Sunday, May. 19, 2024

McLain Ward Wouldn’t Change A Thing On His Road To The Olympics

In this series, the Chronicle follows six riders as they seek to fulfill their Olympic dreams in Hong Kong in 2008.

February 22 - Installment No. 1
April 25 - Installment No. 2
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In this series, the Chronicle follows six riders as they seek to fulfill their Olympic dreams in Hong Kong in 2008.

February 22Installment No. 1
April 25Installment No. 2
July 4Installment No. 3

The Nations Cup and grand prix at Aachen (Germany)—there’s nothing like it. The Olympic Games don’t even compare to Aachen, atmosphere-wise. You obviously, with experience, block it out a bit, but it’s the best show in the world.

I think everyone’s mood was good at Aachen [July 2-6]. There was a slight unknown feeling for all of us in Europe, because none of us knew 100 percent where we stood in regards to the team selection.
It was definitely a focused group.
   
[The Aachen CHIO was the last outing for the U.S. show jumpers and U.S. Equestrian Federation officials named the team of Ward on Sapphire, Madden on Authentic, Laura Kraut on Cedric, Will Simpson on Carlsson vom Dach and Anne Kursinski on Champ as reserve right after Aachen (July 25, p. 8).]

For Beezie [Madden] and I, it was a little bit less an unknown, but more an opportunity to shine a little bit and have our last really good strong performance before the Olympic Games. I had an idea we looked good for the team, but obviously there was no room for a disastrous round or for a bad day. All of the work of the two years since the World Equestrian Games goes down the drain in one really bad round, and that can happen to anybody, especially at Aachen.

Sapphire jumped just the Nations Cup and [the $514,633 Rolex Grand Prix of Aachen]. I had originally wanted to jump in a class on Wednesday, but [U.S. Chef d’Equipe George Morris] wanted to save her and keep her as fresh as possible for the weekend and for Hong Kong. But that’s the great thing about Sapphire—she’s predictable. Any class, any situation, 99 percent of the time she’s going to give you a very good performance.
   
The Nations Cup was extremely big—one of the bigger Nations Cup courses I’ve seen at Aachen. It was quite straightforward and not overly technical. There was only really one related distance, but there were big fences and a big combination early in the course.  It was difficult.
   
We knew the team for the Nations Cup—myself, Beezie, Anne and Laura—at the beginning of the week. Will was there as a back-up; he’d jumped his tour already. That night, the first round was very solid, but we all withered a little bit in the second round, which was disappointing.
   
[The U.S. team was in second after Round 1 behind Germany but picked up 16 faults in Round 2 to tie for third.]  The team certainly didn’t perform as we could have, but I think that the good thing we could take from it was that we showed about 70 percent of what our maximum performance can be, and we were still very close, so if we tighten that up, it’ll get better.  There’s also some insecurity with everyone trying to qualify for the Olympic Games. I don’t know if that necessarily produces the best riding. Hopefully, now, people are secure, we’ve made the step to the Olympic Games, and everyone can focus on doing their job.

So Close

Sapphire had easy days on Friday and Saturday at Aachen before the grand prix on Sunday. I was a bit nervous. That’s a class that I really covet. I and my whole support staff would really like to win that particular class.
   
There was some anxiety, but Sapphire felt good.  When she jumped through the triple combination, the fifth jump, I had a really good feeling she was going to jump a clean round. She felt very on form right from the beginning, and I think she jumped better as the day went on. It was even bigger than the Nations Cup. It was two jumps longer and more technical. The double of liverpools was set in a very difficult way—I think there were several eliminations there. It was big.
 
[Ward went in the middle of the eight-horse jump-off and was heartbreakingly close to winning. He had the fastest time of the class, but the top rail of the last jump came down from a light rub, leaving him and Sapphire in sixth.] There wasn’t much option. We didn’t come to be second, but at the same time you couldn’t go crazy—it had to be an intelligent ride.  I really thought the jump-off suited her.  It was a very galloping jump-off, and I really felt there was some room to try and win the class. It was one of those jump-off rounds you dream about, and it was just one fence too long!
  
I was thrilled with the way the horse went. It’s terrible if you come out of the ring and regret how you rode something. But I didn’t have that feeling. I came out of the ring and said, “If I had it to do over again, I would do it the same.” And a lot of people have watched the video, and we agree there’s nothing I cold have done differently. It wasn’t a hard rub. That’s show jumping. I’m not going to tell you it wasn’t frustrating to not win that class, but we’ll get it one of these days.

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Nothing More To Do

After Aachen, Sapphire is done showing until the Olympic Games. The week after Aachen, I went to Geesteren [the Netherlands] with Larioso and Goldika. After Geesteren, I went home for 10 days to relax. I missed home, and I got to ride with my father [Barney Ward], which always helps me. I practiced and jumped quite a bit. We flew back to Europe on July 23.

Jenny [Wood] stayed with Sapphire at François Mathy’s in Belgium. Basically, she just needed to work lightly, so she went out of the ring and hacking through the woods. She came out of Aachen fresh and healthy, and there’s nothing more for us to do. There are some elements we’ll have to deal with in Hong Kong, like the heat, but I think we’re as prepared as we can be. I wouldn’t have done anything
different on our way to this point.

One of the things that you have to be careful about is that when you have so much idle time, with one horse a day in a foreign country, you can get into the trap of sitting outside the stall and staring at the horse and doing too much. But I think that our team has Sapphire fit and healthy and as in form as she can be.
   
The horses ship to Hong Kong on Aug. 5, and the first round is on the 15th.  Managing that idle time is one of the hardest things in these situations, particularly for Americans, who are so far from home and used to riding eight to 10 horses a day, and now they’re riding one horse a day.

It’s so easy to over-think things. Experience and the people around me have helped me learn to deal with that.
   
I feel comfortable walking straight into the Olympic ring with Sapphire even without having jumped a big track for a few weeks.
   
I was actually more relaxed in Athens than I was in the trials in 2004, and I’m feeling quite at peace now. We’ll see if I say the same the morning of Aug. 15!

McLain Ward, as told to Molly Sorge



Sapphire Was Wearing High Heels At Aachen

The footing at Aachen is quite slippery. Because of the amount of rain that they get there, they’ve spent tremendous amounts of money on grass footing that can withstand rain. It doesn’t tear up, get muddy or mucky, but it’s almost a gravelly soil. It’s like a putting green. It’s very slick.
   
If you lose a shoe, it’s a real problem. Gerco Schröder’s horse lost two shoes in the first round, and the horse was practically falling down. Sapphire doesn’t normally mind different footings, so she handles it quite well. It’s a little bit like jumping on Astroturf. They don’t sink into it; they really stay on top of it.
   
You have to do what each horse needs—there are certainly horses we wouldn’t stud that big. But Sapphire is a big, heavy horse. It’s certainly not ideal to use studs that big, but her slipping and sliding in front of a jump isn’t ideal either. You have to do what you have to do to deal with the conditions.

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