A year ago, as she was recovering from a broken leg, Anky van Grunsven never dreamed she'd be wearing her second consecutive Olympic gold medal in dressage. And last winter, after she'd had the FEI World Cup title stripped from her because of an accidental drug infraction, Ulla Salzgeber didn't think she'd want to ride here in Athens.
But this evening--in at atmosphere more like a rock concert than a dressage show--it all came down to the nerves of the two reigning queens of dressage. As the sun began to sink over the Markopoulo Equestrian Center in Athens, van Grunsven asked all that she could from the 10-year-old Salinero. And he gave her everything he had, scoring 85.82 percent to achieve a final average score for the three tests of 79.27 percent.
"It's unbelievable to get another gold medal," said van Grunsven, 36, who cried when her victory was announced and then again on the gold-medal podium. "I never thought I'd have another after Bonfire, and this morning I wasn't even thinking about it. I was just hoping to have a good test, and the test was better than I ever expected."
Van Grunsven said she rode Salinero twice before the freestyle, cantering him for 30 minutes on a long rein this morning and then warming him up for 70 minutes ("with a lot of walking") before the test.
Salzgeber and Rusty scored 83.45 percent in the freestyle, leaving them with an average percentage of 78.83 percent. Beatriz Ferrer-Salat of Spain scored Spain's first individual medal in dressage by riding Beauvalais to third with 79.57 percent and a total of 76.66 percent.
Neither Salinero nor Rusty exhibited the spooking or anxiety Salinero had shown in the Grand Prix and Rusty had shown in the Special.
"For me, this is not disappointing," insisted Salzgeber, 46, who's now won individual medals--but no gold--in two Olympics and two World Championships. "If you go through as much as I did, it takes a little bit away. I'm not any more the fighter I was before, and I'm only here because of the people behind me who pushed me to do this. But I have two medals, and I'm very happy with them now."
For the American riders, it was an exciting but, in the end, slightly disappointing day. Aragon performed steadily and willingly for Guenter Seidel, scoring 73.80 percent to finish 14th overall. Then Robert Dover and Kennedy strutted to seventh place in the test and sixth place overall, by far Dover's best individual finish ever in his sixth Olympic Games.
But Debbie McDonald and Brentina, perched since the 2002 World Equestrian Games on the verge of an Olympic medal, couldn't quite make the breakthrough, scoring 78.82 percent for sixth in the test and fourth overall. Still, fourth place is the best American finish in dressage since Hilda Gurney finished fourth in 1976.
McDonald's demanding test, which she performs to "Who Can Ask For Anything More" and begins with a double canter pirouette immediately after the halt at D and goes straight into tempi changes, certainly had its highlights, especially in the passage-piaffe tours. But the second canter pirouette in that opening sequence was a bit too large, and the chestnut mare missed a sequence in two different lines of one-tempi changes.
"There were simply too many mistakes," said judge Wojciech Markowski of Poland.
Said McDonald, "I'm not happy with myself, but I am pleased with my horse. It was out of my control--just one of those times when the body doesn't work with the brain."
Dover made perfect use of the show tunes music he used, including "Steamed Heat." His extensions always built with the music, and his transitions were right on cue, although he too missed a couple of tempi changes.
"He moved and flew and was just so much fun to ride," said Dover with a broad smile.
Aragon should have gained high marks with his exceptional piaffe, which Seidel highlights in his test, performed mostly to the dramatic music from the fire movie "Backdraft." Most impressive was how relaxed and confident Aragon, 13, looked in the ring, which was even noisier today, with the wind the music, and the almost full stands, than it was for the windy Grand Prix Special on Monday.
"For good luck," Seidel used the music he'd used with Graf George at the 1996 Olympics for the walk. "He's gotten really good experience here and performed really well, and I hope to ride him for another four years," said a pleased Seidel right after his test.