Devon, the Divo

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The new freestyle for the movement “Black lives matter”, the story and the dreams of the legendary Californian vaulter

His outcry through his new freestyle published on social media: Devon Maitozo is supporting the movement “Black lives matter” with a new performance at the age of 44, after 38 years on the back of a horse, most of the times upside down. The Californian athlete wrote, in fact, some of the most important pages in the history of international vaulting, not just for his results – individual gold at the World Equestrian Games in Rome in ’98 and team gold at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky in 2010 – but for the artistic and choreographic contribution he has given to this sport. Today, with the voice of the speech of Martin Luther King Jr, he comes back on a horse to his virtual audience and makes us relive “the American dream”.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8SOqTRmQ-A

What was the motivational push to get back on horseback? 

First of all, I want to say thank you for your interest in finding out more about me these days.  It’s been a while since I’ve been in any “spotlight”.  What may seem surprising to many is that I actually never got off the horse. I have always been in this world as the creator and trainer of my club , Free Artists Creative Equestrians (FACE) I have always looked for opportunities to vault, and even compete, whenever it made sense. It’s just part of me and I really enjoy the feeling of moving creatively on a horse. I ride my horses daily, and even when not actively competing myself, have made an effort to maintain a decent level of vaulting ability. This recent display of my vaulting was partly because of the Corona Lockdown giving me a little time to spend on myself for a change. My horse Corentin (a.k.a. “Boss”) has gotten to the point where he can truly carry me with confidence, and I just love vaulting on him. Why do I still love to vault? I’m sure one would need to dive deep into the psychology of my mind to figure out why I am still motivated. I’ve never felt that need to stop in order to “end on top” like so many other with some success seem to have done. Although I completely understand that appeal, it was never how I felt. Before I shifted my focus to pas de deux or team in order to make the most of my lasting skills, but now it’s more just a matter of my ability to be healthy and stable enough to handle to physical stresses of vaulting. I just have always felt that I had more in me, so now I train for myself, until I have something to give to this sport.

Which message are you trying to convey with your latest performance?

When I started piecing together a freestyle for the 2020 season, I had different music edited and had a theme that was more focused on my personal journey as an athlete and artist. When I found myself stuck at home during the lockdown, I began questioning my decision to have a theme about only my journey when witnessing the journey our country was on with the virus. I already felt I needed something more meaningful to this moment in history. Then George Floyd’s murder set our country on fire and rightfully in a rage to demand a change. I wanted to do something to support this cause. I had edited the “American Dream” freestyle music in 2009 after our country elected Barack Obama, our first African American president. Little did I know that 11 years later this music and its message of standing up to do what’s right would be all the more relevant. If I was going to stand up to perform on a horse again, I wanted to stand up for what’s right. It’s such a small gesture, but symbolic for me.  

This is the Election Year. How is the situation from your point of view in USA after Covid-19 and the murder of George Floyd?

Our nation is at a boiling point. People refuse to just stand by idle anymore to witness person after person of color being killed in our country due to racial bias and fear. The election of Obama was a symbolic moment in our history in showing what the word “equality” stands for.  Unfortunately it also revealed how much the internal flames of racism still exist from our nation’s dark past. The effect of hundreds of years of slavery and Jim Crow segregation are still substantial in our nation, despite the surface level “equality” won with the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and ’70’s. Trump’s election marked the free pass, and even encouragement of racial intolerance, and stoked a relative backlash to the years of having a liberal black president. Right now we are in a moment of great change. The “Black lives matter” movement is resonating now that people have the image of Floyd death. As Obama put it well, “the arc of history bends towards justice”, and I agree in my belief that Trump will not be elected for a second term, and instead Biden will start back where Obama left off trying to salvage our country’s dignity. Trump is the worst our country can produce, but we have great people who will always triumph over ignorance and hate.  Our democracy is very flawed, but the wave will bring us back to a better place again, and the world will see that we can rise.

You are an example of change in the vaulting world. You introduced a new way of considering choreography and art. How and why did you do that?

