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NAYC: A Family Affair

by Ashley Swift and Glenye Cain Oakford | Aug 1, 2019, 4:22 PM EST

For some athletes and their parents, the Adequan® FEI North American Youth Championships presented by Gotham North becomes a long-term commitment that lasts even after the young riders have aged out of the competition.

We spoke to members of two families— Holly and Ralph Caristo and Debbie and Nicole DelGiorno—about what makes the NAYC so special and why they’ve stayed involved.

Ralph and Holly Caristo

Holly and Ralph Caristo at the 2019 NAYC at Old Salem Farm.
Photo: Erin Keating

The Caristos are well-known fixtures in horse sports, and they first got involved in the NAYC in 1995, when their daughter Heather competed in jumping there for the first time and brought home a team gold. “It gave me my first taste of team competition and showed me how much I really want to represent the U.S. on Nations Cup teams and to make it to the Olympics,” Heather once wrote in an online profile.

The experience was a catalyst for her parents, too. They remained deeply connected to the NAYC even after Heather—now Heather Caristo-Williams, 39—aged out of the competition and launched her senior career.

“Holly and I said, ‘This is really a great thing for these kids. They don’t get to do team competitions, and this will really get them started with what it’s like to have teammates and help them get ready for the future,’” Ralph Caristo recalled of the family’s first NAYC. “We really embraced it.”

Ralph Caristo serves as chef d’equipe of Zone 2 for the Children, Juniors, and Young Riders. Holly is coordinator for all the teams.

Heather went to the NAYC in multiple years and had a great deal of success there. As a parent, what did you feel she gained from the experience, both as an equestrian and as a person?

Ralph: "To this day, she still has the same friends that she had when she rode on the Young Riders team back then. She has friends

Ralph Caristo at the 2019 NAYC at Old Salem Farm.
Photo: Andrea Evans/US Equestrian

from Mexico, she has friends in Spain, she has friends from Canada. We actually do business with one of her former competitors who now lives in Spain and one in Mexico. She’s still also friends with her teammates after all these years, some of them are in the business and some of them aren’t. It sets up something for these kids for a lifetime, and it comes out of friendship. I think that’s so important.

"There are riders who rode with us five, six, seven years ago, and when they know it’s time for the NAYC, they still call us and say, ‘How’s Zone 2 look this year? Who’s on the team?’ That’s how much of an impact this competition had on some of these riders."

How has your involvement in NAYC affected you, as a family?

Ralph: "We’ve made a lot of friends. These kids are like our children now. Like Georgina Bloomberg once said in an interview, 'Once a Zone 2, always a Zone 2!' For us, it’s just great for us to have all these kids be so competitive and have such great spirit, and we love that they still think of Zone 2 as their team. We get a lot of enjoyment out of that."

If you were talking to a parent with a kid who is thinking about NAYC as a goal, what would you want the parent to know about NAYC as a family experience?

Ralph: "In our business, we only have a very few competitions that allow kids to participate as team members. What the NAYC does is produce comradeship among all these kids—they’re all rooting for each other, whether they’re on the Junior team, the Children’s team, or the Young Rider team. I think it’s something the parents should also embrace because it shows them the spirit involved. It’s not just for the kids themselves, but for all the competitors.

"They also meet people from other disciplines, and they meet people from Mexico and from other parts of the United States. It’s the greatest venue, family-wise and riding-wise, that I think we have here in the United States.

"We try to instill in the parents and the competitors that this is a mini United States team. This is where you start. This is how you grow."

Holly: "It made our daughter hungry for the higher-level competition, and she’s been lucky enough to be on two or three Nations Cups teams in Canada and Lisbon and places like that. We tell people that this is where participation can lead, and it starts at Zone 2. When they play that 'Star-Spangled Banner' because your team won the gold medal, which we’ve been lucky enough to experience a few times, it gives you chills."

You must experience a camaraderie among the other chefs d’equipe and volunteers, too, is that true?

Ralph: "Absolutely true. We look forward to seeing them every year, and we get annoyed when they don’t come!"

