This will be the most people we will ever ride in front of," said Melanie Smith Taylor to Beezie Madden as they rode down Colorado Avenue in the 119th Rose Parade on New Year's Day in Pasadena, California, as part of the 12-member all-Olympian squad representing the United States Equestrian Team (USET) Foundation. Indeed, more than a million spectators lined the five-and-a-half mile route for the two-hour parade that featured floats, marching bands, and 300 horses, including for the first time in history, a squad representing the U.S. Equestrian Team.
"It was just a sea of people," noted Smith Taylor, a show jumping veteran and Team Gold Medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. "I was so amazed that for the whole length of the parade, just wall-to-wall people came out to watch and all of them were smiling and waving. It just made you feel so good to be a part of it. If you could just bring extra joy to their day - because they certainly brought joy to us being out there waving to us. It was quite spectacular."
The team representing the USET Foundation in the Rose Parade was comprised of the three Olympic equestrian sports, with four members in each discipline - all of whom had participated in at least one Olympic Games. Smith Taylor, Madden, Margie Engle and Anne Kursinski were the show jumpers; Guenter Seidel, Steffen Peters, Debbie McDonald, and Sue Blinks were the dressage riders; and Darren Chiacchia, Nina Fout, Kim Severson, and Karen Stives were the eventers. They were all attired in competition clothes representing their disciplines. Their mounts were loaned by the Los Angeles Mounted Sheriff's Posse and were outfitted with USET saddle pads and USET quarter sheets. Leading the squad on foot as flag bearers were USET Foundation President and CEO Jane Forbes Clark and U.S. Eventing Team Alternate at the 1968 Olympics, Mason Phelps.
The USET Foundation squad marched as #47 in the line-up of 90 participants that included marching bands, floats, and equestrian groups. The 119th Rose Parade was broadcast live by nine networks in the United States, including ABC, NBC, HGTV, Tribune, Univision, Telemundo, Travel Channel, Discovery HD Theater, and Sky Link TV, and locally on California stations KWHY-22 and KTLA-5. The event was viewed by millions of people in more than 75 countries.
"We were the only Olympic discipline out there so it was fun to be a part of that," said Smith Taylor. "We followed the China Beijing float and so that really got you in the spirit. It was definitely an added benefit for the U.S. Equestrian Team." The USET Foundation squad paraded behind the Olympics-themed "One World, One Dream" float sponsored by Avery Dennison and the Roundtable of Southern California Chinese-American Organizations.
"It was really fun," said eventer Darren Chiacchia, Team Bronze Medalist at the 2004 Athens Olympics. "It was amazing. I really didn't know what to expect, but the crowds were unbelievable. The people were really into it and cheering, "Go Team USA!" - so that was really a great experience. I don't think any of us quite knew what we were getting into for the length of time and the preparation and the line up and freezing cold and all that, but we're all pretty seasoned in discomfort shall we say, all in the name of getting the result. It was great exposure for the team. I was thrilled to be able to represent the United States Equestrian Team. It was great to represent the eventing team. It was a wonderful concept and fantastic for Mason, his mom, and Jane to get all that done and give us the opportunity to have that level of exposure."
The preparations and details involved in the USET Foundation's participation in the Rose Parade were extensive. Mason Phelps, President of Phelps Media Group, Inc. International, had arranged the inclusion of the group and then with USET Foundation Executive Director Bonnie Jenkins, Executive Assistant Nancy Little, Jane Forbes Clark, Peggy Phelps, Kim Tudor, Bobby Drennan, Julie Tannehill, and Polly Sweeney, handled the myriad of logistics involved for the pre-parade and post-parade details.
On New Year's Eve, Foundation President Clark hosted a dinner party for the Olympians and their significant others at Bistro 45 in Pasadena. The 'superstars' of the parade were transported to the party from their hotel by two stretch limos, including a Hummer complete with disco lights and sound system. They had a few hours time back at the hotel before being transported at 11:00 pm to 'The Pit' - the staging area for the equestrians - where they rested in luxury 'Rock Star Busses' equipped with kitchen, Â½-bath, TV, and bunk beds until they mounted up at about 6:00 am.
Timed to arrive at 'The Pit' in synch with the rider busses, the horses were transported from L.A. Equestrian Center - eight miles away where they had been stabled. Earlier that day, supervised by Polly Sweeney, the horses had been groomed and trimmed by three grooms and French-braided by Karen Binz. Polly, a hunter/jumper rider who resides in Pasadena and has ridden in the parade for 10 years, stepped in when Bob Drennan fell ill, and took charge of stable management, selecting and fitting all the tack (including loaning one of her own saddles). Patricia Kinnamon's Dominion Saddlery and The Traditional School of Riding at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center supplied all the gear, except the dressage saddles, which the dressage riders supplied themselves. Betsy Calder of Calder Farms was the shipper, providing two large vans.
The riders appreciated that their roles were streamlined to riding and waving for five miles. "For me it was not a huge undertaking," noted Beezie Madden, a member of the Gold Medal Team at the 2004 Athens Olympics. "The buses were great to have. We got to sleep for some of the night. I think the big undertaking was for Mason and Kim and Jane and all those who worked to help them." Madden described the feeling of riding down the avenue with millions cheering, saying, "It was great. It was amazing how enthusiastic they were. We were halfway through the parade and they were all still cheering and waving and it was neat to see. The parade itself was the whole highlight. It was fun. I'd never seen it before, so it was fun to see."
The reaction from the crowds to the Olympians was enthusiastic. Steffen Peters, a dressage Team Bronze Medalist at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, described his parade experience saying, "Loved it. Right from the start people were yelling, 'USA! USA!" and 'Rock and roll in China!' It was neat. It was fun to represent the USET Foundation in the Rose Parade and the support from the crowd was amazing. I've never ridden in front of a million people. From the beginning through the very last stretch, it was just fabulous." Steffens noted the most outstanding moment for him saying, "And then just seeing mile after mile, all those thousands and thousands of people, cheering you on - that had to be the highlight."
Debbie McDonald, dressage Team Bronze Medalist at the 2004 Athens Olympics, is a native Southern Californian and admitted that riding in the Rose Parade was a childhood dream. "You can't even describe the emotion you feel," she said. "I felt like at times like I was going to cry and then I had chills at other times. It's just an amazing situation how this whole thing comes about and how many people it takes to make happen and how much organization. And the people here - just the people in general - it's overwhelming. There were moments I felt like I was going to tear up and bawl my eyes out because it was kind of this patriotic kind of feeling, and everybody's going, "USA!" It just gave me goose bumps and really emotional." McDonald noted that several times people called out her name from the crowds. Summing up, she said, "I loved every moment of it. I hope it was good for the USET Foundation because I think it was a great move."
Show jumper Margie Engle, a member of the 2000 Sydney Olympics team, also appreciated the Rose Parade's exposure for equestrian sport, noting, "I hope it helps public awareness about our sport. It certainly got to a wide range of people. They had a lot of people there and I'm hoping it was good for the sport."
"I cannot thank the riders and everyone who helped organize this event enough for accomplishing this extraordinary feat," said Bonnie B. Jenkins, USET Foundation executive director. "The exposure and goodwill this has afforded the U.S. Equestrian Team is priceless and now part of our history and heritage. The Rose Parade march is a wonderful kick-off to the excitement leading up to our equestrians participating in the 2008 Olympic Games."
Photo: Ilse Scharz/HorseSport USA and Ken Braddick/HorseSport USA