You can have the right rider and the right horse but “you’ve got to press the right buttons,” is what course designer Bob Ellis said following the victory by the British in the Show Jumping team standings. They totaled 156.68 for their victory score, but the score they totaled with the fans in the stands was a lot higher. “We couldn’t have done it without the fans,” commented Nick Skelton, undoubtedly the most excited among the four team members (and the oldest). This was the one honor that had eluded Nick and the British team. “It’s taken me 54 years,” he admitted. “It is a dream come true. It is great for our country and great for our sport.”
But Nick was right about those fans.They were over the top with enthusiasm and after the victory was assured Skelton ran into the ring and jumped up into the air hands raised high. Then, when it was time for the podium celebration where you are invited onto the podium, well, not Nick; he jumped right up on that podium and invited his teammates to join him, until he realized everyone was trying to send him a message.
His excitement also stemmed from the fact that it had been 60 years since the British team won a show jumping gold medal and it was clear they were thrilled. Part of that victory was earned by Peter Charles who had rails down in both the first and second rounds of the team competition. He later revealed the roar of the crowd while heartwarming for the riders, was a total scare for his horse in those earlier rounds.
When he entered the arena for the jump-off round he signaled to the crowd to be silent and suddenly you could hear a pin drop. The crowd that normally cheered as each rider took their turn didn’t say a peep until Charles put in a clear round that clinched their Gold Medal title in a jump-off with the Netherlands after the two teams were tied. The Dutch were truly thrilled with their Silver despite losing the Gold to England.
Thrilled was not what a lot of the other teams felt, including the four members of the U.S. team. Not one of them was able to negotiate a clear go. McLain Ward and Antares had 8 faults, Beezie Madden and Via Volo finished on 4 in round two. Reed Kessler and Cylana had 12 faults which ended up being the drop score. And our one hope for an individual medal, Rich Fellers and Flexible had a surprising 8 faults. Rich took the whip to Flexible as they headed for the water and they did negotiate that jump clear but rails fell at two later jumps.
As I watched all the riders go I recalled the quote George had said earlier in the week at the U.S. Show Jumping press conference. He said it’s not the first day, but the second, third and fourth that are the ones to always keep in mind. And it’s the ones who are the best horse managers that will win. The final team course was big and bold and asked a lot of the right questions and unfortunately on this day the U.S. riders weren’t pressing the right buttons.
I was hopeful though beforehand as I watched McLain painstakingly walk the course. He appeared to be going over every inch of it in his brain. Also out there was Chef d’Equipe George Morris, whose replacement, Robert Ridland was also with him watching our team members go. Robert too was carefully scrutinized the course, spending over an hour walking and observing every line. I watched him count strides, look at approaches, and chat with Beezie and husband John as well as with George.
Later, as each of the U.S. riders entered the arena, Robert and George stood silently side-by-side as they watched the hopes for a U.S. medal disappear with each rail.
The U.S. team finished sixth, tied with Sweden with 28 faults. They ended up behind Canada (26) and Switzerland (16).
A surprising finish was the Bronze medal team from Saudi Arabia. We learned in a press conference that His Majesty the King has put a lot of money into their equestrian programs which allowed them to buy better horses and have quality training. They haven’t been able to rank in the standings because it’s too difficult for them to go from show to show. So, in their mind they had the Olympic Games as their goal and they’ve been training all over the world, including some of the riders spending time at Wellington earlier this year.
Horse sports only started in Saudi Arabia about 20 years ago but they are moving swiftly towards improving and you can bet that this medal will inspire even more support of horse sports. The word at the press conference is that we may even see some women on their team next time. That would certainly set a record. HRH Prince Abdullah Al Saud commented, “I hope London 2012 can write history for Saudi Arabia.”
His teammate Ramzy Al Duhami added, ”I cannot explain how much this means to our nation. We have invested so much in this sport and we hope our success here will progress the sport in our country.”
Their Bronze Medal has also sent a signal to the other nations that there are more countries with strong teams getting involved in horse sports. We may want to look at what some of these others successful teams are doing to see if the U.S. approach to competing in these major competitions is doing what it needs to do to allow our riders to “push the right buttons.”
The Grand Prix Special in Dressage takes place on Tuesday followed by the team medals. Wednesday the is when the individuals in Show Jumping have their final competition and Thursday is the individual finals for Dressage. If you have comments or questions feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org..