The next time you take your pet in for a checkup, you may be seen by an Olympic hero.
Dr. Katelynn Pierce did not compete in the recently completed Toyko Summer Olympics, but she was part of the veterinarian support team that helped make sure the horses that competed in equestrian events were well cared for as they vied for gold.
“It was an experience a long time in the making and it didn’t happen the way we planned, but it was still amazing and had a backwards way of working out perfectly,” said the newest vet at Bluffton Veterinary Hospital, who recently returned from her equine adventure.
Pierce is the wife of a Marine, Daniel, and the couple were stationed in Japan right after she graduated from Virginia Tech veterinary school. She worked as an Army base veterinarian for two and a half years, taking care of base families’ pets and the Marine service dogs.
Her parents own a horse farm in Virginia, and Pierce grew up riding competitively and rode for the Hokies in college. She continued riding as a hobby in Japan, where she met many vets at a local horse show.
“I met a steward for international events for the International Equine Federation and she encouraged me to volunteer to travel to international events with her,” Pierce said. “Once I was certified by FEI (Fédération Equestre Internationale), I did four or five events and saw places I’d never get to see as a tourist. And that’s how the Olympics opportunity came up.”
Japan has very few equine vets, so the FEI provided about 40 volunteers from around the world.
When the Olympics was delayed due to COVID, Pierce feared she might have lost her window to volunteer. Daniel was transferred stateside to Parris Island, where Pierce went to work as a vet on base. The couple had their first child, Sophie, in March 2020.
Pierce traveled to Tokyo last summer to volunteer for a test run of the new Japanese Olympic equine facility. She thought that might be her last trip to Japan for a while.
But wait, there’s more.
“Daniel retired and I got the job at Bluffton Vet in March 2021. I mentioned the Olympics in my job interview and they were amazing in letting me seize the opportunity when I got the call a month later that we were still needed,” Pierce said.
“Being away from Sophie and Daniel was rough. The original plan was we’d be a train ride away, so they’d come over on the train and we’d stay in an Airbnb,” she said. “But this was a call to volunteer I just couldn’t pass up, no matter how twisted the plans got. As long as we were safe with COVID, I had to go.”
Pierce was in Tokyo for 18 days, and with COVID so prevalent in Japan, she and the volunteers were limited to staying at the hotel and working at the equine facility.
“We got on the bus at 5 a.m., worked a long day and usually got back at 10 or 11 p.m.,” she said. “It was very hot in Japan, so they did not ride from 1 to 3 p.m. That was our break, where we got together and the Americans led an exercise group. We were proud of that.”
Pierce had the advantage of learning a little Japanese during her time riding in Japan, but she said the language barrier was minimal for the staff and the competitors.
“The FEI uses English for their official language, so most of the vets spoke at least broken English, and I spoke broken Japanese,” she said. “Most of the vet terms are derived from Latin so we all knew those terms, so communication was really the least of our worries.”
Pierce saw a constant stream of horses throughout the day, making sure the Olympic stars were hydrated and had a clean bill of health to compete.
She also got to meet the rock star of the riding group, American competitor Jessica Springsteen – daughter of The Boss.
“I was looking around, hoping he may have snuck in but families weren’t allowed,” Pierce said. “They love him there, so I thought maybe he’d get a pass. But Jessica was very sweet.”
Pierce came home with a lanyard filled with pins, a staple of the Olympics. Every country made their own unique pin to put on their ID lanyards, and volunteers traded pins for fun and for currency.
“The Japanese love their tea, but I was begging for coffee and the farriers had the market cornered,” she said of the horse hoof trimmers’ industrious caffeine side hustle. “We traded pins for coffee. If I ever do anything like that again, I’m bringing a French press, for sure.”
Pierce was not the typical wide-eyed volunteered, having lived in country for two and a half years. She had done her sight-seeing and already had many friends in the Japanese vet community.
“I think some of the volunteers were like, ‘What are you doing here?’ Usually, only older vets can afford to take three weeks away from their practice,” Pierce said. “But I saw a lot of old friends and made memories with the volunteer crew that has made us new friends forever.”
Pierce is excited to be back in Bluffton and planting roots in the community.
“We love Bluffton and this facility at Bluffton Vet is incredible,” Pierce said. “The staff are top notch and so friendly and our clients are so welcoming. It took me a week to adjust back to ‘normal life’ after Tokyo but we’ve hit the ground running.”
As for another Olympic adventure, Pierce is definitely game. Paris hosts the Summer Games in 2024 and the French have a large equine vet community, so she might not be needed there. But the 2028 Games are on home turf in Los Angeles.
“That would be a thrill to get that call to serve and to show off our U.S. team to the world,” Pierce said. “Right now, we’re just focused on Bluffton and really getting to know this community. We are so thrilled to be here.”
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.