Wellington, Fla.—March 24
Now, Reed Kessler can wash her socks.
When the sun came up on March 21, the first day of the U.S. Equestrian Federation selection trials for the U.S. show jumping team for the London Olympic Games, Kessler had rolled on a special pair of socks over her breeches and slipped them into her boots. They’re boot socks emblazoned with the U.S. flag, and she’d been given them last year when she was on the USEF Young Rider tour in Europe.
After Kessler jumped a clean round in Round 1 of the trials with Cylana, her superstition kicked into overdrive, and she knew those socks would be with her all week.
Whether it was the lucky socks or just excellent preparation and good riding, something worked for Kessler, just 17 and a senior in high school, during the trials. She pulled off one of the biggest upsets in show jumping by ending up on top of the Olympic selection trials in just her first year of being old enough to compete in five-star Federation Equestre Internationale classes.
You could almost feel the relief rolling off Kessler and Margie Engle in waves. Four grueling days of jumping some of the biggest courses they’d seen and waiting were over, and they’d come out on top. The 17-year-old rookie and the 53-year-old veteran sat tied at the top of the standings with just 12 faults each. Technically, Kessler won the trials, since she jumped more clean rounds than Engle—she and Cylana jumped clean in Round 1 and 2, while Engle and Indigo had one clean round in Round 1. Remarkably, Kessler also placed third overall in the trials on her other mount, Mika, after she jumped the most clean rounds (two) of the three-way tie for third with 13 faults.
“This has been the best week of my life,” Kessler said with a wide-eyed amazement.
Since the trials also served as the $100,000 USEF National Show Jumping Championships, Kessler and Engle were supposed to jump off for the top check and the title. But the sold-out crowd of about 7,000 wouldn’t see them jump again. Kessler and Engle decided to remain tied for the class and split the first- and second-placed prize money. “For the welfare of the horses, it was the best thing we could do. They jumped their hearts out, and I think it’s right to save them for what’s important [the upcoming Olympic observation events and possibly the Olympic Games],” said Engle.
There's A Lot Of Work Yet To Be Done
Even though they emerged as the best performers over four rounds of intensely challenging jumping during the trials, Kessler and Engle both know that the Olympic team is far from being named. The Olympic selectors—Chef d’Equipe George Morris, Chris Kappler, Susie Hutchison and Mark Leone—will name a ranked long list on March 26 that includes the horse/rider combinations that were given a bye from the trials (McLain Ward on Sapphire and Antares F, Laura Kraut on Cedric, and Beezie Madden on Coral Reef Via Volo). Then, they’ll watch everyone on that list jump again in two observation events. Only then will they name a team.
“I just go along and do the best I can and see what happens,” Engle said. “[The team] is for George and the selectors to decide. I think the horses have done what they wanted them to do, and I don’t think they could have jumped a bigger class [than Round 3 on March 22]. Even the course designer said that was as big as he’s going to build at the Olympics.
“I think my horse is definitely capable; he’s jumped around a lot of big courses and does it easy. I hope [the selection trials results] will hold. That’s what it’s supposed to be for. But I’ve been around long enough to know things can change,” Engle continued.
While Engle’s pragmatism comes from having been through this selection process multiple times—she’s served on U.S. teams at the 2000 Olympic Games and the 2006 World Equestrian Games—this is a brand-new experience for Kessler. Since she turns 18 this year, it’s the first year she’s been eligible for a senior championship team. While she has USEF Young Rider European tour experience and appeared multiple times at the North American Young Rider Championships, she freely admits that winning the trials puts her in an unusual spot.
“I had no idea I’d be in this position. I was just looking forward to having a really positive experience. And it’s been that!” Kessler said. “I think it would be unrealistic for me to just expect to be on the team. I have no experience, and Cylana and Mika are both green at this level, too. From here on out, I’ll do whatever George tells me, and I’ll do my best.”
Kessler has been shepherded through the trials process by her trainers, USEF team veteran Katie Monahan Prudent and her husband Henri Prudent, who has represented France internationally.
Just Jump Clean
Engle and Kessler agreed that Alan Wade’s course for Round 4 was healthy by anyone’s standards, but not the overwhelmingly massive track he’d built for Round 3. “I think they were looking for consistency and stamina tonight,” Engle said.
And they found it in Cylana and Indigo. Kessler and Cylana has just 4 faults in Round 4 at the very last oxer. “I think I just got a little excited,” Kessler admitted of the error. Cylana started the trials with clear rounds in Round 1 and 2, but then picked up 8 faults in Round 3 when the atmosphere of a class under the lights electrified her a bit.
Watch Kessler and Cylana's trip in Round 4.