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July 4, 2008

McLain Ward Is On Track On His Road To The Olympics

In this series, the Chronicle follows six riders as they seek to fulfill their Olympic dreams in Hong Kong in 2008. To view McLain's first installment, click here, or to read his second, click here.

I’ve been amazingly calm for some reason. The Olympics in Hong Kong haven’t been that much in my mind. Obviously, it’s in our long-term plan, but I’m not thinking about it moment to moment and every day.

I think my whole team was really focused on Rotterdam [CHIO, June 18-22 in the Netherlands], and that basically went the way we wanted. [Ward and Sapphire anchored the U.S. team with two four-fault rounds in the Samsung Super League Nations Cup, but the team finished eighth (p. 60). Sapphire then had 4 faults in the first round of the Longines Grand Prix of Rotterdam and placed eighth.]

I would have loved to have had those four-fault rounds be clears, but the horse jumped well enough to jump clear and that’s what we aim for.  The results will come if you aim for the horse to go well. Looking toward [the Aachen CHIO, July 1-6 in Germany], we’re going in with the same mentality, to aim for the horse to be performing at her best and for me to ride well.

We have Hong Kong on our long-term radar, but it’s not a daily obsession and I think it’s better that way. You can drive yourself, the people around you and the horses nuts thinking about it.

It sounds odd, but you can drive yourself crazy before big championships. This time around, for all of us in my program, it’s nice to have had the experience of going to two major championships and doing well [earning team gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics and team silver at the 2006 World Equestrian Games] and believing that we belong there and having that little bit of confidence.  I’m not going to go so far and say ‘comfortable,’ but it’s a confidence that what we’re doing is the right thing.

The first time you go, you’re hoping you’re doing the right things, but you’re not sure and you’re always wondering. Now, I think we have that confidence that we’re doing it the right way, and we can stick to our plan.

Getting Back In The Game

We actually didn’t end up showing Sapphire at Old Salem Farm (N.Y.) in May because the weather got bad and the footing was muddy. We didn’t want to risk it, and it wasn’t a necessity to jump her there.

So, she shipped to Europe with Lee McKeever and Jenny Wood on June 12, and I flew over on the 16th. We did one school of gymnastics, and we went to Rotterdam. It was pretty uncomplicated.  We gave her one big school at home before she left for Europe just to knock the rust off since she hadn’t jumped a big class since [the Charlotte Jumper Classic (N.C.) on April 11-13].

Rotterdam, like Aachen, is a steppingstone to the Olympics. I want to do very well—and I’d love to win the Nations Cup and the grand prix—but it’s all building for the Olympics. Our mindset was to go in there and get her going and get her in good form. That’s exactly what happened. She felt good and solid. The team result in the Nations Cup was disappointing, and there were some reasons for that.  We were testing out different combinations for the team.

It’s difficult for me to speculate about the Nations Cup. I can only know what happened in my own rounds. But Anne [Kursinski’s] horse [Champ 163] went very well from what I saw. He got better as the week went on, which was nice to see.

That horse doesn’t have all the experience. Laura Kraut’s horse [Cedric] jumped two fantastic rounds in the grand prix [and finished third]. Unfortunately, I think Jeffery Welles’ horse had a small injury in the second round of the Nations Cup, so that’s disappointing. The Nations Cup result was disappointing, but I was personally very happy with my horse.
   
Sapphire jumped in a 1.45-meter class on Thursday and jumped clear and very well. We’d been jumping quite small at home. Like any other sport, you just have to basically do it.  As you do it, the good horses get better and better at it.
   
By Sunday, she was really comfortable with the height again. She got better and better through the week. I couldn’t have asked for more than that. In the grand prix, she felt incredible. She was really unlucky to have 4 faults at the B element of the triple. She just touched it really lightly. She felt as good and fresh as ever.  Now, we’ll try and step it up a little bit at Aachen and then Hong Kong.

Just Keeping Keen

I think Sapphire is just about ready. Obviously, you’re always a little bit critical of that, and you might overestimate how fit you need to get them. But by the time we get to Aachen, she should be as fit as she can get. Her weight is great and the horse is very healthy, knock on wood. Lee and Erika McKeever have done a great job with that.

I think the way she’s going into Aachen is the way she’s going to go into Hong Kong. At home, she was working once a day and going on the treadmill, like she’s always done. Between Rotterdam and Aachen, she had a nice, easy couple of days and then we put her back into full work on June 24. She worked on the flat most of the week and then jumped once through some gymnastics again before Aachen.

Now, the last few weeks, we’ll fine-tune and keep her healthy. I don’t think there’s a lot more we can do at this point other than maintaining what we have and not trying to peak her too soon. Aachen is important, and I hope she goes great there. I’d love to win the grand prix at Aachen, but I’m keeping in mind that it’s the last step before what really matters.

[Beezie Madden and Authentic weren’t on the Nations Cup team at Rotterdam, but they placed ninth just behind Ward and Sapphire in the grand prix and will be on the Nations Cup team at Aachen.] Authentic looked great at Rotterdam. He was second to me in a big class on Thursday, and I went right after him in the grand prix.  I didn’t see the whole round, but from what I saw, he was jumping great.  It was a very big course, and he touched one jump and it came down, the same as Sapphire.

[U.S. Chef d’Equipe George Morris] is good for people like Beezie and myself because he just kind of lets us do our thing. He doesn’t micro-manage; he believes in the systems we have and it allows us to do what we need to get to where we are.  His role right now is coming up for the teams for Aachen and Hong Kong. I know there’s a lot of pressure and thought that goes into those decisions.

If everything’s good and we’re named to the team for Hong Kong, we’ll stay here in Europe. I stay with Francois Mathy in Belgium; we’ve been partners for 30 years. It’s like home for us. I take a week off after Aachen and then do one horse show in San Patrignano [Italy] with the other horses.

I’ve gone back and forth [to the United States] in the past, and it hasn’t worked for me. I feel like I end up doing both sides of the ocean halfway. Given that it’s a little bit difficult to be away from home and the business, it’s a commitment we’ve made—my whole family and everyone involved with that horse. We want to do it the best we can.

Then, after that, the team comes together for about a two-week period before we leave for Hong Kong. We all meet up at Johann Heins’ farm like we did in ’06. There’s one small show that first week that if we choose to go to, it’ll be a place to jump the horses one last time, but that’ll be an individual decision. After 10 days at Johann’s, we go to Hong Kong.

McLain Ward, as told to Molly Sorge
 
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