Every two years, the world’s premier athletes gather in one place to compete on the grandest stage of all: the Olympic games, viewed by billions of people worldwide. After several weeks in the spotlight, many Olympians return home to Loudoun County, Va.
Why is Loudoun an ideal place to hang your Olympic medals? For the best in the world, it offers the best of all worlds: state-of-the-art athletic facilities, a broad range of housing options from urban apartments to sprawling estates, and all of the amenities to make it feel like home.
That’s why Olympians from at least three countries have chosen Loudoun as the place to train for Olympic glory and/or hang their medals when their playing days are over. Here is an incomplete list of Olympians who call Loudoun home.
Loudoun Equestrian in the Olympics
While the Washington Football Team and their three Super Bowl trophies make their corporate home in Ashburn; D.C. United, Loudoun United FC, the Washington Spirit and Old Glory DC each lay claim to Leesburg, some of the county’s greatest athletes hail from Western Loudoun.
And they compete on all fours. They’re actually horses, paired with some of the best riders on the planet.
Loudoun’s world-class equestrian tradition stretches back generations and is centered on Middleburg and Upperville, home to a number of Olympians, trainers and top-notch training facilities.
At Sandron Farm, in Middleburg, Va., showjumping champion Joe Fargis hangs his 1984 Olympic individual gold and team gold medals, alongside the team silver medal from the 1988 Olympic Games. Despite owning horse farms and renowned training facilities in three states, it’s Middleburg where he calls home.
Fargis made history in 1984 riding Touch of Class into Olympic history. Not only did horse and rider take home the gold, but they also set an Olympic record by faulting only once, cleanly clearing 90 of 91 obstacles. As a team of four, the Americans cleared all but 12 obstacles, setting a team Olympic record and bringing home USA gold for the first time.
“It was a wonderful week,” Fargis remembered 33 years later. “We won by a very big gap, and then winning the individual was the icing on the cake. I was very, very nervous before we started and wondering, ‘Why am I doing this to myself?’ But the minute you’re on the course, you just kick into whatever you do.
“The Olympics put me on the map. But the day after, I was the same person as before. I rode just as well after the Olympics as I did before. But all of a sudden, you’re recognized and my life changed quickly.”
His career would take him all over the world, training thousands of riders and winning many other competitions. He moved to Middleburg full time in the late 1990s, and still serves on the board for the Upperville Colt and Horse Show.
The U.S. Equestrian Federation honored Fargis with the Jimmy A. Williams Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013.
What does it take to be an Olympic champion? According to Fargis: “It’s constant and as repetitive as practice can be. You have to immerse yourself in it if you want to get better. It takes all day long, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”
And it certainly helps to be in a community of high achievers, like Loudoun County, that understands and offers the support that champions need.
“The Middleburg connection to our sport is a big deal. There’s a deep cultural connection to the sport, and a number of wonderful supporters live in Middleburg,” United States Equestrian Teams Foundation Chairman, President, and CEO, Jim McNerney explained to Middleburg Life ahead of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
A healthy dose of humility also doesn’t hurt.
“I never thought I was that good. I just enjoyed what I was doing,” he told the Fauquier Times in 2017. “Then I lucked into a very good horse, Touch of Class. I was 36 years old and very lucky.”
Phyllis Dawson rode Albany II to a tenth place finish in the 1988 Olympic Games, the best among female American eventers that year.
“Competing in the Olympics is the experience of a lifetime,” she wrote on her website. “I bought Albany II, my Olympic mount, in England in 1985. I quickly came to appreciate Albany’s wonderful personality; he was an affectionate and trusting horse who always tried his best 100% at everything he did. We formed a special bond.
“I had dreamed what it would be like to be selected for an Olympic team, but the reality was far more stressful than I could ever have imagined. It was a tense time; so many things can go wrong at this level, and I was terrified that something would happen to prevent me from competing.
“It was the culmination of many dreams. It was a pretty emotional moment, and it made me feel so proud to be there, riding in the Olympics, representing my country. I rode into that arena feeling on top of the world, and Albany put in the best test of his career.”
Now, far from the glitz of Seoul, Dawson is a Level IV ICP certified instructor and owner of Windchase Eventing in Purcellville. Channeling what she calls “Windchase Magic,” she notes that there’s something special about Loudoun.
“Windchase is located in a beautiful little valley beside the Blue Ridge, known locally as ‘Between the Hills.’ There is something special about this particular spot on the earth, something peaceful, almost magical,” she said. “Horses are happy at Windchase, and people are too. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t ride around the farm and think how lucky I am to be here.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Windchase was one of nearly 2,000 Loudoun businesses that benefited from financial relief as part of the Business Interruption Fund, which disbursed a total of nearly $12 million in local and federal funding to businesses that had suffered a serious economic hit.
