She began her journey with no gymnastics or equestrian experience. Now, she’s climbing to the top with a World Championships bronze medal and the 2019 Vaulter of the Year Award.
Most vaulters come into their sport with a background in either gymnastics or equestrian. But Sydney Schimack started with no such experience — just fascination, determination and a dream. And remarkably, only five years later, she was named the 2019 USEF Vaulter of the Year after an impressive performance at the Vaulting World Championships for Juniors.
At age 17, Sydney has risen quickly to the top of her sport, no matter what obstacles have stood in her way.
Starting from Scratch
When Sydney saw vaulting for the first time at age 12, she was immediately drawn to the sport.
“I watched these little girls in these beautiful costumes on these beautiful horses doing some of the coolest things I’d ever seen,” she remembers. “I told my mom that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Sydney started with a vaulting coach in her home state of Colorado at the walk level. “It’s basically easier moves and you learn the different components of vaulting. I moved up through the trot level all the way to beginning canter,” she says.
After that, Sydney started competing with a team — three vaulters performing aerial gymnastics on the horse, a truly remarkable feat that tests strength, balance and synchronicity.
“I think one of my biggest challenges was never having any gymnastics experience,” says Sydney. “Not having that definitely made it a little bit more difficult. I didn’t have the balance or coordination or understanding of where my body was in space.
“It was a little bit of a detriment,” she adds, “but I think my determination overcame much of the challenge.”
Given Sydney’s competition record, it certainly appears she’s found her footing. In July, Sydney flew to the Netherlands for the FEI Vaulting World Championships for Juniors, marking her first flight overseas alone.
“It was a little scary,” she says. “I didn’t know how any of the trains worked. It was hard! But I made it.”
Once settled in the Netherlands, Sydney received a call from her trainer with some bad news. Her European competition horse, Rio Grande, had been injured — and, in a devastating turn of events, euthanized.
Sydney and her teammates were at a sudden loss. In vaulting, unlike other disciplines, vaulters don’t usually fly their horses overseas. “That’s one of the most unique things about vaulting,” explains Sydney. “When we compete in European competitions, we borrow horses.”
Rio Grande’s death meant Team USA had no horse for the championships, just a month out from competition. They spent the next two weeks searching for people who would be willing to help.
“It was a scramble to try to find new horses,” says Sydney.
Luckily, a small team in Germany loaned two horses to Team USA. And in an impressive and gutsy performance, the Americans brought home a team bronze medal!
That effort, combined with her other 2019 competition scores, a personal essay and letters of recommendation, earned Sydney the Vaulter of the Year Award from US Equestrian. “It was such an exciting and rewarding experience,” says Sydney. “I felt so honored as I walked onto the stage and took hold of the award.”
Getting to the Top
To succeed in vaulting, a mind-boggling blend of gymnastics and horseback riding, requires an incredible amount of training, both on and off the horse.
In an average week, you’ll find Sydney on horseback as well as on a special mechanical horse called a “movie,” a training apparatus that mimics a horse’s canter. She also does weight training, cardio and endurance workouts to stay fit.
Compared to other equestrian sports, vaulting provides big opportunities at a somewhat lower cost. “You can share horses,” says Sydney. “You get to experience the whole equestrian aspect without having to worry so much about the financial part, which is definitely a plus.”
Of course, international competitions still require a financial commitment, so Sydney is grateful to US Equestrian and the USET Foundation for providing elite and developing vaulting athletes with financial support.
Sydney, who turns 18 this month, has begun training for the Senior division and has her eye on future international competitions. But first, she’ll graduate from high school and start college, hopefully at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
“To attend a service academy means to ultimately uphold everything our predecessors had worked for, the same belief that made me desire the academies after hearing the chanting crowds during my vaulting championship,” says Sydney.
Although the academy doesn’t have a vaulting club, Sydney hopes to stay involved with horses thanks to West Point’s equestrian programs.
“I would really like to continue with the sport as a senior and go to some of the next championships,” she says. “I hope to stay with it as long as I can.”