A Great Olympics

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The mission was to win medals, and U.S. riders did just that in the 2004 Olympic Games. In the three disciplines, our riders won three team and two individual medals—more than any other nation. The five U.S. medals matched the number earned 20 years earlier at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. (See box for details on this year’s medalists.)

Equally magnificent was the TV coverage this year. NBC broadcast multiple sessions of each discipline on the Bravo channel.

The end result? The medal winners and TV coverage promoted U.S. horsemanship in general. John Long, U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) CEO, noted that Olympic winners are heroes who can celebrate wins with all equestrians. “Medals are important because of the heroes of the sport,” he said. “The medalists have got to make themselves more accessible to the members, to share their aspirations. We need to think from Athens, Greece, to Athens, Georgia.”

Aside from winning medals, our riders displayed great horsemanship. Probably the two most exemplary horseman were Chris Kappler, who quickly dismounted on course when Royal Kaliber came up lame, and McLain Ward—when Sapphire’s bit broke on course, he was able to maintain control and halt safely. All in all, it was a great show.

The Road to the Games

For the first time, U.S. riders represented the USEF, the newly-formed national governing body created from predecessors USA Equestrian (formerly American Horse Shows Association) and the U.S. Equestrian Team. And USEF?proved its worth. “Our goal should be to be the best team on the planet,” said Long at last January’s first convention of the new federation. Our riders reached that goal this year because of three factors: experience, preparation and the USEF selection process.

Experience: The U.S. teams included six medal winners from the 2002 World Championships: Debbie MacDonald and Guenter Seidel (dressage), Amy Tryon, John Williams and Kim Severson (eventing), and Peter Wylde (jumping). We also fielded champions from the 2003 Pan-American Games: From the gold-medal jumping team, Beezie Madden and Chris Kappler (winner of the individual silver); and Darren Chiacchia, gold-medal winner in eventing.

Preparation: Dressage and jumping teams competed at the huge German international show in Aachen just five weeks prior to the Games, tuning up for the Olympics against other nations’ squads. Eventers competed in a modified international event, matching the phases expected in Athens, concurrent with the April Rolex Kentucky CCI***. The top finishers also completed a mandatory outing in July that helped choose the team of five.

Selection: The selection process pinpointed quality riders, so the team entered the Olympics with high expectations. “We have really strong horses and riders right now,” said Wylde at selection time. “The team we have is our best team.”

U.S. Team Choices

Across the three Olympic disciplines, USEF selectors observed riders in head-to-head competition, and awarded byes to two first-class riders. They watched riders during selection trials scheduled in April (eventing, Kentucky), May (jumping, California), and June (dressage, California). The best riders qualified to compete, and planned their training schedules to peak their horses on the crucial weekends.

At Rolex, finishing one, two, and three were Chiacchia on Windfall 2, Williams on Carrick, and Tryon on My Beau. The eventing Short List named 13 horses, including Severson and Winsome Adante, the winners of the 2004 Rolex Kentucky CCI****.

In jumping, horses competed in six rounds. Riding three horses in the trials, Madden finished ahead of the 34 contenders. She earned only 8 penalty points on Authentic, and jumped two double clear rounds the final day. Making her first Olympic team, Madden said, “Your dream since you were a little kid is to represent your country at the Olympics.”

The top 15 dressage horses also faced back-to-back weekends of Grand Prix tests. Dover—who in Athens rode in his sixth Olympics—secured the National Championship on FBW Kennedy. Lisa Wilcox made the team with scores earned in European competitions.

Of the riders named early as “discretionary selections,” committees first picked Kappler, on his jumper Royal Kaliber. Dressage champion McDonald was also announced as a team rider, with her mare Brentina.

Horses and riders performed spectacular tests during the dressage trials in California, and scores were appreciably higher than they were for the 2000 Olympic trials in Gladstone, New Jersey, where the heat and humidity of the East Coast summer impacted the results. Translating for dressage coach Klaus Balkenhol, Seidel said, “He likes that most of the top horses went with relatively few mistakes. That gives a lot of security.”

Candidates from trials made the Short List. Horse and rider combinations traveled to Europe for additional training and shows before USEF named each team of four (five for eventing).

The process bred confidence. About her teammates, Madden said, “Peter has great management, McLain has great management—and Chris has managed his horse’s career. I have a lot of confidence we will all peak at the same time.”

Meeting Expectations

Our team did peak, proving our will to win despite setbacks. Both top horses who’d received byes from the trials—Royal Kaliber and Brentina—had to overcome leg injuries before Athens. Lameness also sidelined some of the nation’s top horses: the jumper Glasgow, and dressage stars Rocher and Claire.

The process also illustrated the depth of the U.S. riders. First-time Olympians prevailed over veterans because of solid performances in the trials—and several former Olympians stayed home.

As usual, critics complained the trials were too hard on the horses. Jumper and dressage candidates competed in multiple rounds, just like the Olympic schedule. Through qualifiers and the trials, horses had to maintain soundness under the no-drugs rules of the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI).

Some experts challenged the Athens courses as “too easy” (the eventing cross-country) or “too slippery” (the turf in the jumping stadium). Three jumpers sustained bowed tendons on the turf, including silver medalist Royal Kaliber. (Grass footing hasn’t been seen in any of the previous five Olympics.)

After Olympic glory, what next??U.S. fans can look forward to the 2005 World Cup, with both jumping and dressage finals to be held in Las Vegas. Then the next major international championship is the 2006 World Equestrian Games, where the U.S. will field teams in all seven international disciplines—and perhaps earn medals in every discipline.

Editor’s note: At presstime, on the initiative of the Jumping Committee, the FEI Executive Board approved the creation of an Independent Temporary Committee to establish why a number of horses received tendon injuries during the Jumping competitions at the 2004 Olympic Games and to produce recommendations for the future.