Lexington, KY - Strong performances by both the Women's and Men's U.S. Vaulters entertained a near sold-out Alltech Arena during the second Individual phase of competition during the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games on Thursday. Mary McCormick leads the U.S. effort, followed by Alicen Divita in ninth place and 2006 WEG Aachen Gold medalist Megan Benjamin in 11th place.
The Vaulting Freestyle is perhaps the most appreciated phase of the competition. This is the chance for the vaulters to truly express the combination of their strength, skill, artistic ability and style. In the female competition, there were 28 challengers from across the world.
Scores carry over from the compulsory round and athletes must perform all seven of the required vaulting movements in the freestyle. Today is the first of two freestyle rounds that will count toward the Individual medal.
Mary McCormick, 27, of Woodside, CA, was the first U.S. female vaulter to take to the ring aboard Bolero (a 19-year-old KWPN gelding owned by Sydney Frankel), lunged by Carolyn Bland.
Performing to Lenny Kravitz's "American Woman," McCormick showed her rock-and-roll attitude in a polished yet fun and percussive round punctuated with a back flip dismount. Her freestyle earned an 8.285 to leave her on a two-round score of 8.050 and a seat in a tie for fourth place.
Her strongest movement in her vault was her opening hand balance known as a scorpion press. "It was really solid," she said. "And, I'm always pleased when the back flip goes well, and I can land it like a gymnast." McCormick personified her music and pride in qualifying for the Games. "I have a big bold attitude," she said. "I'm so proud to be here in America representing my country at the World Games," she said. "And I wanted my music to reflect that."
Alicen Divita,21, of Redwood City, CA, followed aboard Giovanni (a 13-year-old Mecklenberger gelding owned and lunged by her mother, Julie Divita) representing Woodside Vaulters. The pair spends their summers in Germany at a facility outside of Berlin where they train.
Performing to a remix version of the American film classic "Fame," she looked the picture of energy and charisma in her presentation. She garnered the most vocal appreciation of the class from the crowd when she landed one of her signature moves - a split.
"The strongest part was the middle splits toward the end of my routine," she said. "It's a move that no one else really does. It's always kind of my signature, and I hit it and held it for a long time and it felt great."
The base of Divita's freestyle routine remained to same as she has performed this last year, however there were some changes made and new choreography add to raise its level of difficulty. She scored an 8.545 to combine with her compulsory score for a two-round total of 7.988 and a ninth place finish.
The standing Gold medalist from the 2006 Aachen WEG, Megan Benjamin performed aboard Urfreund Rosengaard (a 15-year-old Danish Warmblood gelding owned and lunged by Lasse Kristensen). The pressure was on Benjamin to defend her title, and an overly springy partner presented some challenges for the vaulter.
Performing to classic Aretha Franklin soul music, Benjamin, 22, of Saratoga, CA, did the best with what she was given. "My horse had a little too much energy, and I did the best with what I had," she said. "So, I'm actually pleased with what I did. Part of horse sport is dealing with the horses. He was a little nervous out there."
She summed it all up succinctly when she said, "You can't do your risky moves when your horse is about to spring off." Her partner has been doing competitions for three years, and the pair competed at three CVIs this year alone. "He had 12 solid rounds and has been 12 for 12 this year," she said. "This is the first time he's had any issues. It's something you can't predict."
The vaulter made changes to her routine to compensate for her horse's spring canter, such as removing a leap movement and modifying a one-hand cartwheel into a simple two-hand one.
With two rounds yet to contest, and with tight scores, Benjamin's strong technical routine leaves her still in the fight for a medal. Her freestyle earned a score of 7.985 for a two-round total of 7.921 and 11th place.
Currently in first place is Germany's Simone Wiegele followed by Great Britain's Joanne Eccles and Germany's Antje Hill in third.
During the late afternoon Men's Vaulting Individual competition, the crowd was treated to some masterful performances filled with large jumps and impressive, powerful gymnastics. The round also saw some of the early leaders experience falls and errors to their tests.
Kenny Geisler, 29, of Diamond Bar, CA, was the first of the men to compete. Aboard 13-year-old Selle Francais gelding Jacadi de Rox (owned by Julie Anne Young), the veteran of the U.S. Men's Team put in the best performance of his freestyle routine of the year. He scored a 7.550 for his freestyle, and when combined with his compulsory test sits in 12th place on an overall score of 7.281.
"The performance was fantastic...it went really well," said Geisler. "It was the best I've done all season. We changed horses at the last second because Sunny Boy didn't pass the vet check. But I got on this other great horse that the U.S. brought and it was a fantastic run. I was really feeding off of the horse's energy and we had a lot of fun."
Of his freestyle music - "The Show Must Go On" by Queen - Geisler said that he chose it because he knew it would electrify the audience. "It's very, very strong music, and it was just a great fit and it really worked," he said. "Today was the best run I've had this year."
Kristian Roberts, 17, of Moss Beach, CA, had a few bobbles to his routine, but pulled it together to put down a solid score aboard Highwater Bay, an eight-year-old Shire gelding owned by Jill Palmer.
His unfortunate fall from the horse midway through his test cost him points, but he finished on a freestyle score of 6.620 for a two-round total of 6.791. He sits at 16th place going into the third round of competition. "Overall, it was OK, but at one point I just couldn't reach the handle," he said. "But, I felt like my handstand at the end I was able to really lock into it."
The week has been an amazing experience for Roberts who is at his first WEG. "The size of the whole event is unbelievable," he said. "I am having a great time...I just can't believe it."
Third and final of the men was Todd Griffiths who put in the day's highest score for the American squad. Aboard Lanson 16 (a 12-year-old Hanoverian gelding owned by Jan and Betsy Garrod), he was able to put aside his tension and nerves for a freestyle score of 8.330 and an overall total of 7.427. He is in 10th place headed into the third round of competition. He performed a subtle and light routine to a remake of "Angels" by David Archuleta.
Griffiths, 31, a veterinarian who practices in Alberta, Canada, put in an "awesome" performance that he had to wait four years to do. In 2006 at the Aachen Games, he was disqualified from the freestyle competition due to his horse. It's been a long time coming and the vaulter was ready to show the international audience just what they had missed.
"I did my freestyle the best that I could in front of a home crowd," he said. "It was absolutely worth it." Griffiths' style has changed over his career. He started out as a gymnast before he began vaulting at the relatively late age of 22. Today, he focuses on making his vaulting smooth and light.
"I feel like I have reached my goal," he said. The highlights of his routine were his posture and composure, and the level of grace and executive were rewarded by the judges.
Leading the men is Switzerland's Patric Looser followed by France's Nicolas Andreani. Germany's Kai Vorberg stands in third.
Vaulting continues on Friday with the Individual Technical rounds for both women and men. For full results, visit http://www.alltechfeigames.com/competition/results/results.aspx?idCalendar=12&id=236.
Photo: Mary McCormick. Photo by Shannon Brinkman for USEF.