Debbie and Nicole DelGiorno

Debbie DelGiorno and her daughter Nicole DelGiorno, an NAYC individual gold and team bronze medalist, have been involved with the Adequan® FEI North American Youth Championships dressage for over a decade. Debbie helped her daughter advance through the dressage pipeline as a parent and eventually became more involved with the sport and the NAYC as time went on. Today, both Debbie and Nicole serve as chefs d’equipe to the Region 1 Young Rider and Junior teams, respectively, and Debbie is also the Region 1 Coordinator. For the DelGiornos, continuing to give back to their region and to an event that has had such an impact on their lives as individuals and their relationship with each other is of the utmost importance, and working together is that added cherry on top!

How did your family first get involved with the NAYC?

Debbie DelGiorno
Photo: Andrea Evans/US Equestrian

Debbie: "Back in 2007, my daughter Nicole [DelGiorno] qualified for the NAYC Junior competition in Lexington, Va. So, at that point in time, I was pretty much a parent not coming from any kind of horsey background. It was a little-deer-in-the-headlights for us, but I was willing to help, and that’s how it all started.

"Now, we are chefs [d’equipe]. I’ve been a chef since 2013, when I picked up Patsy Albert’s position as FEI Junior and Young Rider Coordinator for the region, and I also became chef to the Young Riders team. Nicole got involved in 2015 as the chef of the Juniors team when we were in Colorado, so this her fourth year doing it."

What is it like being at the NAYC now as chefs d’equipe instead of as an athlete or parent of an athlete?

Debbie: "It’s nice, because we’ve been there from a parent and an athlete standpoint. So we can share our experience with the girls, with the athletes, and they certainly see Nicole as a mentor because she came up through the pipeline."

Nicole: "It’s definitely a daunting process. And I remember what it was like being that age and coming to the show for the first time, going through the qualifying process, and how overwhelming it can be. …  It’s nice to be able to usher this next generation through. Hopefully, in a way, that makes things simpler for them and takes some of the stress off so that they can just be here and enjoy what is a really great competition. They can experience all that it has to offer in terms of being on a team and representing your country for the first time. I don’t want them to have to worry about things as much as I did!"

What advice would you give parents coming here with their kids for the first time?

Nicole DelGiorno
Photo: Andrea Evans/US Equestrian

Debbie: "I would like to see more parents get involved! The chefs have an unbelievable amount of work to do, so it’s always great to see the parents get involved and pick up. I absolutely love to see parents feeling comfortable enough that they can take on a role in a volunteer position within the organization.

"Parents don’t have to be horsey to be involved, that’s for sure! I’m a proven fact of that. We’re always looking for people with business backgrounds. You can be a project manager, you can help with team apparel or finding sponsors or help with the fundraising, and so if you’re good at that, every region can use that support."

Nicole: "The more you can read, the more information you can gather, the better prepared you’ll be. I think the way we’ve structured it in the U.S., we’ve tried our best to make those human resources available to people if they have questions, and written resources, as well, but take advantage of the people around you like your chef d’equipe, your regional coordinator, and George [Williams, U.S. Dressage Youth Coach]. The USDF and USEF representatives are excellent, as well.

"Try to gather as much information as possible and get as many different perspectives as possible, so that you’re prepared going in to it. You’ll be happy you did, so you can just sit back and enjoy the experience a bit more."

Nicole DelGiorno at the 2009 NAYC, where she earned individual gold and team bronze medals.
Photo: Flashpoint Photography

What was it about your experiences with the NAYC that made you want to come back in a different way and to give back?

Debbie: "I think we both had such great experiences together as a parent and an athlete at this event, and we just want to see it continue and be even more successful than it already is. That would be my hope."

Nicole: "It’s an interesting competition. It’s a great showcase for the U.S. programs and a good place for coaches to scout and connect with and cultivate talent. It’s a good experience for riders that maybe want to be team riders or do this professionally under a high-pressure experience. But I think what I took away most from being in the program, doing the qualifiers, and ultimately doing the championship, is as a professional in the sport, it can be a kind of lonely profession. You’ll be constantly misunderstood by your family, friends, and employers if you’re working outside the sport like I do, and I think having a community that you can fall back on and rely on is really important.

"And when I think about the teams I’ve been on and the kids that I qualified with growing up, we’re still all friends. A lot of us are professionals, some of us aren’t, but we still keep in contact. When you’re faced with challenges that are very specific to working in the horse world, or, on a personal level, when my mom was sick there were a lot of people who remember her from NAYC and were a great emotional support system. The most important outcome of going to these championships is building that community, and I want to make sure that other kids can do that, that the next generation can have just as stable of a support system that I’ve been fortunate enough to build through the program."