It’ll be mid-May before grand prix fans might see two-time Olympic gold medalist McLain Ward back in the ring. Ward, 36, suffered a compound fracture of his left patella, or kneecap, on the evening of Jan. 14.
Ward was riding Oh d’Eole in the $30,000 Surpass Grand Prix during the first week of competition at the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla. Oh d’Eole, a 10-year-old Selle Francais mare, had won the $30,000 WEF Challenge Cup Round 1 two days before. “She was getting a little green under the lights [during the night class],” said Ward.
They ran into trouble at a one-stride combination. “She jumped so high jumping into the combination over A that I went to pull her out from the B, but she left the ground anyway. Then, I hit my kneecap on the standard.”
Ward’s knee hit the vertical metal strip on the inside of the jump standard that secures the breakaway jump cups. The impact in midair unbalanced them both, and Oh d’Eole landed and fell to her knees. Ward fell to the ground beside her. “When I hit the ground, I knew exactly what had happened. I could see it. It was pretty graphic. I looked up into the stands and motioned for help, and then I just laid back down. It didn't hurt at all,” Ward said.
Medics attended Ward immediately, and he was transported from the ring by a medical golfcart, then transferred to an ambulance and taken to Wellington Regional Medical Center. Oh d’Eole was examined by veterinarian Dr. Tim Ober and found to be without injury.
Surgeons, including Dr. Craig Ferrell, a rider himself who served as the U.S. Olympic team physician at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games, operated on Ward’s knee on the evening of Jan. 14. Ward’s knee cap was in 22 pieces. “It was shattered. They kept four pieces in there and screwed them all together. I lost probably 20 to 30 percent of my kneecap, but you don't really need it, they tell me, so to lose a bit of it isn't a big deal,” Ward said.
The immediate worry for Ward is infection, since the bone fragments punctured the skin and were exposed, but he’s on a regimen of antibiotics. He is scheduled to be released from the hospital on Jan. 17. Doctors advised Ward that he should spend eight weeks on crutches, not bearing weight on the leg. “Dr. Ferrell said maybe nine or 10 weeks until I could get back in the saddle without stirrups and then if everything goes smoothly, at 12 weeks I could get on with it,” Ward said.
Other than a broken collarbone he suffered in 2005, this is Ward’s first major riding injury. “I've been very lucky. It sucks, and it's bad timing, but as always, I have great people around me, who will do everything to help, and great friends. I think I’ve gotten about 1000 text messages and 500 phone calls. I think the hospital is going to give us our own wing pretty soon because there have been so many visitors,” he said. “I've mentally gotten to what I have to do when I come back.”
Ward was a favorite for the selection trials for the U.S. team for the London Olympic Games. In 2011, he claimed team gold at the Pan American Games (Mexico) with Antares F. And his superstar mare Sapphire—his partner for two Olympic team gold medals, team silver at the 2006 World Equestrian Games and second place in the 2009 FEI World Cup Final—had just jumped her first round in the ring after 10 months off to recover from a mild strain of her check ligament. The trials will be held in Wellington on March 21-24, and the top finishers get put on a short list and compete further through the summer for team spots.
Ward will definitely miss the trials, but there is a possibility that he might receive special consideration for the short list. He has not discussed that with anyone yet, however. “That's up to the powers that be. It would be nice if I could have the luxury of being given an opportunity at the latest date possible, but they have to do what they feel comfortable with. Obviously, I hope that I can still have some sort of modified chance and try my best,” he said. The deadline for the U.S. Equestrian Federation to nominate horse/rider combinations to the International Olympic Committee is June 17.
The horses in Ward’s stable will stay in work, but the grand prix horses such as Sapphire and Antares F won’t show with another rider. Ward’s wife, Lauren, and other riders will ride and show sales horses and some prospects. He plans to have all the horses fit and ready to go in May, when he hopes to get back into the show ring during the two weeks of the Old Salem Farm spring horse shows, May 8-20 in North Salem, N.Y.
“It's obviously really frustrating. All the horses were jumping great. But it's sport, and sometimes accidents happen. I was lucky the leg bones didn't break. I was certainly upset and frustrated, but I'm trying to figure out how to go forward,” Ward said. “I'm lucky to have such great friends and people around me to make it easier.”