) and Tom bought the Böckmann-bred, Lord Pezi mare, Laguna Beach, last year. He’s included in Australia’s Futures Squad (for those with potential for selection for Rio) with these two and has been named to his country’s Normandy 2014 squad with Romantic Dream.

Despite many offers, including from Jan and Edwina Tops, Tom’s next stint in Europe will most likely be with Böckmann. However, the self-effacing young man, who declared himself, “surprised, humbled and very privileged,” to receive the FEI Rising Star Award at last year’s FEI General Assembly, feels that he still has a lot to prove in Australia before he heads overseas on a more permanent basis.

His ambition is to represent his country and he is already on his way. With his sights set on Normandy for next year’s World Equestrian Games, he says, “The next nine months are going to be very exciting.”