It has been a fairy-tale start to the Olympic year for Sri Lanka with Mathilda Karlsson riding in from Sweden after qualifying for Tokyo 2020 in showjumping and announce that she would be representing the land of her birth. Sri Lankans are literally jumping for joy and warmly embracing their little princess who was adopted [...]


From Sweden with love

Mathilda’s love for horses puts Sri Lanka on Olympic map in equestrian - 'I feel very proud and supported representing Sri Lanka'

Mathilda with her favourite horse Chopin VA. Photo credit: Aenne Möller

It has been a fairy-tale start to the Olympic year for Sri Lanka with Mathilda Karlsson riding in from Sweden after qualifying for Tokyo 2020 in showjumping and announce that she would be representing the land of her birth. Sri Lankans are literally jumping for joy and warmly embracing their little princess who was adopted by Swedish parents as a three-month-old baby in 1984 for her magnanimous decision to represent the country in a virtually unknown sport – equestrian.

Mathilda’s historic qualification to the Olympic Games was two years in the making after she fell in love with Sri Lanka on her first visit to the island in 2017 where she met Sri Lanka Equestrian Association president Suranjith Premadasa. Thereafter she set herself a goal of flying the Lion flag and become the first equestrian athlete in history to qualify and represent Sri Lanka at the Olympic Games.

“It feels incredible. I feel nothing but grateful and proud to be here and to share my story with all of you,” said Mathilda in an interview with the Sunday Times on her feat.

“It is just positive feelings definitely. I feel so proud and I know it’s been a process for two years since I changed my nationality back to Sri Lankan, and this goal to go to the Olympics. I have actually qualified now,” said the 35-year-old like an ebullient teenager who looks more Sri Lankan than Swedish with her dusky complexion.

Christian Evangelist

“I don’t speak Sinhalese. Yes, definitely I would love to learn the language and I will!,” exclaimed Mathilda who derives her love for animals and people from her upbringing in Sweden as a Christian Evangelist.

“It was not an easy decision, as I was always very happy to be representing Sweden,” said Mathilda on her decision to switch nationalities. “I will always be Swedish, and a big part of my heart will always belong to Sweden. That is where I grew up, and where I have all my values from. However, I feel very proud and supported representing Sri Lanka. For me, it was the right thing to do.”

Mathilda reached her Olympic dream after competing through 2019 partnering her favourite horse Chopin VA against the best in the world and consistently picked up world ranking points. She and Chopin VA eventually finished second on the Olympic Ranking from South East and Oceania, which secured them a ticket to Tokyo.

Top 100

Ranked 280 in the world, her main target is to break into the top 100 next year and qualify to the final round at the Olympics.

“My main goal as a rider will be to be on the top 100. I gained 1,000 spots this year which is very much. I really hope that I can improve that,” said Mathilda whose qualification hopes were hit by an ailment to Chopin VA.

Lime disease

“I have been on a very secure spot as number two in the Olympics ranking. The first is Jasmine Chen from Taiwan. She was also way ahead of me but I have always been a secured second kind of the whole year. Then in August my horse felt sick. He got lime disease which took a long time to treat and also a long time to find,” she said.

“I knew something was wrong but I really didn’t know what it was. Then we found it and we had to treat it. So we dropped down to seven in the rankings which means that I wouldn’t qualify. In November, I was still on seven. I knew I had five weeks to get points to gather what I needed. I was on 150 points but I needed 307, almost as much as I had for the whole year. So it looked really dark, really impossible but he is a very special horse. He is one of the best horses in the world I have to say,” related Mathilda gratefully.

Mathilda has a truly special bond with her Olympic horse Chopin VA, an 11-year-old approved stallion by Sasall and Coriano, having been a part of Chopin VA’s life since he was born at Gronwodhldhof in Holstein, Germany. “We have been inseparable since the day he was born,” she says.

“He kept jumping clear and kept winning classes. So at the end of the year, we had all the points together.

“I had a couple of horses that I collected points with. My main goal was always to go to the Olympics with Chopin. I collected most points with him obviously. You get the points for the results you get. The higher the rank, more points you get. If you are not winning as many Grand Prix, you can collect the points that you need by going to a lot of shows instead,” she said.

South of Sweden

A native of Kristianstad in the south of Sweden, she started her equestrian career at the local club Kristianstads Ryttarsallskap where she developed her passion for horses.