I’m very honored to be seen as having had an impact on a sport and community that I care so much about. Any contribution that I might have had though was simply a product of the influences that inspired me. I believe that the value of art is in its ability to impact an audience emotionally, and in doing so, reflect the times in which the art is created. I was very driven to do well as a competitor, but the more I think about it, I believe that my motivation was to gain an audience all the time. I grew up learning from my musical father how important of an impact music can have on a person and on the Zeitgeist. As I learned about the power of dance as a young adult, and how it is a physical expression of music, I became only satisfied with my vaulting when it could have a direct emotional impact on others, just as my father had on me with his piano.

What have you been doing since the last time we saw you performing in the arena until now?

Well, I suppose although most people would think of my 2010 team at WEG Kentucky, but as I said I  didn’t
want to retire. So after four years I re-established my club Free Artists Creative Equestrians (FACE). Today I live in California with my son, my partner and vaulter Kalyn Noah and her daughter but unfortunately the epic California fires found us moving barns again. Luckily we landed in another lovely barn in a nearby rural area where we remain to this day. It’s called Southern California Equestrian Center, and since Boss has matured to the most amazing vaulting horse he is and we were able to get an equestrian Movie barrel, not only teaching have been an extra joy, but the opportunity to once again spend some time on my own vaulting has become realistic. Although my plans to compete individually in Sweden at my 13th world championships this 2020 season were ended due to Covid 19, I know at least I’m not alone in that regard. Every bad thing has it’s silver lining, and Covid’s silver lining is that I was forced to slow down a bit and was suddenly able to focus on vaulting in a way that was healthy and lower pressure. Although I traditionally thrive under pressure, at my age it is especially helpful to take the time needed to allow my body and horse to harmonize, and for the material to find me, as opposed to me chasing the material.  

What are your next projects?

Within the sport I plan to still follow through competing as an individual at the next available world championship season, as well as continue to train and introduce my students towards international achievements. But as an artistically minded equestrian outside of the sport, I am also eager to work on film projects that exhibit vaulting at its purest and potentially inspiring form. Then it is well overdue for a proper documentary to showcase our sport. After so many decades of stories and experiences that I’ve been fortunate enough to collect in this sport, as well as accumulated footage and photos, I hope to compile it together with interviews and further footage of another exciting competitive vaulting project. Sometime Inspiring. I wish inclusion could be the greatest leap. Let us be a symbol of harmony not only between humankind and horses, but also between us and other people who look differently than us. This sport is very white. We could add so much value to our unique sport if we continue to grow with the depth of cultural and racial diversity. Vaulting can have such a positive force upon those of us lucky enough to indulge in its offerings, mostly due to the majesty of horses.    Broadening the access to vaulting for more different people with different backgrounds ethnically, racially, and socioeconomically will make us all better for it. Let our artistic choices be less self indulgent, and more towards building a better world for all.

Finally, I hope to compete in one more World Championships at least. 2020 was taken, so if it is 2022, that will mark my 40th year of competing as a vaulter. That might be a fun way to retire. We shall see.

Who is someone that has been inspiring for you in sport and in life?

I was lucky enough to be inspired by so many people, but I have to say thanks to some of them. First of all, Mathew Maitozo, my father whom I lost when I was 23, for showing me the power of love through music; Michael Lehner, 1990 WEG gold, for the feeling I had when seeing his “Thriller” freestyle at the 1992 World Championships; Michael Barishnikov, for showing what is possible with the human body as an instrument of aesthetic power; Stevie Wonder, for showing true vision through music. Then, obviously, Barack Obama and Martin Luther King Jr for showing me what was the right direction.

PALMARES:

1982: started vaulting

1990: first time national champion  (19 titles)

1996: bronze , Kaposvar, Hungary

1998: gold world equestrian games Rome, Italy

2000: bronze world championships, Manheim, Germany

2002: bronze world equestrian games, Jerez, Spain

2006: silver (team) world equestrian games, Aachen, Germany

2008: bronze (team) world championships, Brno, Czech Rep

2010: gold (team) world equestrian games, Kentucky, USA

2012: 4th (pas de deux) , Le Mans, France

2016: 5th (team) world championships, Le Mans, France

 

Sara Stopazzini

Ph:Devon Maitozo

 

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