The 1992 Barcelona Olympics showcased Brazil's equestrian talent with both the oldest and youngest rider of the event on their showjumping team. Representing the bookends of the age spectrum were the then 56-year-old Nelson "Neco" Pessoa and his 19-year-old son, Rodrigo Pessoa. Little did anyone know that this esteemed equestrian family, already well-recognized at the time, was poised for even greater triumphs despite Neco's impressive career.
Nelson Pessoa, born in 1935 in Rio de Janeiro, began riding horses at a very young age. At 14, Neco's father sent him to Chile, where the Chilean riders were considered superior to their Brazilian counterparts, with the hope that Neco would learn from the best. It didn't take long for him to become one of the best himself. At 18, he joined the Brazilian showjumping team as a civilian, a significant achievement considering that, at that time in Brazil, the sport was predominantly dominated by military personnel. Two years later, he made his Olympic debut, and at the age of 25, he relocated to Europe, continuing to compete at the highest level for over three decades.
Rodrigo Pessoa was born in Paris in 1972, and he never doubted that he would follow in his father's footsteps. Much of his childhood was spent observing his father's riding, both at home and around the world. He began riding at the age of 4, and it became clear that he not only had the potential to match his father's success but also surpass it. In 1988, he started competing in Grand Prix events, and a year later, the gelding Special Envoy became a part of their family, with both Neco and Rodrigo competing with him. Rodrigo showcased his exceptional riding talent with Special Envoy, and together, they qualified for the 1992 Olympics. While the event did not result in any Brazilian showjumping medals, it marked a significant milestone in both Neco and Rodrigo's journeys. The symbolic torch was passed, and from that moment on, it was Rodrigo's turn to step into the spotlight.
Just four years later, Rodrigo Pessoa played a pivotal role in making Olympic history for Brazil. He was a part of the Brazilian team that secured an Olympic equestrian medal for their country for the first time ever—an Olympic bronze. This marked the beginning of the most successful period in Pessoa's career. Two years later, he was crowned the world's best showjumper.
In 1998, he competed in both the World Cup final and the World Equestrian Games. At the World Cup final, he partnered with Baloubet du Rouet, a stallion primarily ridden by Neco until then. This relatively new partnership proved exceptional as they won the competition. At the World Equestrian Games in Rome, he rode Gandini Lianos and together, they clinched the individual title. With two successful and incredibly talented showjumping horses at his disposal, it was evident that Rodrigo Pessoa had more significant achievements ahead of him.
Read also: Can horses really think and feel?
Pessoa and Baloubet repeated their World Cup success twice, in 1999 and 2000, making them the only pair to win the competition three times consecutively. A few months after their third World Cup win, the successful duo headed to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where they were favorites to win the individual competition. While the Brazilian team secured another bronze, the individual competition began promisingly for Pessoa and Baloubet, who were at the top of the leaderboard before the final round. However, it ended in disappointment as Baloubet refused to jump one of the obstacles, leading to their elimination.
Four years later, the Olympics were held in Athens, and once again, Pessoa competed alongside Baloubet, who was now 15 years old and nearing the end of his competitive career. They started the competition somewhat shakily, and although they made it to the final round, they were never in the top 10 up to this point. They performed flawlessly in the final round, securing a shared second place, and after a jump-off, they clinched second place and the silver medal for themselves. A year later, they were retroactively awarded the gold medal for the competition as Cian O'Connor, who had finished first, was disqualified following a positive doping test. Despite the anticlimactic circumstances, it was now official that Rodrigo Pessoa had won both the World Equestrian Games and the Olympics as an individual rider.
In the 19 years since the Athens final, Rodrigo Pessoa has experienced both ups and downs in his career, and he continues to compete to this day. In 2017, he temporarily set aside his own riding career to become the coach of Ireland's showjumping team. Under Pessoa's guidance, they won the European Championships in 2017 and the Nations Cup in 2019, earning their qualification for the Tokyo Olympics. However, Pessoa withdrew as coach by the end of 2019 to refocus on his own riding and spend more time with his family.
Since 1955, the Pessoa name has been a fixture at the world's most prestigious showjumping events, and even if this legacy were to end when Rodrigo eventually retires from active competition, nothing will diminish the status of Rodrigo and Neco as one of the most successful father-son duos in the history of equestrian sport.