“I started riding at the age of 7 or 8. In Sweden it’s very normal for a girl to go to the riding school. Every little girl goes to spend time with their friends more than with the horses. But I fell in love. I didn’t want to do anything else than to stay with the horses. I dedicated all of my time to be with the horses, to ride and be in the stable. I always enjoyed just being around horses,” she chuckled.

“To be honest I never thought that I would be riding in the Olympics. I never really had a goal to go the Olympics. Of course, every girl kind of dreams about it. I didn’t feel like it was something that would happen. And to be here today with that amazing horse that I have which is very special to me is fantastic,” she said.

For the last 16 years, she has been running a competition and a trading stable outside Hamburg, Germany with Manfred Von Allworden.

“I would says its only been the last five years that we even thought about maybe we were going to the Olympics. We started working a little bit in the process, that it is the best in the world that goes there. You need to prove yourself a little bit before. You need to have a horse that is capable and to even qualify. You need to be very competitive, having high results. I didn’t have that before. With time, and with learning and developing, we achieved a lot of good results and then it was clear for me why shouldn’t I try to go for the Olympics,” said Mathilda who then teamed up with Joern Reinecke to kick-start her Olympic journey.

Three-time Olympian

All of the female riders at the top level are kind of a role model for her especially Edwina Tops-Alexander and three-time Olympian Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum’s who will be her trainer leading up to the Olympics.

“I will start training with her this year and Meredith will support me and help me prepare for the Olympics. She did three Olympics herself and had one bronze medal. She is kind of my size and I think it’s going to be a super match to train with her because she knows everything, the routine, etc. having already done three Olympics. She could teach me a lot,” said Mathilda.

“I want to sit down with my new coach who has all this experience, to kind of find a way to get to the best shows for preparing to Tokyo. Tokyo will be the focus of everything. All the shows we will enter to will be in the focus of preparing for Tokyo,” she declared.

Career highlights

One of her career highlights came in the beginning of 2019 when she came 8th in Grand Prix in Mexico.

“We didn’t win but for me that was a big achievement. Also the feeling to have in the early in the year, to know that me and Chopin can do this big classes together and of course to qualify for the Grand Prix . We were 10th in the Grand Prix in Knokke, Belgium,” she said.

The official announcement that she had qualified for the Olympics did not come as a surprise to her.

“I already knew on December 29 after I did my last competition. I kind of knew having the points together that I needed, because I was keeping track and making a specific plan to achieve this in such a short amount of time. It didn’t come as a surprise for us but I said to my team. We need to keep it quiet and wait for the official results. You never know something you counted wrong or whatever. So I am so happy that I was not counting anything wrong,” she chuckled humbly giving credit to all the people around her for her success.

“It’s definitely the people around me. If it’s the groom that works for me to take care of my horse and my horse at home or the full team of vets. Definitely the people behind me which is going. Joern Reinecke and Manfred von Allworden owners of my horses. Without them I would never have the horses and I would never be here today,” she said.


Equestrian being a relatively new sport in Sri Lanka, does she feel like a celebrity?

“My goal is definitely not to be a celebrity in Sri Lanka but I would like for people to see me. Young girls to know that if you work hard and if you believe in yourself, and find good people to be around, everything is possible. To give a little bit of courage to all the young women out there. Just go after their goal whether it is a sport goal or become a doctor or lawyer or whatever they wanted, to go for it,” said Mathilda who is single and knows no other profession than horse riding.

Asked why she chose showjumping instead of dressage, she said: “Dressage is a very elegant and nice sport as well. I always say to be a showjumper you need a showjumping horse but you need so much dressage work. You do 80 per cent dressage work with your showjumping horse. A showjumper would almost always be able to do good dressage while dressage don’t really need to jump their horses. For me I thought I would get a little bit of both being a showjumper and of course it’s just the excitement when you jump over these big fences,” she said.


She debunked the myth that showjumpers have to be lightweight.

Photo credit - JC Markun

“No I don’t need to maintain weight. I would not say it’s a disadvantage. I am definitely the smallest rider in the internationals. For the horses it nice because I am light on their back but I don’t have the physical strength like a lot of tall European men have to maybe control the horse in the way that they do. So it took quite a long time for me to develop this kind of system where I don’t need that much physical strength to compete just as many other successful people,” she explained.

