By Claire O'Neil
Photos courtesy of the author
If someone told me when I was nine years old that when I was twelve I would travel to Austria as a member of the first US European Open Junior team to compete in the European Open Junior World Championships with my dog, Ama, I would not have believed them. My experience in Austria was one I will never forget, but every success starts with a journey.
When I was nine years old, I came home one day near Christmas to the best present of all! Our dog Sami had six puppies, three girls and three boys. I immediately fell in love with the smallest and feistiest girl! I named her Samantha. When the puppies were old enough to go outside, my mom and I set up a tunnel. I played a game with the puppies by crawling through the tunnel as fast as I could and they followed. Soon Samantha was flying through the tunnel on her own.
When the puppies were old enough to go to their new homes, I decided that I wanted to keep Samantha as my dog. After lots of discussions with my parents, they agreed. We renamed her from Samantha to Ama, which means “loveable” in Dutch, which seemed natural because she is a Keeshond.
My mom trained at Fun First Agility with Susan King. I was curious about her agility lessons so I asked to come along. My mom wasn’t too keen on my coming as she felt it was her "mom time." She finally let me tag along one night. It was fun setting up an obstacle course for me over in a corner. Susan also let me teach her Cocker Spaniel Gabby some basic skills like ladder work and rear end awareness. I came to class occasionally but I mostly played with Ama in our backyard. I liked agility enough to set up an obstacle course as part of my 10th birthday party. My friends loved racing through the tunnel, jumping, and weaving as much as I did.
I really started class at Susan’s in September, 2011. We had practiced together for less than a month when I heard my mom talking about the Hangtown Trial coming up. I begged to come along and try to run Ama. Mom was a good sport about it and let me try. The first run we had was Open Standard. My mom was already running Ama competitively and had to hide at trials at first so Ama would run with me. We did pretty well but didn’t Q. Then we had our JWW run. Ama and I won first place and we moved up to Excellent A. I was hooked! Plus they had this really cool workers raffle and I worked every second I wasn’t running so I could get more tickets. I came home with a lot of great stuff for me and the dogs. Ama and I developed a little fan club at the trials I went too. Nancy Gyes, Susan Cochran, and Kathie Leggett, to name a few, would watch me and cheer us on. That was really encouraging to me.
In March, when we were in southern California at a volleyball tournament for my sister Caitlyn, my mom received a forwarded email from Susan Cochran about the European Open Juniors Team tryout. Susan thought I should try out. It involved setting up a particular course and videotaping my best run. I also had to send my competition record and any other footage that I felt would be helpful for the coach to evaluate my skills. It was a really hard course but it was fun. We had some awful weather that month and the only indoor facility nearby was set up for people practicing for AKC Nationals so we couldn’t set up my EOJ tryout course. Kathie Leggett offered her nice grass yard but the time and weather didn’t work out. We finally set up the course at Fun First in the mud and did our best. I really didn’t expect to be picked. When we saw the results I could not believe that I made the team; Ama and I were getting to go to Austria!
I knew that it would be a trip of a lifetime, but would require a lot of money. The only way I could go was to raise the money. Our local agility club, TRACS, was generous to host a fun run during the Memorial Day trial. Kathie Leggett and Susan Cochran worked together to make it happen. The day of the Fun Run, my mom and I ran the rings. Our Fun Match was well attended by club members and Susan King brought lots of her students to the match as well. The next two days during the trial my mom and I set up a table with homemade fruit cups, cookies, and brownies. People were really generous and donated tons of money. One guy bought a whole strudel from us on our “Austrian Treats” day for fifty dollars! During the trial we raised about $1500! I could not have been more grateful. After the trial ended on Sunday, my mom and her friend Jeannine drove to Vancouver, Washington to compete at the Keeshond National. At the annual club meeting there, the Keeshond Club of America donated our airfare and so many club members gave money on their own as well! Between our Keeshond and agility communities, we raised more than we could ever ask for, the majority of our trip expenses.
After I made the team and school was out, I knew I had a lot of practicing to do to get ready for Europe. Kathie Leggett, AKC World Team small dog coach, donated her time to help me with twice weekly lessons. She was so patient and really helped me out a lot! I also went to Susan Cochran’s class indoors once a week and Susan King’s on Thursday night. So I had a crash course by some of the best teachers around to help prepare me.
Competing internationally was much different than normal trials. They generally have a viaduct in the standard course and use the back side of jumps and blind crosses frequently. Also, if you mess up, you are not disqualified unless you go off course. Unlike AKC Excellent A and Excellent B, it counts as a fault and takes away five points from your score. The kids that I was competing against were very competitive. People treat agility in Europe very seriously, which made it interesting to watch and challenging to compete.
