August 4 — London.
Anything can happen in show jumping, and just as it appeared that Team USA was going to post four clean rounds on the first day of Olympic competition, disaster struck for Beezie Madden.
She was the last to go of the four U.S. riders, chosen for the anchor spot because of her experience and strong nerves. McLain Ward had been first in the ring on Antares, and he’d turned in a foot-perfect round over Bob Ellis’ course.
Next to go was the youngest member of the team, Reed Kessler. She had 1 time fault with Cylana, but it was a great start for the 18-year-old rookie.
Rich Fellers turned in a double clear with the incomparable Flexible, and then it was Madden’s turn in the ring.
Via Volo cleared the first fence with feet to spare, and she proceeded to jump around the track as if it was built to the top of the standards instead of having only two fences at the maximum height of 1.6 meters.
The jump at 9A was a 1.51-meter vertical off a bending line that was riding in seven or eight strides from the oxer at 8. Via Volo got underneath the vertical and landed short in the two-stride combination. “She went so far left and landed so dead, I was heading for the standards,” said Madden.
She pulled Via Volo out and re-presented her but found the same tight distance. For a moment it looked like the mare might squeeze three strides in and try to jump out, but then she put on the brakes at 9B.
“She was jumping amazing, and I planned to do the steady eight [strides] there,” said Madden. “She fought me quite a bit, and in hindsight, at this height, with the way she was going, I could’ve just done seven down to that double with her stride.
“The risk with her is her rideability sometimes,” continued Madden. “It got me a little there. In hindsight I should’ve just done seven, but I was trying to school. Get a clear, but at the same time make her rideable for tomorrow. I thought the eight was a better choice for that.”
This first round has almost no impact on the team standing, but Madden’s elimination means she won’t be able to contest the individual medals.
“It’s a disappointment, but we’re here to defend our team gold, so we’re going to dig in and try to do that,” said Madden. “Luckily all the others did well, and tomorrow I think she’ll be fine.”
Madden took the 14-year-old Belgian Warmblood mare (Clinton—Run Away, Heartbreaker) back to the schooling arena, and she jumped as if there had never been an issue. “She’s never done anything like that before. I have to go in and ride like I have the same horse,” said Madden. “I think our team looks good if I turn mine around and do what she normally does. The others all look great.”
And Madden wasn’t the only rider to encounter surprising issues on a course that seemed to be riding quite soft, with 32 riders of 75 jumping double clean. Sweden’s Lisen Fredricson knew she was in trouble when Matrix started rearing and spinning as soon as they entered the ring. He jumped over the top of the standards at the first two fences before seeing a long one to the triple bar at 3A and landing in the middle of it. Fredricson tumbled off and was later taken to the hospital for X-rays, but she walked out of the ring. Matrix was unhurt.
Australia’s Matt Williams on Watch Me and Brazil’s Carlos Motta Ribas on Wilexo were eliminated for two stops. Watch Me took exception to the liverpool oxer at 5A, while Wilexo didn’t like the look of the triple bar at 3A.
Germany’s Christian Ahlmann also had a frustrating round, as Codex One had the rail at 11 and 12 before stopping at 12B. “I don’t really know what happened,” said Ahlmann. “He was not really pulling me to the fence, and then he went more and more careful. The second time we came to it he felt completely different, and he finished his round really well.”
Great Britain’s Peter Charles survived a hairy moment at 3A when Vindicat swam through the triple bar and then had the B vertical down as well, but then they pulled themselves together. “It was a disgraceful start, but it got better,” said Charles. “He was a little tentative and distracted by the crowd.”
A Good Position
Despite the shock of Madden’s elimination, Team USA sits in a good spot for the upcoming team competition. Four nations were able to produce three double-clears: the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and Belgium. The Netherlands was the only country to have all four riders finish on zero penalties. The United States was in good company with Brazil, France, and Germany on 1 penalty apiece. This initial round will determine the start order for the team competition, but teams won’t carry the scores over from today.
