By Lauren R. Giannini
Almost every young rider dreams about riding in the Olympics. Growing up horse-crazy they enjoy their equines and indulge in equestrian passions, whether they ride for pleasure or for prizes. And they continue to dream about the Olympics. There are those, however, who do more than dream — they actually make it, and whatever the results they are known forever as Olympians.
The elite few who, every four years, live the “Olympic dream” don’t see it quite like that. It may have been a dream long ago, but they’re driven to excel, to rise to the top of their discipline, to be the best. They commit to the quest with dedication and determination. They learn discipline. They’re willing to work very hard for many years to reach their discipline’s upper levels. Their journey requires talent, stamina and horses – really good, strong, sound, athletic horses. They also need luck, and financial backing comes in handy. The journey is not an easy one.
Dressage, eventing and show jumping comprise the three Olympic equestrian disciplines. The first Summer Olympic Games took place in Athens in 1896, no horses, but the Paris Games in 1900 featured polo and jumping. Equestrian was dropped in 1904, reinstated in 1908 and remained uncontested until 1912 when the Stockholm Games added dressage and the “Military,” aka three-day eventing to show jumping.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which has grown the Summer Games to a roster of 36 sports, plans to reduce expenses by downsizing. Based on expense alone, eventing has been in the IOC’s crosshairs for years, which is ironic, because cross-country day usually attracts the first- or second-largest spectator days in the entire two-week Olympic schedule.
“There’s a chance that eventing will not be in the Olympics within eight to 12 years, but that’s just my personal opinion,” said Jim Wofford, three-time Olympian with two silver team medals (1968 and 1972 with Kilkenny) and individual silver (1980 Alternate Olympics Fountainebleau with Carawich). He also earned Pan Am team gold medal (1967), contested two World Championships — 1970 individual bronze and 1978 team bronze. Renowned as a trainer, he has coached, since 1978, at least one student on every U.S. Olympic, World Championship and Pan Am team, including Olympians Karen and David O’Connor, Nina Fout, Linden Wiesman, Kim Severson, John Williams and Gina Miles.
Best Attitude To Win
Jim, who supports equestrian sports in all the disciplines although his forte is eventing, believes in good horsemanship. “I counsel the kids I teach who are 16, 17, not to hang their hats on the Olympics,” he said. “I would rather that the kids put their efforts towards becoming good horsemen, because their horsemanship skills will be shown in their competitive results. You shouldn’t put any competition first, because then you define yourself completely by the results you obtain. I would like you be able to define yourself as a good person and a good horseman.”
These words of wisdom make sense for all equestrian endeavors. One of the world’s top horsemen is Germany’s Michael Jung, the reigning Olympic three-day champion. Michael is an eventing phenomenon, a cool competitor no matter what’s on the line, whether it’s a title, huge prize money or both. He can also hold his own and win in dedicated Grand Prix dressage and show jumping.
According to Michael, the key is to ride as if it’s a normal event. “I think always the same thing when I go to a championship or four-star event,” he said. “I say to myself, ‘This is a normal competition.’ I try not to change anything. It’s important to win, but it’s important that you have a good feeling for the horse and that you have a good ride.”
Do Your Best
Not every rider’s a cool reactor and it’s far from easy to turn performance anxiety into a competition edge that works in a positive way for you, instead of against you. Also, you have to have the right equine partner – a horse with athleticism, willingness and soundness. Training can improve just about everything, but it won’t necessarily produce a world-class winner. Some horses don’t have the mind for the upper levels; others lack physically in some way. The wannabes get sorted out along the way from the horses and riders with real chances of making it to the top.
One good example is dressage superstar Laura Graves, owner and rider of Verdades, who topped many years of ups and downs with an explosive arrival onto the international scene, thanks to the opportunity to compete in the 2014 Dutta Corp/USEF Grand Prix Dressage National Championship at the Festival of Champions at Gladstone, New Jersey. Laura and Verdades wowed the judges and made headlines as runner-up to Steffen Peters.
On the strength of their finish, Laura and Verdades joined the champions as guaranteed members of the team for the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Normandy. She became the second American to break the 80-percent mark in international competition with her Freestyle, finishing best of the team in fourth place overall. Last year, Laura and Verdades earned individual silver and team gold at the 2015 Pan Ams and the duo will compete for the U.S. in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
In the Sidelines story that ran in February 2015, Laura said, “I don’t start anything if I’m not going to work my best to be the best at it. I look for help. I study every video. You can’t compare what we do over here to what goes on in Europe. Those riders have a different level of hunger and I think they ride better because of that hunger. You either want it or you don’t.”
Jim Wofford, who has a way with words, put it this way: “In the long run, if you can say ‘I rode the absolute best I could and it wasn’t good enough,’ that’s an easier thing to live with than ‘Well, if I had only trained harder and listened to my coach more and not been such a knucklehead.’ It’s a very narrow window to step through, and when you do, you step through to another world. Once you ride in the Olympics, you are always known for that achievement.”
Once an Olympian, always an Olympian.
Michael Jung, the reigning Olympic three-day champion, on his way to victory at the 2016 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.
Photo by Mark McInnis
Laura Graves and Verdades’ partnership, dedication and hard work has taken then on the journey that many equestrians dream of — the road to Rio and the 2016 Olympic Games.
Photo by Allen MacMillan/MacMillan Photography
Jim Wofford, left, with Olympic cross-country course designer Mike Etherington-Smith. For the riders who make it to the Olympics, Jim said, “It’s a very narrow window to step through, and when you do, you step through to another world.”
Photo by Michelle C. Dunn
The view so many dream of — the equestrian venue at the 2012 Olympic Games at Greenwich Park in England. The Queen’s house is at the end of the ring.
Photo by Kim MacMillan/MacMillan Photography
Making it to the Olympics is a dream come true, but also a demanding journey. United States eventer Karen O’Connor, a five-time Olympian for the United States, poses at the Moon jump at the 2012 Olympic Games with London as a backdrop.
Photo by Kim MacMillan/MacMillan Photography