Here’s a momentous occasion – especially for Sri Lankans. Native-born Mathilda Karlsson is making history as the first of our islanders to compete in an equestrian event at the Olympics. The event, which is scheduled to run in Tokyo this month, comprises three disciplines.
Statistics, rankings and records don’t fully capture how rapidly Mathilda is coming to dominate the sport of her choice. Confident of her beloved horse Chopin VA and sporting an expression of certainty, she canters into a routine of verticals and oxers, as well as quarter and half rounds with her ponytail bobbing.
Since she resides in Germany currently, we caught up with the young sportswoman on Zoom for a chat about her life, hopes and ambitions.
Born in Sri Lanka, Mathilda was adopted by Swedish parents who continue to play a vital nurturing role in her life. “I was a child who had so much energy,” she says with a laugh, and adds: “My parents would let me spend all of it at the stables!”
Her eyes light up as she reminisces about childhood. Growing up around horses almost her whole life, Mathilda’s passion for these lovely creatures came before her love of the sport, which is a reality she revisits in this exclusive interview.
With a smile that sets her face aglow, Mathilda delivers her answers dutifully and directly. She loves horses and horseback riding, and urges everyone to work hard in whatever field they have a passion for.
Ashwini Vethakan sits down for a digital tête-à-tête with the internationally renowned equestrienne as she shares her life story, passions and aspirations.
“ I’ve been with horses nearly all my life but my journey probably began with my horse Chopin VA "
Q: How would you describe yourself to our readers?
A: Usually, I’m a very positive person who tries to find new opportunities in everything that comes my way. I consider myself to be hard-working, loyal and a happy person in general.
Q: Tell us about your life in Sweden first, and then Germany...
A: As many may already know, I was born in Sri Lanka and adopted by wonderful Swedish parents. So I had a fantastic time growing up in Sweden, and am grateful for my childhood and all the opportunities I had.
I enjoyed a good education and was also able to pursue a career as an international showjumper! It’s a passion that my parents supported even though they didn’t initially understand my choice. I still remember the day I told them I was moving to Germany to take up an oppor-tunity to become a showjumper.
I’m pretty sure they thought I was crazy at the time – and that it was best to let me get it out of my system! Perhaps I would eventually opt for a job they considered normal? But they always encouraged me and supported my choices, and I do know they’re very proud of where I am today.
Q: What sort of child and then teenager were you?
A: I was a very energetic child… and I think I still am energetic. Being extremely active, I’m certain that I drove everyone at home a little nuts. I know for a fact that they were very grateful to me for spending my free time at the stables – because I’d work off any excess ener-gy I had and come home tired!
Q: When did your love for horses begin?
A: It started when I was still a child. Most Swedish kids are sent to riding school, and many girls attend because it’s a place to hang out with your friends and do something that’s fun.
In all honesty, that was probably why I wanted to join riding class – for a chance to make friends. But I stayed on because I grew to love the horses; and I have spent as many of my days as possible with these animals since I was eight.
Q: What’s your most memorable moment in life so far?
A: Qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. My team and I have worked so hard and it’s been an incredible journey especially since it intro-duced me to many amazing new horses and riders.
It’s also the weightless feeling, if you know what I mean… when we’ve worked so hard to get to where we are and are told finally, that we’re in – that feeling is so uplifting.
Q: Could you describe your journey to becoming an equestrian? Since this sport takes patience, who or what gave you the strength when you started?
A: As I mentioned, I’ve been with horses nearly all my life but my journey probably began with my horse Chopin VA. I watched him being born in our stables; and I think that ever since I began riding him, there was this special bond that’s helped me get to where I am.
He is also my riding mate for the Olympics and I’ve been training with him for ever so long. I consider him my once in a lifetime horse; and I’m pretty sure I will never come across a horse like him again.
Q: Do you have any passions other than horses?
A: I’m a bit of a foodie. I love food and savour new dishes.
Q: What does representing Sri Lanka at the Olympic Games mean to you?
A: It makes me really proud. To be honest, I didn’t really feel any attachment to Sri Lanka before this. However, after coming to the island, meeting so many people, seeing the beauty of the country and receiving immense support from Sri Lankans, I feel proud to represent the land of my birth by riding under its flag at the Olympics. I feel very affectionate towards and attached to the island.
