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05/18/09

 

Trying Out to be on Top of the World

By Brenna Fender

In the early days of agility, world championship agility teams were pulled together from competitors whose reputations were known as standouts in the tight-knit agility community. More than a decade later, the sport has grown and the talent pool runs very deep. Those who are chosen to represent the USA and AKC in international competition now must prove themselves the best on an even playing field under intense pressure. Welcome to the World Team Tryouts!

On May 1-3, 2009, qualified applicants for the AKC/USA Agility World Team met in Hopkins, Minnesota to be tested on courses that resembled what international judges will throw at them this fall in Austria. Judges Kurt Matushek (from Elgin, Illinois) and Diane Craig (from Duluth, Minnesota) presided over the weekend’s classes. Matushek describes the event as the most stressful judging assignment that he’s ever had. “Every dog is fast, every handler is pushing as much as possible, and every call counts. Every run is being watched by every other handler, and as a judge, you are very much aware that these people know agility. Add to that worries about remembering FCI rules and signals, and you can see how this might be a difficult weekend.”

Handlers were surely feeling the stress as well. They arrived on Friday, May 1, for a world competition-style practice. The arena was divided into three stations with different equipment at each station. “The purpose was to get your dog familiar with the different equipment (like the viaduct, tire, and extended spread) and the surface,” says Channan Fosty, who attended the tryouts with her Border Collie, Icon. “Three dogs were on the course at the same, one at each station. We were given six minutes in total for the practice, rotating to a new station every two minutes. No food was allowed, only toys,” Fosty continues.

After all the short practices were finished, competitors attended a judges briefing and then drew numbers to determine the running order. The next day offered rounds one through three and the promise that, at the end of the day, the dog and handler teams with the best cumulative scores in each jump height would be on the AKC/USA Agility World Team.

The courses were extremely challenging, offering American competitors sequences not normally seen in competition. “I heard a number of comments that the difficulty of the courses was amped up from last year. I’d agree with that,” says experienced team member Melanie Del Villaggio. “The courses at the FCI competition get tougher and tougher every year, and the courses at tryouts did a good job of testing the skills needed to excel at the FCI competition,” says team manager Toni Osojnicki.

By the end of the day Saturday, three of the 12 spots on the team were filled. Along with Fosty and Icon, Small team winner Melanie Del Villaggio and Dara and Medium team winner Ashley Deacon and Luka knew that their places on the team were assured. They still ran on Sunday, turning in more exceptional performances and proving that they are going to be valued members of the 2009 team. Californian Fosty was surprised to hear that she had made it: “I didn’t believe it until Sharon [Anderson, former head of AKC agility and tryout trial chair] announced it and the ribbon was in my hand. I am excited to make the World Team!”

Sunday’s courses were designed by Diane Craig and team coach Nancy Gyes. Selection for the second set of three team spots, one in each jump height, were based on placement points amassed over the entire weekend. Dogs ran in reverse placement order for round five, which most likely added to the stress and excitement. Winners handled the situation well. Marcy Mantell and Wave were added to the Small dog team, Karen Holik and Sizzle joined the Medium dog team, and Marcus Topps and Juice earned a spot on the Large dog team. Mantell would have joined the team anyway, since her Individual Gold Medal in 2008’s World Championship guaranteed her a return place in the individual competition per FCI rules. “I knew our place on team was secure, but I still wanted to earn our spot. The pressure was for us to not only win our spot, but do our absolute best to prove we were 100% qualified and ready to return to Worlds in the fall to defend our title,” she says.

Surprisingly, the atmosphere at the tryouts is much more positive, happy, and congenial than you might imagine. Diane Craig, who hasn’t judged in seven years because of her position as an AKC Agility Field Representative, wasn’t stressed while judging the event. “I felt no pressure at all; on the contrary, I had the best time I have had in a long time. It was a great honor to get a first row seat to watch some of the best dog and handler teams in the country and I would gladly do it again if asked.” New World Team member Denise Thomas, who attended the tryouts for the first time with her Border Collie, Zippity, says, “I found it to actually not be as high pressure as I thought it would be. Everyone was very supportive of each other whether runs went good or bad.” Judge Matushek also says, “This is one of the most supportive and collegial events you can ever attend. While there are cheers for particularly good runs, the cheers are just as loud for handlers who after going off course, pull themselves back together to finish the run in style.”

