By Lauren R. Giannini
All photos by Kim and Allen MacMillan/MacMillan Photography
Rio is now history. For the equestrians, the 31st Olympiad Summer Games encompassed a heart-pounding mix of competition, drama and spirited celebration of the unique partnership of equine and human athletes. According to the Olympic creed, the most important thing is to take part and give it your very best. That’s why no athlete, equine or human, who competed in Rio, whatever the outcome, can be considered a failure. Many might attempt the quest; few actually make it — once an Olympian, always an Olympian.
Eventing: Three Disciplines
The eventing at the Deodoro Equestrian Center transcended its usual edge-of-your-seat, knuckle-biting excitement. There were 65 entries and 11 out of 13 teams completed. France won team gold; Germany, defending champions from 2012 London, earned silver; and Australia took the bronze. Of the 64 entries to start the cross-country, only three went double-clear, 26 crossed the finish with only time penalties, two retired on course and the rest were eliminated.
The cross-country turned the leaderboard upside down and inside out, dashing the U.S. team’s medal hopes. The tough, technical track designed by Pierre Michelet was chock full of his signature angles, skinnies and corners. Boyd Martin, going first as U.S.A.’s trailblazer, piloted Blackfoot Mystery to a clear round with 3.2 time penalties, catapulting them from 35th to 6th going into show jumping where three rails put them in 16th place.
A brilliant and bold rider, Boyd said, “This was one of the most physical and demanding [cross-country] courses. It was intense. [Blackfoot Mystery] is a racehorse from Kentucky, and he kept fighting the whole way home. He tried his heart out for every jump. He has speed and endurance. I’m so pleased with him.”
Next out, Clark Montgomery and Loughan Glen, usually brilliant, encountered problems turning that netted 20 jump penalties at the first water. They had a runout at the skinny log pile and again, a few fences later, at 17b, the open corner. Three refusals means elimination. Later, the 20 penalties from the first water were removed, changing Clark’s result from E to R for retired on course, but all in all a disappointing end to his first Olympics.
Lauren Kieffer, next out on Veronica, knew they had to jump clear for the team to have a chance. Things were going great when she opted for the direct route from 23 to 24, which turned the big table into a huge corner on a tough angle to the narrow gate. “[Veronica] was being really good and going the direct route,” said Lauren. “She hit the gate with her right front and for a second I thought she would save it. My job first and foremost was to get a clean round, and it’s pretty disappointing that I let the team down.” The fall meant elimination; neither athlete was injured.
Anchor rider, Phillip Dutton and Mighty Nice, 15th after dressage, just kept moving up the leaderboard and harvested individual bronze. They jumped clear cross-country with Phillip making an early spectacular save, then show-jumped two great rounds. One time fault in the first round improved them to fourth for the decisive medal round.
“Mighty Nice jumped great; he jumped beautifully,” said Phillip, whose efforts to improve the horse’s skillset over painted rails paid off. In the final round, they added only four jump faults to finish on 51.80 — good enough for bronze after the leader, Australia’s Christopher Burton on Santano II, dropped rails at the last two fences to finish fifth. Phillip’s first-ever individual medal put him on the podium next to gold medalist Michael Jung (Germany), who successfully defended his London title, and silver medalist Nicholas Astier (France).
Dressage: Dancing Hooves
The U.S. earned dressage team bronze on 76.667, breaking the drought since 2004 Athens. The Rio team included Olympic veteran Steffen Peters, alongside first-timers Legolas 92, his equine partner; Kasey Perry-Glass on Dublet; Allison Brock on Rosevelt; and Laura Graves on Verdades. Germany won gold on 81.936 and Great Britain harvested silver on 78.595 percent.
It isn’t easy to win an Olympic medal, period. Only two nations outside Europe have medaled in dressage: Canada (1988 team bronze) and the United States, now boasting seven team bronze, one team silver (1948 London), and one individual bronze (1932 Los Angeles).
Rio’s team competition began with 60 duos performing the Grand Prix test. On the third day, the top six teams and top eight individual combinations advanced to the Grand Prix Special. Team medals were decided by averaging the results of each team’s top three scores from the two tests.
“A big thank you to Robert Dover [U.S. Dressage Chef d’Equipe and four-time Olympic medalist],” said Steffen. “We knew we had a chance, but when it actually happened, it was amazing! If you wanted to see a 52-year-old guy acting like a 10-year-old boy, you should’ve seen me in the stands when Laura was coming down the centerline. I was crying my eyes out and it was just one of those absolutely amazing experiences. There are a lot of people who are certainly a big part of this medal.”