Day or night rides
Stallion or mare
Netflix or satellite TV
Facebook or Instagram
Online or offline
Dogs or cats
Beach or mountains
Bath or shower
Walk or run
Pants or dresses
Dress up or dress down
Truth or dare
Work or play
“ I think the hardest time I faced was when my official 2020 Summer Olympics qualification was taken away "
Q: At what point did you realise that this is what you wanted to do for a living?
A: Since I love spending time in the stables and around horses, it felt natural that I should take up a profession where I could spend time with my favourite animals. Of course, I never planned for the Olympics!
I’ve always been someone who was eager to find new opportunities to grow and took things in my stride; but never did I imagine I’d be where I am today.
Q: Had you not become an equestrian, what do you think you’d be doing right now?
A: Honestly, I should have an answer to that question but I don’t. I have never had a Plan B. I always knew I wanted to spend my days with horses.
However, I have recently discovered an interest in media and even movies – so who knows, maybe something along those lines?
Q: What has been your greatest challenge in life so far?
A: I think we all go through difficult times and face hurdles, and so it’s about having a certain mindset and knowing that we all have bad days – in order to really appreciate the good ones.
I think the hardest time I faced was when my official 2020 Summer Olympics qualification was taken away. To this day, my team and I don’t really understand the reasons behind it because we did nothing wrong.
It felt almost personal and vindictive; and so it was very difficult to have to explain myself and what went wrong especially when I was scrutinised by the media. It wasn’t so much in Sri Lanka that this took place, and for that I am most thankful; but it was very difficult for a while back home.
Q: Which rider do you admire most – and why?
A: Swedish equestrian and Olympic medallist Peder Fredricson. I admire his horsemanship and how he treats his horses – he taught me it’s the horses that come first, and the sport second.
As female role models go, I look up to Australian showjumper Edwina Tops-Alexander; and of course, my trainer American-born German equestrienne Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum who was the first female rider to be ranked world number one in equestrian jumping in 2004. They are very inspiring people to be around.
Q: What was your most memorable critique?
A: That nothing comes from nothing – you need to work hard to achieve what you want.
Q: Your least favourite horse related job…
A: I don’t like to be around when the vet is there since I’m not a fan of needles and it’s really painful to watch our horses when they fall sick.
Q: What is the one piece of riding equipment you can’t do without?
A: My gloves.
Q: Tell us about your reaction when you found out that you’d qualified for the 2020 Summer Olympics?
A: Since I got to experience it twice technically, my initial reaction was euphoric and I was a little wide-eyed; but the second time around, I was more wary and simply grateful.
Mother (Mona-Lis Andersson)
Father (Åke Karlsson)
Fiancé (Joern Reinecke)
To be the best version of herself
Hearing the word ‘no’
It doesn’t matter what your background or history is – you are the queen (or king) of your own life
Her mother – “Because she is generous and has always put me first. I wouldn’t be the person I am if it wasn’t for her”
“ Sri Lanka is my ideal holiday destination because to this day, it’s the most beautiful place I have ever visited "
Q: What’s your definition of ‘success’?
A: When you have created a good environment for yourself, and can’t wait to wake up and start your day doing what you love.
Q: How would your family and friends describe you?
A: Someone with a lot of energy: driven, optimistic and generally happy.
Q: You suddenly find yourself stranded on an unknown island – what are the most indispensable things you’d need?
A: Water, food, company and perhaps a blanket.
Q: Where is your ideal holiday destination – and why?
A: Sri Lanka is my ideal holiday destination – because to this day, it’s the most beautiful place I have ever visited.
Q: Would you call yourself a romantic? And what’s the most romantic thing someone has done for you?
A: No, I wouldn’t call myself a romantic. I appreciate anyone who is loyal and sticks by my side but I’m not someone who is flattered by flowers and chocolates – well, maybe the chocolates!
However, my fiancé knows me well enough and of the two of us, I’d say he’s the romantic one.
Q: Describe your ideal date…
A: A good dinner at a nice restaurant that’s followed by a stroll on the beach where we can talk and spend time with each other.
Q: If you could become an ambassador for a global cause, what would it be and why?
A: I think something that involves animals.
But I’m also someone who campaigns for children to have the right to a proper education.
“ I appreciate anyone who is loyal and sticks by my side but I’m not someone who is flattered by flowers and chocolates – well, maybe the chocolates "
Q: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
A: To slow down sometimes and be a little more organised.
Q: And what’s next for Mathilda Karlsson?
A: I hope to get married! We had planned to do so at the end of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. However, given the current global situation, things didn’t go quite as planned – so we’re hoping to settle down and get married once the Olympic Games are over this year.