After the U.S. eventing team’s disappointing seventh-placed finish, our columnist believes it’s time for eventers to pull together for the long-term good of the entire sport.
In horse sports, the word “if” is one of the most important in the English language, and that fact rang true most definitely at the Olympic Games in Hong Kong.
When “if” is followed by the word “only,” it’s even more significant. “If only” becomes the phrase that continues to remain stuck in the athletes’ heads—as well as coaches, administrators and anyone else who was interested in the outcome of these Games.
The U.S. eventing competitors in Hong Kong didn’t reach the expectations they envisioned (see Aug. 22, p. 8) when they finished seventh in the team competition. Gina Miles’ individual silver medal with McKinlaigh was the high point of a week of lost dreams and moments that slipped out of their grasp.
Gina deserved every ounce of that silver medal. She was determined, has a great horse and pulled out the performance of her lifetime. It was a pleasure to watch.
For the rest of the team members—Phillip Dutton, Karen O’Connor, Amy Tryon and Becky Holder—there were moments where we saw the possibilities of greatness, but then they slipped away into that “if only” arena.
So what does the future hold after a week where the United States eventing team had its worst Olympic showing in 16 years?
First, everyone involved has to return home and truly have a frank conversation about the planning and execution involved in our Olympic journey. Topics in this conversation must include the selection process, logistics, veterinary oversight, and, perhaps most importantly, how we train and compete at home.
We must make sure not to throw the baby out with the bath water, however. We do have excellent riders, and we do have horses that are up to the level, but I feel that they’re too comfortable at home. Most other elite athletes in other sports regularly compete against the best in the world consistently. Not so for eventers.
For instance, the U.S. show jumpers, who just won the team gold medal at the Olympics (p. 8), are on a roll. They regularly spend time in Europe competing and really value that time. They also treasure their top competitions, such as the Samsung Super League series, to create competitive tenacity. This competitive steel is what eventers are missing.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not competitive drive that our riders are lacking—they do try very hard—but trying hard isn’t enough. It’s figuring out the game involved, being comfortable with that game and then beating it. We have the talent, but I feel we’re not creating the competitive edge that’s needed. I learned a long time ago that it’s not what you win but who you beat. We need to get our riders into the frying pan more often.
Historically, the international-level event riders have focused on one major trip each year to a European event, such as the four-star CCIs of Badminton and Burghley (England) and Luhmühlen (Germany). I’m proposing that we change this format in the future and spread our riders out among different European events.
We will have an added bonus for the next two years, however, as I do believe that the best riders in the world will travel here to the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** in preparation for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. This is a great start.
What we do at home needs to improve as well, however. Although I agree with Chronicle columnist Denny Emerson’s remembrance of the past, I don’t agree with his assessment of our present. Denny believes there’s a rift in the sport between the upper levels and the grass roots.
I attend many events across five different U.S. Eventing Association areas. About 60 percent of them are the upper levels, but the remaining 40 percent are at the lower levels. I don’t believe that rift exists. Eventing’s leaders have to remember that the sport is one, and the health of our sport at all levels leads us to success at all levels.
In the past year eventing has come under great stress from within and from the outside because of the recent spate of accidents and deaths of riders and horses. I believe this stress has brought us together and not apart, however.
During June’s USEF/USEA Safety Summit (June 20, p. 23), some people asked about creating a divided sport by establishing different tracks for professionals and amateurs. The response was a resounding “No way!” As long as the leaders of this sport, myself included, respect all aspects of the sport, we should all remain as one.
From the organizer who’s struggling to keep his event going, to the local rider who wants to event for fun a few times a year, to the professional whose clients want to compete at the novice and training levels, to the rider with the highest Olympic Games aspirations, all people involved in eventing have to come with a plate full of respect and the willingness to see what’s truly needed for all facets of the sport to thrive.
Eventing actually thrives on belief—the belief that you can get better, belief in the integrity of organizations, belief in your heroes, belief that this sport can make each of us better in our everyday lives. This is what it’s about, and I can guarantee that I’m the biggest believer of all. Like any relationship, there are times when you’re looking at someone through a lens of forgiveness, but the belief doesn’t change.
Let’s look toward the future and contribute to a sport that’s fun and safe. The USEA is the affiliate for the sport as a whole, and the U.S. Equestrian Federation is the financial and structural support system. Together we can continue to provide and improve the tools for all riders to achieve their dreams, whether at the lower levels or in the international arena.
The current president of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, David O’Connor earned individual gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He won the 2001 Rolex Kentucky CCI**** and was the second U.S. rider ever to win the Badminton CCI**** (England) in 1997. O’Connor retired from international competition in 2004 and now trains horses and riders and designs cross-country courses. He started contributing to Between Rounds in 2004.