Our On the Scene reporter known for her extensive coverage for our websites of the World Equestrian Games and Olympic brings us her impressions and conversations from the 2009 USEF Convention 2009.
My focus today was meeting with Gil Merrick, Managing Director - Dressage Sport Programs United States Equestrian Federation, Inc. There are two questions I wanted to discuss with him and I was looking forward to a frank converstation to get to the bottom of two issues that were key ones in 2008. The first is the fact that Klaus Balkenhol is no longer the coach for the U.S. team and the second was the resignation of the FEI’s International Dressage Committee at the request of Princess Haya.
I was amazed at how candidly Gil spoke about both issues and the fact that he thanked me for asking and wishes more people wouldn’t just listen to the swirl of rumors but instead would get to the real truth behind the rumors. It certainly cleared things up for me.
Klaus (Balkenhol) No More
Naturally rumors have been spreading as to why Klaus Balkenhol is no longer the Chef d’Equipe of the U.S. Dressage Team. Why people always go for the negativity in any situation is sad. We should all be looking at the glass half full and not half empty. And Gil was about to fill the glass up to the top for me.
Eight years ago Klaus was signed on as the Chef d’Equipe for a number of reasons. At the time Gil was not in his current position as he only joined the USEF three years ago.
"Klaus originally had a four year contract and then was signed up for another four years,” explained Gil. “Back then our needs were different than they are right now and when I speak to people about what we needed as a country it’s clear that Klaus was the ideal candidate to come on board and provide that for us.
"We needed someone with extensive international connections and someone who had earned their reputation through success at the highest international level. His ability to educate our riders who were new to the international arena about what it was going to take for riders to compete at that level was paramount. He was able to provide education for our up-and-coming riders. Twelve years ago having the education that he could offer was incredibly valuable. What he brought to the U.S. was vital. He could help sort out the training problems either on the ground or on the horse’s back to bring the horse up a notch. That was a unique combination to have that ability to educate as well as be a hands-on trainer and it was important and fulfilled a need we had at the time.”
Since then the scope of the abilities of our riders has improved and accordingly, so did our needs. Gil continued explaining the evolution as a country with Klaus.
"What developed over the eight years as we had more top riders and top trainers emerge was the rise of individual coaches who partnered with our riders. It started to redefine our needs.”
Because of this and other factors the needs of our international dressage riders evolved. Yet, that was not to say that Klaus could not have filled that void on some level. That said, what Klaus could not bring to the table was being domiciled in the U.S. For the Chef d’Equipe and National Coach for Dressage (that will be the title of the next person to hold that position) to live in Europe worked before, but it won’t work now.
Klaus lives in Europe where he has a thriving business and a daughter who is becoming quite successful internationally whom he is naturally committed to supporting with her career. In addition, Klaus is getting older (he is nearing 70 years old) and he is thinking of the long term welfare for his family. As a result, both the USEF and Klaus realized that having him as a coach is no longer the ideal situation for either party in the way it has been structured over the past 8 years since he needs to remain with his family in Germany.
"Our needs as a country have changed and we now require someone who is based permanently in the US to support our riders throughout this extremely large country,” explained Gil. So, in order to find the perfect candidate the search committee is not rushing into a final decision which will take some time so they will hire an interim person or persons to serve as Chef d’Equipe at the 2009 FEI World Cup Dressage Final and the 2009 CHIO Aachen in order to give the Search Committee of George Morris, Capt. Mark Phillips, John Madden, Karen O’Connor, Sue Blinks, Guenter Seidel and Mary Anne McPhail time to recruit the right candidate.
That committee has already had their first meeting to draft the job description. They are looking for someone who is going to bring the ability to partner with each of the riders’ personal coaches and yet retain the final authority on the field of competition.
One of the things that Gil felt compelled to clarify was that even though he lives in Germany, Klaus has always met the requirements of his contract and has never missed being where he was supposed to be when he was supposed to be there. Some people wonder whether a USEF National Coach is allowed to coach and train riders who are not members of the US teams. “Klaus has always been allowed to have other students,” commented Gil. “It’s always been agreed that he is able to work with other riders as long as it is all coordinated through the USEF’s High Performance Director. He has always let us known who he is working with.”
So the search is on for someone who is able to be permanently domiciled in the U.S. so that they can be available at very short notice to go to the places they will be needed throughout the United States. “It’s very different from having someone who is based in Europe,” continued Gil. Although the potential candidate for this position could be from Europe or another country outside the US, but must then be willing to relocate to the United States in order to accept the position. “In his situation it’s not realistic for Klaus to move here.”
So the status now is that the search committee will finalize the job description. It will be posted on the USEF Web Site along with sending out a press release and ads will be placed in the appropriate international and domestic publications. Ninety days will be set aside to seek out the right candidate in order to ensure they have the widest scope of applicants possible.
I felt that Gil had answered that subject to my satisfaction and hopefully has clarified things for many of you. So, I moved on to my next controversial question.
The Request by Princess Haya for the Members of the IDC to Resign
For years there’s been an undercurrent of whether or not politics was entering too much into the scoring and the overseeing of international dressage. At the recent Olympic Games there was a major complaint by one of the country Federations that the judging was being swayed by the judges of the country towards their own rider. As a member of the media it felt like things were about to explode, especially after Isabell Werth had two major mistakes in two different tests and still won the Gold. Whether or not she deserved that medal can be debated both pro and con but for the spectator who is not as knowledgeable it’s hard for them to totally understand how that could happen.
