TOKYO — Lindsay Kellock and her horse Sebastien have posted some of the best results of their competitive dressage partnership in the months since Kellock's younger brother Jonathan died of a brain tumour.
Studies have shown that animals know when humans are hurting. Kellock certainly believes it.
"I think (Sebastien) took care of me for sure," Kellock said of the 15-year-old black gelding she affectionately calls "Seb."
"I think there were times I wasn't completely there, and he helped me be there. He brought everything for me this season."
Kellock, a 31-year-old from Newmarket, Ont., is making her Olympic debut in Tokyo, seven months after Jonathan died of a glioblastoma, the same deadly form of brain tumour that killed Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie.
Sister Jamie, who's 26, is also in Tokyo as a groom to Jessica Phoenix, an eventing athlete.
Jonathan Kellock was an accomplished ski racer, then a ski coach in Whistler, B.C., before he died on Jan. 5 when he was just 29. His sisters say he was the kind of person who was immediately -- and annoyingly -- good at any sport he picked up.
They say he never complained after his diagnosis and kept his sense of humour until the end.
"That totally was his way of making it easier on us," Lindsay said. "He was an amazing human being. He made the best of what it was, and he was so genuine and honest about being himself throughout."
Both sisters sense Jonathan's hand in so much of their Tokyo Olympic experience.
"He's definitely here with us. And I wish I could put it into words ... it's too hard to talk about," Jamie said, with a catch in her voice. "It feels like things have fallen into place here too well, kind of."
As a groom, Jamie flew to the Games aboard Air Horse One, the huge cargo plane that transports horses. Jamie sat in one of a half a dozen seats behind the pilots, while the 37 horses, loaded via a conveyor belt, took up the body of the jumbo jet for the 18-hour trek that included a stop to refuel in Dubai.
"It was an amazing experience. I was thinking about all the things that Jonny got to experience in his short life. When he ski-raced, he would travel all over the place," Jamie said. "So, I was thinking about him, and how I got to ride in the cockpit for takeoff and landing, and when else would I get to experience something like this?"
Lindsay spoke hours after her team outfitting in Tokyo, where the first person she bumped into was her brother's high school adviser Graham Birt, who's volunteering at the Games. Birt asked how Jonathan was doing. Lindsay had to tell him the sad news.
"That wasn't easy, having to tell someone who didn't know," she said.
"Jonny was my best friend, and he was always such a huge support," she added. "It's a big change not having him here, but I know he's with me every step of the way, and I try to believe there's signs out there - like today (bumping into his adviser), shows me that he's with me."
Days earlier, Lindsay was pulling out of the driveway of the family's Newmarket home to head to the airport when her mom Jennifer presented her with a necklace - a silver and diamond "L" - that Jonathan had ordered as a gift. A delivery error sent the package to his old home in Whistler before it finally arrived in Ontario in time for the Olympics.
"It's something that I'm holding very close to me, and I plan on wearing throughout here," said Lindsay, who grew up riding with Jamie at Sunnybrook Stables in Toronto, which was managed by their mom.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lindsay hadn't yet clinched her Olympic berth when Jonathan died, but her results had been promising. After his diagnosis, he spent all of 2020 living with Lindsay, their mom and a close family friend, Brittany Fraser-Beaulieu, also a member of Canada's dressage team in Tokyo, in Wellington, Fla.
"He was at every show," Lindsay said. "That was pretty special."
Her Olympic qualifying events resumed, coincidentally, a few days after his death. Competing hasn't been easy. There were many days she had to shelve her feelings.
"I've had to be strong and tell myself that Jonny would want me to do this, and he wouldn't want me to be home in pain and hurting. He wants me to be out here competing," she said.
Added Jamie: "The first time I saw Linds compete in Florida (after Jonathan's death), when she was really campaigning for her spot on the team, that was really emotional for me. It was just so amazing to see her in the ring and doing so well."
Both sisters credit Sebastien, who Lindsay describes as a headstrong horse with a big ego. Lindsay said in a recent interview with Horse Sport Magazine that if he was a human celebrity, he'd be Clint Eastwood.
The two teamed up five years ago, but it took a while for Sebastien to warm up to the rider.
"He's quite aloof, a little bit of an introvert at first, it's taken time for me to really bond with him," Lindsay said. "But he's so worth it. He's extremely talented, and when we're meshing together, he's amazing and he'll do his best for me."
Dressage, the French word for "training," has riders putting their horses through a series of movements such as the Piaffe and Pirouette. The Olympic medal events are Tuesday for the team Grand Prix and Wednesday for the individual Grand Prix.
And then the "emotions are going to be flowing," Lindsay said. "I'm getting ready to mourn Jonny more than I ever had, if I’m being honest, because I haven't had a chance to really do that. I had days where I'm thinking of him every day, but there's days where I've had to almost tell myself to hold it together."
While COVID-19 protocols meant no friends or family could travel to Tokyo, the Kellocks still have a big support system here. Their mom's best friend Ashley Holzer, who's also their godmother, is the Canadian team trainer. And their cousin Hanna Bundy is working with CBC's broadcast crew at the equestrian venue.
"I wouldn't want to be on a team with anyone else after what happened to me and my family this year with Jonny," Lindsay said. "It's pretty special to be here with my closest friends, godmother and sister."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 24, 2021.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press