Having had the Pan Am Games go so well for our teams has reminded me of the responsibility that all riders who represent the USA have to shoulder. I don’t think any one of us should ever take for granted the effort it takes to win a medal in a major championship.
The dressage riders took the gold again in the Pan Am Games through a real team effort, winning by just .25 points. The show jumpers also won the team gold medal, but under the tremendous pressure of having to basically win the gold or silver in their last chance to qualify for the Olympic Games as a country. So it was a fantastic effort.
I wonder, though, what would we have all done if they’d failed at their task?
Think about it—would we have demanded a new system? Would we have strung up the people who run the jumper high-performance program? Would we have blamed the USA Equestrian/U.S. Equestrian Team fight or the solution to that problem?
For these games, the show jumpers tried out a new system of selection, a mix of subjectivity and objectivity, and it produced a very strong team. But we always have to remember that the chances of things going wrong are inherent in any championship no matter how you pick the team. Medals are won and lost in the matter of milliseconds. Years of work by riders, owners, grooms, veterinarians, farriers, selectors, committee members and staff supporting the high-performance teams all come down to a ride that’s over in a minute or two.
We all need to be more aware of how slender the difference is between winning and losing.
I’ve been lucky enough to represent the USA on numerous teams these past 17 years. Looking back on those experiences, it seems that the trips always look better when you remember them from a few years later. You tend not to dwell on the nerves and tension leading up to a championship and only remember in vague terms the actual events themselves.
When you start to think of those events, you remember that most of it went quite well, even if the results weren’t as successful as you’d hoped. But, human nature tends to have us minimize the down side.
Usually, it all comes down to that one or two fences or movements that are the difference, one or two movements that determine whether the competition was good or bad.
One or two fences! That’s all.
At the top international level, the difference between the elite riders is minimal. They’re all really good riders, and most are mounted on fantastic horses. It comes down to the day, and that day comes down to moments.
Do you remember the movie Any Given Sunday, with Al Pacino and Dennis Quaid? It has a great premise that someone can win or lose a football game on any given Sunday.
Our equestrian sports aren’t like other Olympic sports. In sports like track and field or gymnastics, you may not know which order they’ll finish, but you know who the winners are going to be when the heats start. I think that generally we know who the top six countries are going to be, but on any given day they’ll end up in a different order—mostly because we’re riding horses.
I think that if you ran the same competition (if you could replicate it exactly) the next day, you’d end up with a different result, even with all the factors being the same. That’s why riders and countries truly show their competitive excellence by multiple wins over time, not by just particular victories.
I believe that our planning and support systems are the best in the world. We have great people in each discipline who strive to make sure that our riders have everything that they need in order to be competitive.
And almost every single rider who represents our country is truly committed to being at the top of his or her game at a “team” event. Really, the only exception is when rookie riders make the mistake of just trying to be on the team and forget that the point is that they’re supposed to produce their top performance during the competition for which they were picked. That is a mistake very rarely repeated, if they make it on the “team” again.
Riders all try their best on the day. But sometimes, no matter how well you’ve prepared, the competition just gets taken away from you, for reasons that are never clear.
I believe that all of our teams are at the top level in the international world. In the Olympic disciplines, the dressage riders have been climbing up the ladder for the past 10 years and are now truly contenders for the silver-medal position. Can we break that German stranglehold on the gold? If there were ever a time, this could be the group of riders that do it.
We event riders have enjoyed a great level of success under our system for the last 10 years too. We’ve won medals in every team event since 1995, and that’s led to a great deal of confidence in what we do. But we don’t take anything for granted, and I believe that the strength of the group is that we’re always evaluating how we prepared and are willing to be honest about our mistakes. It’s not always easy, and it’s sometimes painful, but it’s always educational.
The jumpers, though, have been struggling in major championships since 1990. I don’t at all think it’s because of talent (or lack of it), but, somehow or somewhere, their preparation hasn’t produced consistent results. But they’re changing their system of getting to championships, and I predict that they’re on the threshold of starting a streak of medal-winning performances. It should be fun to watch.
So the next time you see our riders competing for our country, please be supportive of them, no matter what the final outcome. We should enjoy the wins with humility and accept the losses with commitment for improvement.
Success in sports is by nature extremely fleeting. Let’s enjoy the journey as much as the result.