Great Southern farmer aiming for equestrian Olympic gold
Farming is not a job, it is a vocation. The hours are relentless and there is no time off.
Sonja Johnson is an Olympic silver medallist who also manages two farms in Western Australia's Stirling Ranges.
She is passionate about producing quality merino wool, and about competing at international equestrian events. Both careers require dedication, skill and long hours.
Attempting to undertake both is not common. The logistics of maintaining a horse's fitness and maintaining the many aspects of a large farm is a real juggling act.
However Sonja believes it is her farming experience that has made her the elite rider she is today.
"The Australians that have done well at Olympics all grew up chasing cattle in the bush.
"If we have to shift a mob of sheep, we will go and do it on horses. We use the horses to check the crops. The horses help my farming and farming helps me compete. It is a win win, despite the exhaustion!"
Beginnings of a dream
"I first got on a horse at four years old. We used to run cattle on what is now the Swan Point subdivision. Mum would find the first mob of cows and she would disappear. She would yell and find me and I would yell back."
The dream of representing Australia started when Sonja was at Albany High school in the 1980s The Los Angeles Olympics were on and she watched the cross country riding and vowed to do that one day and win a medal.
"My first competition was at the Albany show aged five. I then did my first state championship at the age of twelve and my first world championships were in Germany in 2006."
The Juggling Act
Although at an elite sporting level, Sonja is able to stay calm despite the size of her daily workload. Juggling the responsibilities of a farm and managing her horses and her own fitness is more than a full time job.
Sonja travels over 2000 kilometres a week, commuting between the two farms, one 50 kilometres north east of Albany and another at Jerramungup.
"Unlike many sports, there are no sponsors in our sport so I need to coach to pay for the costs of competing. I am the only person at my level in Australia that I know of not making a living purely out of equestrian eventing.
I am a true amateur as my living comes from something else."
Not many amateurs can boast an Olympic silver medal. Sonja puts her success down to tenacity and having two interests that complement each other. As well as having a lot of support from family and staff.
"The trick to success is to choose very good advisers in your field. I have done this in sport and in my agricultural industry. I use their knowledge and apply it to my environment".
"And of course the lynchpin behind any of my success is my mother. Without her I could not do it."
Phoebe Johnson still gallops Sonja's horses at 73 years of age. She does a lot of the fitness work with the horses to ensure they are up to international competition standards.
"My father has always been incredibly supportive as well. Since he had his stroke he is not able to help out in a physical capacity, but he does so much behind the scenes".
Equestrian eventing is one of the original extreme sports. There is always uncertainty when a sport, such as equestrian eventing, involves an animal.
"It is a living breathing animal so anything can happen. There are very few sports in the world where the source of locomotion has a brain.
"If something goes wrong, it is not mechanical. Horses can make decisions, and the challenge is to get the animal to work with you and maintain a sense of calm."
Competing at an international level has not been easy. But injuries including a broken collarbone, broken pelvis and finger bitten off by her horse did not stop Sonja from competing.
"Albany hospital staff cringe when they see me as they never know what I am going to present with!"
She still manages to ride without her little finger, and is now preparing for selection for the Rio Olympic team.
Farming versus Sport
Many people are surprised to hear that Sonja's favourite animals are actually sheep! Despite her connection to and love of horses, Sonja's greatest passion is her sheep.
"I love merino wool so much and am really passionate about making beautiful wool. I take great pride in caring for our sheep and our merino stud is as great an achievement as my sporting success.
"It is a tough call but if I had to choose between competing and agriculture I would choose the farm.
"If everything falls into place, I will be at Rio injury-free standing on that podium for Australia."
And the first call she will make back home after competing will be to the farm to check how her sheep are faring!