Competing in an Olympics is the dream of many riders and one who has done it says it's an experience that is never forgotten. But Dorothy Morkis, a member of America's Bronze Medal-winning team in Dressage at the 1976 Olympics in Bromont, Canada, also says that Olympic-level competition is getting increasingly stressful, particularly the constant concern of running afoul of anti-drug regulations.
"Being an Olympian impacts you in many ways. Once you're an Olympian, you're always an Olympian. You always belong to that special group," she said. "Unfortunately the way things are today, I think I would worry about my horse and the possibility of some forbidden substance making its way into my horse. Even a peppermint can give a positive result on a drug screen. It can be really hard to be on top of everything."
Despite the fact that America's 2008 Olympic Dressage Team returned home sans medals, Morkis said they didn't come home empty-handed. Every Olympic experience, whether it is a rider's first experience or one Olympics of many, has an impact on a rider's career.
For one, Morkis said, being an Olympian means that people will have a certain expectation of your ability – for both good and ill. From a business perspective, the Olympic label can be a draw for clients and sponsors. "When you come out from the Olympics, everyone expects that you're so good because you've been to the Olympics. But the truth is, being a rider is a learning curve. Every year, you keep learning more about training and about riding and the horses. The Olympics doesn't change that," Morkis said.
It does, however, give riders a real good sense of whether or not they are an international-caliber competitor. The best riders are not always the best competitors and Morkis said the Olympic environment can really separate the two. "The Olympic experience can be paralyzing," she said. "You are in an environment where you feel that the whole world is watching and you cannot make a mistake. There is always so much talk around the barn that you have to do this or get this score, etc. It can paralyze you if you let it get to you."
Editor's note: As we finish out the year, and get ready for the New Year launch of the NEW DressageDaily, we have saved some special reports for our readers. When I was in High School in the later 1960's my first introduction to dressage was cleaning stalls in a nearby barn for Dottie Sarkis (now Morkis) in exchange for lessons. Back then Dottie would compete her ex-race horse Roger in about 3 shows a year, which was all there was in those days in the New England region in dressage. Dottie went on to the highest scoring Olympian for America in Dressage at the 1976 Bromont Olympics, and continues to train and compete in Florida with her current Grand Prix mount Mr. Big. Enjoy Dottie's memories and insights on our sport as we enter a new era in our sport. Mary Phelps-Hathaway
Dorothy Morkis Says Dealing with Pressure is Part of the Olympic Education
In the 1976 Olympics, Morkis and Monaco were the last American pair to go in the team competition and whether or not the U.S. earned a medal was all up to them. Before her ride, Morkis said she retreated to the barn to be alone and to find a way to deal with the pressure that was overwhelming her.
"The Olympics can teach you how to deal with pressure or show you who can't. Those who are good at dealing with pressure do best in an Olympics. Those who can't deal well with pressure have problems," Morkis said.
One thing Morkis knew was that she could not let her mind wander. Her last moment of panic was when she circled the ring before entering and stole a glance at the scene around her. But once she set foot on centerline, she focused on the task at hand. "I wanted to do a good job because the world was watching, but I knew I couldn't think about winning a medal. I had to focus solely on riding a good test, on doing the job ahead. Once I went down centerline, I knew it had to be me and my horse."
And the horse that carried Morkis through her high-pressure Olympic ride was Monaco, a beautiful gray, Hanoverian gelding that Morkis purchased in Germany in 1972 from Herbert Krug. He was the perfect match for the panicked Morkis. A photo taken of Morkis and Monaco moments before they entered the ring showed a somewhat terrified look on the face of Morkis.
But the look in Monaco's eyes is one of calm, casual curiosity about the whole affair. He was like, 'Yup, okay, here we go!' " Morkis said. "Nothing fazed him. He would go anywhere, anytime. He didn't care."
The Olympics Then and Now
It's been more than 30 years since Morkis and Monaco helped the Americans win an Olympic Bronze Medal and one thing that hasn't changed in all those years is that America still struggles to out ride the Europeans for a medal.
"It's a little disappointing that we still struggle," Morkis said. "But Lady Luck has much to do with it, when it's your turn, it's your turn." One thing that has changed in the past decades, she said, is that the quality of dressage horses is far better than years ago. Careful breeding has created horses that are much more suited to dressage competition and the quality of horses available in the U.S. is much better than years ago.
Still, Morkis said Europeans continue to have the edge, partly, she believes, because they still have a greater number of good horses from which to chose and also because European riders have easier access to the world's best trainers. "I think part of the problem is we still don’t have as many great trainers here. We have much better horses than in the past and very good riders, but if you can't afford to go to Europe to work with the great trainers, you're at a disadvantage."
Good riders, Morkis said, are not necessarily good trainers. Good trainers are a rare and special breed of people who have honed their skills over decades and in this regard, the Europeans had an earlier start over the Americans. "Really learning to train requires a long history. It involves years working with another great trainer. It takes years of experience to become a really, really good trainer."
When asked what has changed in Olympic competition from 1976 to 2008, one thing really stands out for Morkis – the dressage test. "In my opinion, the test in 1976 was much more difficult than what is ridden today." she said. The transitions between movements were more difficult and the newer tests have fewer movements and are shorter. "The test in 1976 was more crammed full with movements. The newer test really emphasizes the collection and I think the older test emphasized elasticity – the ability of the horse to go forward, come back, go forward again. I think the test in 1976 was a killer."
One other thing that has changed is the fear riders have in attempting to manage today's difficult drug policies. "I'm not so sure that I totally agree with the FEI regarding the banning of all drugs. However on the other hand I do understand the FEI position," Morkis said. "There is no easy answer to how much of any drug, or combination there of, should be allowed. So therefore, the only fair answer seems to be to ban all drugs." Since the International Olympic Committee is seeking to ban all drugs in all sports, Morkis said it's only natural that such blanket bans should include horses. The bottom line, she said, is that today's Olympic riders have much more to worry about than simply getting through their Olympic rides.
Then - Olympic photos courtesy of Dorothy Morkis
Now - PhelpsPhoto: Dorothy Morkis and her current Grand Prix mount - Mr. Big