“I also chose showjumping because it’s really exciting and yeah this feeling when you jump over these big fences with your horse. It’s impossible to describe. The feeling is something very special,” she said.

Showjumping has taken her around the world because of her love of horses with the only challenge being the time it consumes.

“Lot of other sports you do your sport and go home. You are never kind of free in this. You always worry about your horse. It is just not the time you spend in the saddle. It’s a lot of management around. If you have a stable you just can’t have one horse. You need a lot of different horse so that one of them might turn out to be as good as you hope and you need a lot of people to work with you. You travel a lot and need to be on the road a lot. I go from one hotel to another which for me as a young child sounded like a dream life waking up in a new city every week having travelled to Mexico, Miami, New York, Shanghai, Doha, Dubai and of course all the European countries,” she said.

“My goal is definitely to go into the final round at the Olympics,” said Mathilda who is yet to visit the place of her birth and expressed her desire to meet her biological parents if possible.


“I was born in Kandy and adopted since a baby in Sweden. I am blessed to be adopted by very loving parents who gave me all the love and support, to bring me where I am today. I had all the opportunities to study and go in after a career in something very unusual such as showjumping. I never met my birth parents. Growing up I didn’t really think about it very much because my adopted family was the family that I knew. But now growing older, I feel that it would be nice to meet this lovely parents that was great enough to think about me and my future as a baby, and give me up for adoption to give me all the possibilities,” said Mathilda whose family in Sweden comprises of an older brother who was adopted from Sri Lanka.

“I have a brother six-year-older to me adopted from Sri Lanka. We are very close even though he still lives in Sweden. He has nothing to do with horses. He is very supportive. And I have a sister, 14 years older, adopted from Swedish parents. She is blonde with blue eyes and very tall, very different from me,” said Mathilda who loves spicy food just like Sri Lankans.

We will stop promoting equestrian sports, if we don’t get a racecourse

Pic by Indika Handuwala

The Sri Lanka Equestrian Association president Suranjith Premadasa has delivered on his promise of delivering an Olympic prospect albeit a product of Sweden Mathilda Karlsson, according to the secretary general of the National Olympic Committee (NOC) Maxwell de Silva. In a brief appearance when Mathilda was unveiled to the Sri Lankan media on Thursday, the Director General of Sports Development of the Sports Ministry pledged his support to Mathilda on her Olympic journey and Premadasa to promote the sport of equestrian in the country.

However, even as the NOC and the sports ministry are basking in the glory of having found their newest Olympic hope for 2020, Premadasa dropped a bombshell when he said that equestrian will die a natural death in Sri Lanka unless they get a racecourse to develop horse racing.

“We want to develop the sport in the country but in Sri Lanka we don’t have any place to practice. The ministry of sports gave us a place in Colombo but when we get the land so many questions are being asked. We invested money on it but the project has been stalled. But we need it (land). If we don’t get a racecourse, we will stop promoting equestrian sports,” said Premadasa.

“We a need a place to develop horse racing. Our number one priority is to improve the horse racing. People can’t afford to buy horses. Mathilda’s horse Chopin VA costs 6 million euros. Can anyone afford to do that. Fortunately, she was brought up in Sweden. Sri Lanka does not have money even to sponsor her. That is the reality,” he said.

“If we have a place, we can have a stable. We have drawn up a plan to have a racecourse in a beautiful location (in Nuwara Eliya). If we get it, we will name it Mathilda Karlsson Arena. She is there to help and also the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) will support us. We have shown that nothing is impossible. Hope we get the piece of land,” reiterated Premadasa, a former motor racing champion who has been running a riding school for decades. “We require nine-year-old horses for showjumping not young horses. We don’t have showjumping horses because they are a different breed. We don’t need that now. We only need horse racing to improve. Then we can get retired horses and even children can take up showjumping. In Sri Lanka we can do showjumping, cross country and tent-pegging. Endurance is difficult because they are also different breed,” he explained.

“But we have no place. I have a riding school. We had the National championship for the last two years thanks to the support of Army. If we don’t work hard, we cannot take this sport forward,” lamented Sri Lanka’s equestrian chief who is nevertheless determined to send a Sri Lanka team for the Tent-Pegging World Cup.

“Qualifying is this month. We will somehow send a team,” declared Premadasa.

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