Loudoun Home to Paralympic Power Couple
At age 16, Pamela Relph was on a career track to be an officer in the British Army, sponsored by the Royal Engineers. However, a medical condition caused her to be medically discharged in 2011 and in search of what to do next.
After gaining approval to compete in the Paralympics, Relph began training full-time as a rower, winning the Rowing World Championship in 2011. In the 2012 Paralympic Games, she led the Great Britain Paralympic Rowing Team to gold in front of the hometown crowd.
Relph then won the Rowing World Championship in 2013, 2014 and 2015 before again leading Great Britain to gold at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. As the current owner of the World Record, and an undefeated record in competition, she is the most accomplished Paralympic rower in history, and one of the most dominant athletes in the world.
The sport also introduced her to Lovettsville native, Rob Jones, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and double amputee from his service in Afghanistan and Iraq. Wounded by a landmine that ended his military career in 2010, Jones embraced rowing while learning to walk again on prosthetics.
He, too, began training for the 2012 Paralympic Games, where he helped Team USA bring home bronze. That’s also where he met Relph and found his true calling in life: raising money for other wounded veterans. He gained renown by running 31 marathons in 31 days, in 31 different cities across North America in 2017, raising $200,000 in the process.
Following the Rio Olympic Games, Relph moved to Loudoun County and wed Jones in 2017.
Work took her to the farm, where she found Loudoun’s Potomac Vegetable Farm and registered dietitian Sarah Waybright. Together, the duo wanted to improve the quality of the food that was available in the market, so they paired up to start Gathering Springs Farm in Middleburg, a beyond-organic farm, using the latest in regenerative soil management.
“It’s really exciting for people to see [farming] as a career choice. It was never something I went to school and thought ‘I’d love to be a small-scale vegetable grower,'” Pam Jones told Middleburg Life, “It’s really exciting to see how that will change in the next few years.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gathering Springs Farm was another Loudoun business applied for and was selected for financial relief as part of the Business Interruption Fund. As part of her application, Jones noted the importance of local agriculture to the Loudoun community.
“We are in our second year of business, in an industry which is fragile but essential! The COVID-19 crisis made it even more obvious how a robust and resilient local food system is essential,” she said. “Your support of local small scale agricultural operations through this grant not only helps small family run businesses weather the storm but provides an example to all Loudoun County residents to prioritize supporting local ag in the future.”
Well-Represented at the Winter Games
“We trained eight hours a day and sometimes we had a half-day off,” figure skater Luiz Taifas recalled, thinking back to his training in what was then Communist Romania. The hard work paid off: after learning to skate at age 3, he was competing by age 6 and selected for his first Olympics by age 11.
Altogether, Taifas competed in three Winter Olympiads in 1992, 1994 and 1998. As the geopolitical structures fell apart in the old Soviet Union, he found renewed structure and coach in America, coming to Northern Virginia in 1991 and making Reston his training home. Even after his competition days ended, he stayed on as a coach in Reston, looking to pass his insight on to the next generation.
All the while, he couldn’t believe that in the D.C. area, “we’re the capital of the world and we don’t have a training center for international athletes.”
The response from his wife, Mitra: “Stop complaining and start doing something.”
That was the origination of the massive ION International Training Center in Leesburg. The year-round, twin sheet indoor ice rink and a 5,500-seat arena, serves recreational and professional figure skaters, ice dancers, pair skaters, synchronized skaters, curlers and hockey players.
A space like this is essential, not just for growing the next generation of world-class athletes in Loudoun, but also for hosting a variety of culture and entertainment options. In the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak, Taifas and Ion had to cancel four events that would have drawn more than 4,000 people to the iceplex, including concerts and graduations. This loss ripples through the economy, also affecting the small businesses that work with Ion, their workers, local hotels, restaurants and retail.
In spring 2020, Ion was awarded a Business Interruption Fund grant, providing a small bit of relief and allowing them to continue paying staff and small business vendors that they worked with.
This October, Ion International Training Center in Leesburg will be one of eight sites across the nation included in the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championship Series. Within the 400 skaters expected to compete in that series, could be the next elite athlete that finds Loudoun to feel like home.
“U.S. Figure Skatinglooks forward to returning to Loudoun County and Ion International Training Center for the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championship Series,” Mia Corsini, U.S. Figure Skating director of events said. “We’re excited to pick up where we left off in the fall of 2020 and bring a phenomenal event to a top-notch facility, with a community that embraces figure skating.”
Who Is Next?
Aside from the aforementioned professionals, Loudoun County has a robust pipeline of elite amateur athletes as well. Independent ranking service Niche.com named Loudoun the fourth best county in the U.S. to raise a family (including first in Virginia), the best county with public schools in Virginia, and the best public schools for athletes in Virginia.
Thinking of relocating your family and business to Loudoun County? We are a full-service economic development organization, dedicated to your #LoudounPossible business success. Working with us is like adding a team of no-cost specialists to your team, with expertise in the following areas:
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