The other two spots on each team were chosen by the team coach and the team captain (AKC agility director Andy Hartman) based on performances at the World Team Tryouts, AKC Nationals, and throughout the year. The announcement of the additional World Team members was made the day after the tryouts were completed. The Small dog team added Katie Conn and Twix and Dee Anna Gamel and Kelsi. Paulette Swartzendruber and Rush and Jennifer Crank and Blaster joined the Medium dog team while the Large dog team was completed by adding Geri Hernandez and Focus and Denise Thomas and Zippity. Team members chosen after tryouts got phone calls letting them know they made it. “I was so happy when I got a call from Nancy that I think I screamed in her ear,” says Katie Conn, who is a first-time World Team member.

Competitors put much preparation into the tryouts. In order to compete, they had to first meet minimum requirements over the previous year, including earning a specified number of clean runs under a maximum yards per second rate, as well as four double Qs (combined International Sweepstakes Class winners at certain shows received automatic tryout invitations). There is a variety of paperwork and other business required in order to enter. Then many competitors studied international courses so that they could be prepared for the differences in design. Any applicant for the World Team was invited to submit their email address to the team manager in order to receive copies of courses to study trends in international competition, particularly those frequently found in the courses of this year’s judges. And of course there was practice, practice, and more practice.

All that hard work paid off for many competitors who turned in stellar performances at the event. AKC officials have high hopes for the 2009 team. “I think we have a terrific team this year,” says Osojnicki. Hartman, who attended his first tryouts as AKC’s Agility Director, agrees: “I think the team we’re going to take over there is really, really talented. I think they are going to do well.” Returning team member Karen Holik is also impressed by this year’s group. She says, “I feel each year the team gets better, but this year I feel the quality of the dogs/handlers is amazing!” Team coach Nancy Gyes is very happy with the members of this year’s team. “I think it is one of the most exciting teams we have sent to the Agility World Championships,” she says.

All but three team members have prior experience as World Team competitors, and together they have won many gold, silver, and bronze medals at previous World events. Newcomers Fosty, Thomas, and Conn have demonstrated the ability to do well at international competition, says Gyes. “These teams have proven their ability at tryouts and Nationals, and their dogs certainly have the speed to be competitive internationally,” she adds.

Making the team is far from the end of each competitor’s journey. Now the real work begins! “We have two practices scheduled, one in Wisconsin and one in San Jose. On their own the team members will study this year’s World Championship judges’ courses and will prepare by training on these kinds of international courses and sequences,” says Gyes. Fosty has some specific plans to get her dog in top shape for international courses: “We’ll be working on European elements, like threadles and push-throughs and tight turns after long fast stretches on a course. Alff [one of the World Championship judges] likes to use the broad jump in his courses in interesting ways, so we’ll practice a lot with that.”

Assistant Coach Kathie Leggett says that the internet plays a role in preparing the team members for the upcoming competition. She says, “Coach Nancy Gyes has been providing all team candidates with lots of information for the past year, once we knew who the judges were, that assisted people in preparing for tryouts and gives the team members a good familiarity about the style of each judge. The team members themselves also share courses they find on the internet with each other via the team’s Yahoo Group.” She adds, “Most of the European judges over the past few years have all had websites where we could pull down past courses they have used a various events, and so we can see what types of challenges they like to put up.”

Coach Gyes has high expectations for this year’s team, not only because of each member’s skills, but also because of advantages awarded to some of them from exceptional performances from last year. “We are running 11 dogs in the individual competition because returning gold medalists are given an extra spot in this competition. Traditionally we have only run nine dogs as that is what is allowed at this event. So we have a distinct advantage before we even step to the line. It is a promising year and I am excited to be a part of it,” she says.

Even if you didn’t make the team, you too can be a part of the excitement. The AKC encourages team supporters to travel to the event. The 2009 FCI Agility World Championships will take place from September 18–20 in Dornbirn, Austria. Supporters can contact Toni Osojnicki at osojn001@tc.umn.edu to make arrangements to attend.

Agility Vision is producing a DVD of Tryouts and also has video on demand from the event available for purchase from their website. Sales of the DVD and online videos benefit the 2009 AKC/USA World Team. You can see some free highlights from the Agility Vision videos on YouTube.

Courses from Tryouts are included in this PDF file along with the Clean Run Course Designer files used by the course builders to build the courses at the event.

Competitors in Small dog division at Tryouts. Photo courtesy of Marcy Mantell

 

Competitors in Medium dog division at Tryouts. Photo courtesy of Marcy Mantell

 

Competitors in Large dog division at Tryouts. Photo courtesy of Marcy Mantell

 

New World Team members: (l-r) Ashley Deacon and Luka, Karen Holik and Sizzle, Marcus Topps and Juice, Channan Fosty and Icon, Marcy Mantell and Wave, and Melanie Del Villaggio and Dara. Photo courtesy of Marcy Mantell