However, the scores from today will help determine who may compete in the individual final. The individuals who didn’t place in the top 60 today are out of the competition completely unless they are riding for a team.
Ward was the 16th rider to enter the ring, and at that point there were nine double clears.
“It’s a nice welcome,” said Ward of the course. “I think it’s very fair. It’s always difficult here. It’s the first round after everybody has been resting up. You have a wide range of riders always at the beginning. You have the best of the best, and you have some new emerging countries, so I think it’s a good round to get everybody going.”
Ward said rideability was his priority with Antares, a 12-year-old Wurttemberger (Araconit—Zuchtbuch Caprice, Cento). “I wasn’t so concerned if I jumped clear or 4. I wanted the horse to feel in a good place, and he did,” he said. “The jumping is never a problem for him. He was really quite rideable today. That was what I was most pleased with. I just needed to make the time allowed. With him I have to make sure I don’t go too fast sometimes.”
Ward also said he likes to be the leadoff rider for the team. “I’ve gone first for two Olympics and a Pan Ams. It worked out OK,” he said. “The only place we didn’t do it was the [2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky], so we decided to go back to Plan A. This is [U.S. Chef d’Equipe George Morris’] team, and Beezie and I have bookended it for years. We’ll stick with what works. I like to go early; it doesn’t bother me.”
Relieved To Begin
Kessler was literally shaking with excitement after earning just 1 time penalty with Cylana in her first senior team championship.
“It was more of a warm-up for me for the team competition than for Cylana. She’s ready to jump these rounds every single day,” said Kessler. “I’m the green one coming into this kind of championship. She jumped unbelievable. As soon as I [cleared] the first jump, I was like, ‘Pheww. I can do it.’ ”
Kessler had to work at keeping a lid on the 10-year-old Belgian Warmblood mare (Skippy II—Verona van de Ruiterhoeve, Darco).
“She really lit up before I went in. Everyone started to clap. She kind of went flying backwards, and I was keeping her a bit contained,” she said. “It’s a long championship. You don’t want to make them tired the first day. I left her very fresh so she has everything in her for the Nations Cup rounds. I think maybe I lost a little bit of time just keeping her off the front of some of the jumps because she was so enthusiastic.”
Kessler said she felt excited rather than nervous for her first course at the Olympic Games. “It’s been a long six months leading up to this moment, so once I [got to] the first jump I was like, ‘I’m here. Let’s do it!’ ” she said. “I can’t say that I don’t get nervous ever, but in general when I’m nervous or when I’m under pressure, I think it brings out the best in me. When I’m really casual and comfortable, I’ll make casual mistakes. When there are tens of thousands of people here and I’m wearing the red coat, there’s no room for error.”
Rich Fellers also admitted he was more relieved to get started than nervous.
“My life has changed dramatically in the last two weeks. There are never enough hours in the day with our business and our children, and in the last two weeks there have been so many hours in the day with one horse to ride,” he said. “I’ve been paranoid that I’m getting out of shape. It was just nice to get in there and jump. Once I got in the in-gate, it was a course, and it was focus and execute.”
It’s also Fellers’ first time at an Olympic Games, but the reigning FEI World Cup Champion said he didn’t feel a lot of pressure. “George [Morris] wanted everyone to get in there and get comfortable,” he said. “He wasn’t super concerned about the time allowed. Tomorrow and the next day things are going to separate out significantly, so he didn’t have a lot of emphasis on perfection today.”
Although his feisty Irish Sport Horse stallion (Crusing—Flex, Safari) is 16 years old, Fellers said he was super fit. “I have Flexible as fit as I feel like it’s safe to get him,” he said. “I’ve been riding him twice a day for months now. I’ve backed off a little bit the last few days. It’s not time for fitness now. He feels fresh. He’s proven that he can do championship formats and not taper off. He seems to always get better through a week of showing.”
The first of two rounds to determine the team medals will begin tomorrow at 11 a.m. BST.
For full results, visit the London 2012 website.