London Calling - Jan Ebeling’s Olympic Journey
Wednesday, July 4, 2012
Posted by Kelly Sanchez
Jan Ebeling has always let his riding speak for itself, so when he stood up to toast the more than 150 friends and well-wishers who had gathered at the magical send-off party in California to celebrate his being named to the U.S. dressage team for this summer’s Olympic Games in London, his wife, Amy, watched in amazement. “This party is for all of you,” he said, his voice swelling with emotion. “Every one of you here has been a part of this, and we are sharing this happiness with you.” The mood was jubilant at the June 23 event, held at the couple’s beautiful Mediterranean-style home at The Acres in Moorpark, and no one looked happier than Jan and Amy. As the sun slanted low across the property, youngsters, including their 12-year-old son, Ben, played soccer in the dressage arena, while others enjoyed a casual dinner on the terrace overlooking lush pastures and the barns beyond. It was a fitting celebration for a man whose climb to the top levels of dressage has had its share of both successes and disappointments.
With a little help from Stephen Colbert, Ebeling and the mare Rafalca may have raised the profile of dressage in America, but the pair is anything but an overnight success. Going to the Olympics has always been a hope but never a given, and though he’s represented the U.S. at three World Cups and one Pan American Games, Ebeling says that making the Olympic team is something else entirely. “I still sometimes think this is a dream, and someone’s going to wake me up.”
Lindley Hasenauer, who owns and operates Jet Pets with her husband, David, first met Ebeling in the early 1990s. “I still remember the day Jan came to Jet Pets with a huge smile on his face and so excited to start the journey to compete in Europe. I told him that the best part of my job was watching a ‘nobody become a somebody,’ and that one day it could be him, and Jan said, ‘Sure?’ He even sat and explained dressage to me.” Over the years Hasenauer has grown close to the Ebelings, and she even made a pact with Amy that if Jan were to make the Olympic team for London, Amy would telephone her with the news.
When Amy made the call, Hasenauer was driving in heavy traffic in Los Angeles. “I almost crashed my car because I started screaming,” she laughs. “I will always be standing and screaming for Jan Ebeling, who is one of the most special clients I have ever met in the last 25 years of shipping horses to and from Europe.” Ebeling knows better than most the importance of good timing. And if ever there was a moment for an athlete to peak, it’s now. At the USEF Dressage Festival of Champions/Olympic Selection Trial in Gladstone, NJ, the German-born rider and the 15-year-old Oldenburg Rafalca (Argentinius x Ratine) turned in a quartet of stellar rides to finish in third, with a combined total of 73.169%. Says Ebeling, “A friend recently gave me an L.A. Kings cap, and he said, ‘They remind me of you. They were in eighth place, and then they got into the finals and won the Stanley Cup. You were ranked ninth, and you made the team.’” As he and Rafalca prepare for London, Ebeling reflects on their journey. “If you look at the profile of any athlete, they’ve all had their ups and downs,” he says. “The road to success is not smooth. It’s not just, ‘Buy a nice horse and go to the Olympics.’ There’s a lot of sweat, tears, hard work and sacrifice.” Amy Ebeling agrees. “Hard work equals success,” she says. She would know.
In 1993 she bought a 10-acre farm that was in foreclosure about an hour north of Los Angeles, and since then she and Jan have built it up to become a thriving horse training facility they call The Acres. “We started with nothing,” Amy says. “It’s so hard to make a living in the horse business; this has been a real labor of love.” Owned by the partnership of Amy Ebeling, Beth Meyer and Ann Romney, the wife of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Rafalca has always been something special. “This mare has met and exceeded all of our expectations,” Amy emphasizes. “She’s been doing Grand Prix for four years now, and she’s become an extremely reliable horse.” Coming into this Olympic year, the group had high hopes for the pair, but after Ebeling and Rafalca finished 15th at this spring’s FEI World Cup Final in The Netherlands, the likelihood of making the Olympic team seemed like a long shot.
“We weren’t sure that the dream would continue,” says Amy. But instead of giving up, Jan got busy. “After the World Cup, we went into boot camp mode,” Amy recalls. “Every day Jan was with his sport psychologist, and every day he did a hard-core workout so that he could be the most relaxed mentally and the most fit physically.” He’s also been coached by Southern California-based rider Christine Traurig, whose own experience on the U.S. dressage team at the 2000 Olympics has proved invaluable. “Christine and [longtime coach] Wolfram Wittig complement each other very well to help me in different ways, but always with a common goal,” says Jan. “It’s amazing how a trained eye on the ground can improve your riding.” “I don’t think that anyone ever perfects a sport, but I think I have a good system,” he adds. “Coming from a German riding background, there wasn’t much mental training. It was, ‘Get on the horse and ride.’ But I think all sports have evolved over the past 25 years; they all do some sort of mental training.
We riders are just beginning to tap into that. Being able to focus is a really helpful tool.” Ebeling’s dedication and hard work paid off at the Selection Trial, where he was prepared for the media blitz surrounding the Romneys as part owners of Rafalca and earned a personal best in the Grand Prix with his score of 75.255%. “Jan’s been so resilient, and he has really shown what a brilliant horseman he is,” remarks Amy. “He’s been so smart about educating himself and Rafalca. Difficulty just helps you prepare for the next level.” But asked what the most memorable part of the Trial was, Jan says it was the sight of his son bolting out of the tent to congratulate him. “Ben came charging at me and just leapt onto me and said, ‘Congratulations, dad!’ It really put everything into perspective. The support from the family and from friends has been great.” Ben, in fact, will travel with his father to London. And while Ebeling puts the finishing touches on his performance in training with the U.S. team, Ben will do a little training of his own, at a soccer camp in Ipswich. Amy, meanwhile, will hold down the fort back in California until just before the Games kick off on July 27 (the dressage events start on Aug. 2), when she’ll be on hand to watch Jan and Rafalca compete.
Jan is realistic about U.S. chances in London. “We have a very good team,” he says. “We have solid Grand Prix horses and very seasoned riders, led by Steffen [Peters], of course. But the other teams don’t sleep—the Europeans are enormously strong. Rafalca has just gotten better over the years, and she’s feeling great. My philosophy is to try and be on top of my game every time I ride and then transfer my everyday good riding to the show arena.” Amy makes it clear they’re ready to clear the decks for another celebration. “It is an amazing year already with my husband headed to the Olympics. And if my dear friend Ann Romney makes it to the White House, I will be the happiest person on the planet.” She pauses, and then adds with a laugh. “We still have a little champagne left!”
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