Back in the saddle | Inquirer Sports

Back in the saddle

Veteran equestrienne Toni Leviste reemerges with a winning attitude after courageously riding out a family tragedy
By: - Reporter / @junavINQ
/ 12:59 AM May 28, 2017

Most athletes retire when they hit middle age. Some take the plunge into coaching while others turn their backs completely on their sport. Not Marie Antoinette “Toni” Leviste. For the country’s top equestrienne, the years have become an ally in her pursuit of perfection.

“The beauty of being an equestrienne is that the older you get, the better you become,” says the anchor of the Philippine team for nearly three decades and still a force to reckon with internationally.

The 2000 Sydney Olympian competed in her first dressage competition at age 10 and has been carrying the Philippine tri-colors in various international meets since 1990.


Proving her sport’s axiom on age, Toni won the recent Ariat Equitation in Wellington, Florida, reputedly the world’s winter capital of equestrian. A couple of weeks ago, she also represented the country in the 2017 Longines Global Champions Tour, one of the world’s most prestigious show jumping events, in Miami Beach, Florida.


Aboard her new mount Loribri, an eight-year-old grey mare, Toni vied in Miami alongside the world’s best riders, placing seventh in a field of 38 finalists and no doubt boosting her confidence ahead of the 29th Southeast Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur in late August.

“Representing the country in international competitions is always a source of immense pride and honor for me,” says the slim and vivacious equestrienne, who monopolized the Rider of the Year award of the Philippine Sportswriters Association from 1992 to 2005.

Toni’s verve and ebullience seem astounding for one who, for several lonely summers, wrestled with grief as she tried to weather a tragedy that struck the family. She finally rode it out when her father, the former Batangas governor Antonio Leviste, regained his freedom three years ago after serving his prison term in connection with the death of his aide, Rafael de las Alas.

“When my dad was convicted, of course it was a sad day for the family,” Toni said at that time. “But, ironically, believe it or not, it was from them (the family of De las Alas) that I found my strength. They showed us compassion, kindness and spiritual generosity.”

Toni first burst into the limelight in 1999, when she finished third in the prestigious Sunshine Tour Grand Prix held in Jerez dela Frontera, Spain. A year later she made it to the Olympics and, two years hence, qualified for the 2002 World Equestrian Championships, also in Spain.

The only Filipino and Southeast Asian to compete in show jumping’s three major events—the Olympics, world championships and the World Cup Finals—Toni has vied in over 30 international competitions with varying degrees of success.


With the help of her father, Toni built a five-hectare equestrian park—a “horse spa,” she calls it—in the outskirts of Lipa City, Batangas, to keep horses in top shape. The facility has a European-inspired barn and grass paddocks that allow horses to graze freely.

A compassionate woman, she gives full scholarships to the the children of employees in the family’s Leviste Equestrian Eco Park and helps care for orphaned children and the abandoned elderly in the neighboring convent, the Missionary Sisters of the Cathechism.

“We may have different religions, but we’re all Filipinos and we all believe in one God,” says Toni, a practicing Muslim since 2004. “I find fulfillment in helping other people. It makes me feel as good as winning medals abroad.”

Perhaps one of her greater virtues is her love for country. Several years ago, Toni politely turned down an invitation to compete for the Qatar national team, one of the world’s most opulent equestrian squads, as its first female rider, naturalized or not.

“If I ride for another country, I may not have the same passion as when I ride for the Philippine flag,” she says in hindsight.

Though she admits that retirement crosses her mind at times, Toni takes solace in the fact that equestrian riders generally peak at around 40 to 50 years old. She notes that at the 2012 London Olympics, the oldest athlete was a 73-year-old Japanese dressage rider.

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“I still have many more years in my sport,” she laughs. “It has been my biggest dream to try and win an Olympic medal for my country and I will die trying.”

TAGS: Toni Leviste

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