The Americans had to earn scores in the mid- to upper-70s or better from international judges whose eagle-eyed scrutiny led to penalties for each tiny bobble or flaw. After the Grand Prix, thanks to Laura and Steffen, the U.S.A. sat in third, less than one point ahead of The Netherlands. In the Grand Prix Special, the anchor duo boosted the U.S.A. onto the medal podium: Laura and Verdades laid it on the line to record a personal best, 80.644, making her one of only five to score above 80.
Laura exclaimed, “We’ve captured the elusive 80 percent! It does exist! I knew the test was going well, but you just always hope that your reflections match up with the judges’. I had no idea going into the test what I needed for a score and to see my teammates so happy and then to achieve my personal best — and a score I’ve been reaching for — was just icing on our cake today.”
Laura and Verdades, Steffen and Legolas, and Allison and Rosevelt were among the top 18 competitors competing for individual medals in the Freestyle. This custom-choreographed musical ride is the equivalent of figure skating’s long program. Each combination earns technical and artistic marks for compulsory movements and optional ones, such as piaffe pirouette and half pass in passage, which are seen only in the Grand Prix Freestyle.
It was an emotional last Olympics for Great Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro, who faces retirement. They defended their 2012 London individual gold with a stunning freestyle that earned 93.897. Germany’s Isabell Werth added silver to her Rio team gold, setting a record for 10 Olympic dressage medals; teammate Kristina Broring-Sprehe claimed the bronze. Laura and Verdades achieved another personal best score of 85.196, less than two points shy of a medal, for fourth. Steffen finished 12th on 79.393, Allison in 15th on 76.160.
“I’m thrilled with the score,” said Laura. “I’m just so happy. I believe in a system, following a routine and finding a trainer you trust and staying with them. I’m so blessed that both Robert and my personal trainer, Debbie McDonald, have sacrificed so much of their time this summer to be over here in Europe with the team. It really has made a difference.”
Steffen, now a four-time Olympian, was first in the ring — early tests tend to be scored conservatively — but he made the most of it with Four Winds Farm’s Legolas 92, charming judges with their Freestyle and earning several nines for music, choreography and degree of difficulty. “I’m super happy. I added a few extra degrees of difficulty to the test — I had a blast in there, I just loved it,” said Steffen. “Legolas had a fantastic three days. I wish I could put into words how much winning the [team] bronze medal means to me and also how much it means to me how well Legolas did here.”
Show Jumping: Big Painted Fences
Show jumping is scored objectively, and the lowest score wins. Olympic rookies Lucy Davis and Barron, and Kent Farrington and Voyeur joined forces with veteran medalists Beezie Madden and Cortes C, and McLain Ward and Azure to take home team silver.
The first qualifying round began with 75 combinations and 15 teams. By the team final, there were eight countries in the medal final and 44 horses and riders qualified for the individual finale. The French proved golden with three time faults for two rounds, thanks to the drop score rule. The U.S.A. claimed silver on five faults. Germany and Canada, tied for third place with eight faults each, jumped off. Germany’s three double-clears secured the bronze and Canada was fourth on eight faults.
The Americans earned their silver without the luxury of a drop score in that crucial final round. Beezie’s horse Cortes C injured a tendon during round one (“Tiny” is expected to make a full recovery), but losing the three-time Olympic medalist put greater pressure on the others. McLain, two-time team gold medalist, put in a double-clear. Lucy had one rail and Kent produced another clear with one time fault.
“Just to be on this team, to be in my first Olympics and win a medal, is a fantastic feeling,” said Kent. “There’s no greater honor than representing your country, and to walk away with a silver medal is a great finish.”
Kent and Amalaya Investments’ Voyeur came very close to an individual medal. They jumped double-clear, one of 13 double-clears that advanced to the medal round. It was an exciting showdown that produced six double-clears for a six-way tie for first place, requiring a crowd pleasing jump-off to decide the gold medal.
Nick Skelton, 58, and Big Star, team gold from 2012 London, won Great Britain’s first-ever individual jumping gold. First in, they posted a clear round in 42.82 that was unbeatable. Silver went to Sweden’s Peder Frederickson and All In, clear on 43.45. Canada’s Eric Lamaze and Fine Lady 5 had bronze on four faults and the fastest time of 42.09, which broke the tie by less than one second with the other four-faulter, Switzerland’s Steve Guerdat, defending Olympic champion, on Nino Des Buissonnets. Kent and Voyeur dropped rails at the first and last to finish fifth.
“Any time you go to a championship and leave with a medal, it has to be considered a good championship,” said Kent. “Because so many things can go wrong, it’s very easy to come all this way and jump a lot of jumps and leave with nothing. To leave with a silver [team medal] is great. I thought [Voyeur] jumped great all week, and to be in contention to win it in the end was obviously awesome. I don’t know that there have ever been six horses jumping off for a gold medal at the end. It didn’t go our way, but we’ll be back at it next time.”