It seemed liked most of the dogs were very well trained and super fast. We were talking to some members of the Netherlands team who said it was not only common but expected that their children start learning agility with an experienced dog. A lot of the dogs, one of the moms said, are also used by their parents to compete at the European Open. She compared it to learning to ride a horse. “You wouldn’t put a green kid on a green horse, would you? We feel the best way for children to learn is to concentrate on handling and then learn to train.” When the child is about 14 they usually pick a young dog of their own to start training. That is why in the 15 to 18-year-old division you see most kids running two dogs; one experienced and one still learning. Here in the USA, many people feel that is somehow cheating. When our team discussed this idea, it really made perfect sense! That is how we are taught most other subjects, right?
Being on a team in agility was a great experience for many reasons. It certainly felt good to know that someone’s got your back even if you fail. We watched each other’s runs, cheering them on. We taped each other as well as took pictures so we could learn from our experience. It was awesome to be able to ask, “Did I do this or that?” and know you would get an exact answer as they were really paying attention.
Also we watched how kids from around the world handled the same course, discussing what we liked or not and why. It was a great way to learn.
Having a coach there watching with us helped so much. Coach Chris Ott and our team manager, Frankie Joiris, were always helping us better understand lines, angles, and approaches to obstacles and sequences.
On our down time we had instant friends to explore Pinkafeld, Austria, with. That was super fun by itself! The people on our team shared the same exact experience that I was having at that moment, developing lifetime bonds. Later that summer, my mom went on a volleyball recruiting trip for my older sister to Minneapolis, Minnesota, and one of our teammates and her mom had my mom stay at their house and showed them around the city. That was a great perk! I can’t say enough wonderful things about being on this agility team.
When I was in Austria, I had many encounters with people from all over the world. A couple weeks before the competition I was watching the EOJ tryouts on YouTube, and I commented on a Czech Republic video of Lucinka and her dog. During the competition I saw her and a couple of her friends. I went up to her and introduced myself. She was so excited that I had watched her videos and actually remembered comments from me. After that we added each other on Skype.
At first, my fuzzy dog and I got lots of curious looks but no one really seemed that interested in us. After my clean standard run, a girl from the Austrian team came up to me at the exit and said, “I trade shirts with you?!” After that, I felt I earned some respect from the other competitors. Many others asked after she did and I had a very hard time deciding who to trade with since I only had two shirts and some pins! I gave my team shirt to the girl from the Austria team and a lady, not sure if she was a mom or one of the coaches, from the Netherlands team. I traded pins for shirts with the Czech Republic, Germany, France, and Hungary. It was a great way to make agility friends.
Claire walking JWW. Coaches were allowed to walk with the competitors. It was great to discuss strategy with Coach Chris!
Looking back, my favorite moments during the competition were meeting my teammates, placing fifth in Children’s Standard and tenth place Children’s Division overall (due to one dropped bar in Jumpers With Weaves). Meeting and competing with my teammates was really fun because they were really nice and very talented. I got to hang out with all of them, we had a great time together and I made some friends with the same interest as me.
This experience taught me something about myself, too. When I got fifth place in Standard, it proved to me that I can do anything if I set my mind to it. I was so close to getting on the podium, which made me realize that I can get on the podium next time. When I got 10th overall, it made me realize that I want to take agility seriously, and really try to do my best, and that I love it and do not want to stop.
Representing my country in Europe was amazing and such an honor, but I couldn’t have done it without my family and everybody else who donated money and supported me. Every dollar counted, and I can’t thank everyone enough. Each of my teammates had similar experiences which allowed them to participate as well. Last but not least, without my amazing coaches who taught me everything I know I would not be anywhere near where I am today. It takes a community!
Next year, our EOJ team looks forward to competing in Switzerland. We are all training hard to be ready. We hope a lot more talented junior handlers will join us. The whole competition is really special and different from the adult version. The people who put on the EOJ really know how to make the whole experience super challenging and yet fun, especially for the teens on the teams! They had dances most nights and lots of time to meet kids from other countries. No matter how skilled you are now I think you will find the courses and the level of competition everything you would at other international agility events.
Click here for courses from the event.
Junior Team USA: Front row, left to right: Anneka Dahle (12 years old) with Tucker (maxi), Taufie (midi), and Charm (mini), Jessica Vanden Langenberg (17 years old) and Mayhem (mini), Brooke Knotek (17 years old) and Lady (maxi), Claire O'Neil (12 years old) and Ama (midi). Back row, left to right: Frankie Joiris (team manager), Chris Ott (team coach).