Interview'I'm a Christian Israeli, so I feel very connected to Israel'

US-born Ashlee Bond will jump any hurdle to lead Israel to success at Paris Olympics

Equestrian show jumper is returning to 2024 Games determined to improve on Team Israel’s performance in Tokyo: ‘I’d like to walk away from Paris a lot happier’

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Ashlee Bond, riding Donatello 141, competes during the equestrian jumping individual final at Equestrian Park in Tokyo at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Aug. 4, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Ashlee Bond, riding Donatello 141, competes during the equestrian jumping individual final at Equestrian Park in Tokyo at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Aug. 4, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Ashlee Bond made history three years ago as part of Israel’s first-ever equestrian delegation at the Olympic Games.

While the American-Israeli rider performed impressively in the individual show jumping event atop her horse Donatello, the Israeli team was eliminated during the qualification round after another member fell from his horse, knocking the team from contention.

This time around, Bond – the only returning Israeli Olympic rider – is determined to emerge with a story of redemption.

She’ll be accompanied in Paris by Colombian-Israeli Daniel Bluman, 34, (who was supposed to compete in Tokyo but was disqualified at the last minute due to his horse’s registration as American, not Israeli), French-Israeli Robin Muhr, 29, and US-Israeli Isabella Russekoff, 24.

“Last time we had a strong group, we just had a young rider, an inexperienced rider at that level,” Bond, 39, told The Times of Israel in a Zoom interview last month from her home in Wellington, Florida.

This time around, she said, “we have three very experienced riders, [and] someone with less experience but [who] has been doing well and has a very good horse. So I expect us to make it to the final, I do.”

Israeli Olympic equestrian Ashlee Bond (Olympic Committee of Israel)

Bond said she believes the only way the Israel team would not advance this year is “something catastrophic like last time would have to happen, and I’m praying that that just does not, and I really believe that it won’t. So I’m looking forward to it, and I’d like to walk away from Paris a lot happier than I walked away from Tokyo with the team situation.”

For Bond, who became an Israeli citizen in 2018 in order to compete for the Jewish state, bringing the team result to new heights is more important than her own individual performance.

“We had a good outing [in Tokyo], but I felt like we could perform even better and hopefully get to the jump off and have a really good team result,” she said. “For me, the most important [thing] is for the team to do well, and then my individual result later is a bonus.”

Born in the US to an Israeli Jewish father — who changed his name from Shlomo Goldberg to Steve Bond ahead of his career as a soap opera star — and an American Christian mother, Bond is a devout Christian who grew up around horses, and has been riding since a very young age.

“My dad put me on a horse when I was six months old, and I started jumping when I was three,” she recounted. As a teenager, she said, “I struggled with my path” and considered other careers while taking a break from the intense equestrian world. “So I stepped away from it for a couple of years, and then I came back when I was 21… and when I came back I realized how much passion and love I had for this sport, and it was just ingrained in who I was and am.”

Israel’s Ashlee Bond, riding Donatello 141, competes during the equestrian jumping individual final during the 2020 Summer Olympics, Aug. 4, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

After years of competitive riding, Bond decided six years ago to acquire Israeli citizenship in order to compete under the Israeli flag, something she had been considering for many years.

“My dad, obviously, he was born in Haifa, I’ve been to Israel, my cousin and his family lives there… I have roots in Israel, and obviously, through my faith, I’m a Christian Israeli, so I feel very connected to Israel through that on top of my family,” she recounted.

When she was in her 20s, she said, she had wanted to make the switch, “but my mom was a little concerned, because Israelis are targeted, and had been at the Olympics… so they talked me out of it at that point.”

Fast forward a number of years, she said, and after Daniel Bluman – who competed for Colombia at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics – changed his affiliation to Israel, she felt compelled to follow suit.

“I was talking to him, and I was just like, ‘I really want to ride for Israel. I want to represent them and bring them to the top of the sport.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’” Bond recounted. “He was the first of us to change over. It gave me more confidence to be like, ‘Okay, well, if Daniel feels like he’s going to do this, then I want to do it as well.’”

Israel’s Ashlee Bond riding Donatello 141 competes in the equestrian’s jumping individual qualifying during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Equestrian Park in Tokyo on August 3, 2021. (Behrouz MEHRI / AFP)

Over the years, US-born Dani G. Waldman and Israeli native Elad Yaniv helped guide the establishment of an equestrian team from Israel, a country with little to no international presence in the competitive horse jumping world.

With the addition of Bond and Bluman in 2016 and 2018, the foursome succeeded in qualifying Team Israel in 2019 for the Olympics for the first time in history. At the COVID-delayed Tokyo games in 2021, Bond finished an impressive 11th overall out of 73 competing riders.

Last year, Bond, Bluman, Muhr and Russekoff once again punched Team Israel’s ticket to the Olympics with their performance at the CET Prague Cup. Less than two months later, Bond and 13-year-old Donatello came second at the American Gold Cup, adding to a string of achievements for the duo in recent years.

With the Paris Olympics barely two weeks away — the Games run from July 26 to August 11 — her mother’s earlier warnings seem almost prescient, with a heightened threat level against Israeli athletes amid the ongoing war against Hamas in Gaza. But Bond is not daunted.

“I feel like now is the time to really stand up for what you believe in, and not let people silence you or scare you into not doing what you believe is the right thing,” she said.

“We’re just going to try and ignore it and just keep our heads up and be proud to represent Israel and show them that we will not back down and cower and not compete because we’re scared,” said Bond.

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