On an aside, I had a quick conversation with Carol Lavell who felt that despite the major mistake that Satchmo’s other movements were so superior that he deserved to win the Gold. Yet there were other people who I talked to that felt that Steffen Peters had truly earned the Individual Bronze Medal. And there were those who believe that something should be put in place that would prevent a horse that has such a major mistake to be able to win in the end. This topic truly is a can of worms.
Getting back to my conversation with Gil … he started to outline more details for me. “In every country I travel to whether I am talking to judges, competitors, horse owners or people in other federations there is this belief that there is a need for more transparency in how the FEI works and that something needs to be changed.”
Gil explained that it is well known that the voice of the European countries is stronger than the other areas. He went on to say that it is understandable because international dressage competition is concentrated in Europe. That said, dressage is now growing internationally and Gil voiced that “there should be some way for the unique situations within each of those FEI Regional Groups to be considered by the FEI when making decisions about how the sport will be regulated.”
Gil used as an example the fact that it’s easy to get an international judge to go from country to country in Europe with minimal expense but to meet that requirement in countries like the U.S. or Australia can be extremely expensive. He further went on to note that the Dressage Committee needed to take into account these unique situations in countries outside of Europe. He and many others feel at the moment this is not being taken under consideration to the extent it should and probably a key issue that led to this recent request for the resignation of the IDC members.
"Something that works very well in Europe may not work well in other regions of the world,” commented Gil.
Gil made it clear to me that in fact the IDC had also been looking into all of this. So my question to him was if this was the case then why were they asked to resign and why has a task force been put in place instead.
Gil explained that the two incidents that I outlined above probably had a significant impact – the complaints about perceived nationalistic judging and the questions surrounding Isabell’s win. As a result of that there was news swirling in the media that equestrian sports might be pulled from the Olympic Games.
In order to dispel that rumor, Princess Haya felt compelled to speak up and take action. As a result while initially the IDC tried to save their committee, one by one they resigned and a Task Force made up of a cross representation (including Robert Dover) is now working to uncover the best way to solve any of the perceived concerns.
"Our hope is that as they go forward they will be able to come up with a plan that increases the size and scope so that geographically there is more representation,” noted Gil who added that they are hopeful it will go from 5 to 9 people. “We need more representation for the regions,” he continued,” because their situations are different based on geography and populations. You can’t compare Australia with the U.S. Australia’s population is miniscule compared to ours yet they have the same land mass. And there is no hope of comparing either of these countries to the European ones.”
"Everybody accepts that the sport of Dressage is based in Europe,” added Gil, “but given that we would like to know that the voice of these other regions is being heard and considered. We are not asking for the sport to be redesigned, just that an effort is made for us to have a stronger voice and more influence in the decision making process. I think we are headed there and that all of these developments are positive.”
I had one more key issue that I wanted Gil to answer about this whole situation and that was how can the judging at an Olympic Games raise its level of fairness. Gil explained that there is some thought being given to increasing the size of the judging panel and noted that the document that the Task Force has started is going to evaluate how the judging went in Hong Kong and will also look to other sports for a model.
We continued our conversation with Gil making it clear that the United States Equestrian Federation tries not to allow its opinions to become part of a public forum. “We understand that questions are being asked. We never bring these things up in public. That’s the way we address it. Open comments through the media don’t help us achieve what we are after. We prefer to work with our international federation to voice concerns and ask for change.There is a well defined structure in place through the governance structure of the National Federations with the FEI that allow us to participate with them and address our concerns. These changes to the structure of the FEI Dressage Committee should only enhance that ability”
Moving On Up
It was time to finish up but before doing this Gil wanted to make me aware of what is being done to prepare for WEG. He noted that six horse/rider combinations are going to be sent to Europe just prior to Aachen so that we can keep our presence in front of the international judges. “We want to maximize our preparedness for the Games. That is our focus for this year.”
“Before we parted ways Gil repeated his comment to me that you, the readers, should feel free to email or call him if you have questions and that you shouldn’t rely on rumors for hearing the real truth.
“We rarely get asked. I am always willing to be asked. There is always truth behind the rumors.” Gil also wanted to make it clear that when someone like Klaus works with a group for eight years (and this goes for anyone in such a position) that there has to be incidents over the years where the coach may make decision that the individual does not want to hear. “There is no way that we can hire a coach that everyone is going to say is right for everyone, but we are going to take the time to get the right person for the job.”
It was refreshing and a real eye opener to have had Gil take the time to go over all this with me. I hope you appreciate his honesty and forthrightness as much as I did.
And so I’ve just returned from the Pegasus Awards dinner where Gene Mische received the Lifetime Achievement Award and Steffen Peters was named Equestrian of the Year. Joe Fargis was honored with the Sportsmanship Award. It was a great way to end the day.
Just one more day left and apparently it’s going to be a short Board Meeting. We shall see. Feel free to email me as a few of you have already and I will continue to answer your questions either privately or through this forum (firstname.lastname@example.org).