by John Strassburger
When he put himself into Olympic contention by winning the Foxhall Cup CCI*** (Ga.) in April, David O’Connor told me quietly that whether he rode in Athens or not, it would be his last Olympics or championship. I wasn’t too surprised as he’d told me four years ago, after winning the gold medal in Sydney, that he didn’t want to be 50 (he’s 42 now) and still trying to make teams.
Still, you can never be sure when a top competitor like he is says he’s going to hang up his team coat. I hadn’t had a chance to talk to him about his retirement since Foxhall, but on Saturday we got a chance to talk, before Debbie McDonald and Brentina went in the ring. And he confirmed that, yes, he really has decided that being a reserve here was his last championship team.
David’s role here has primarily been as president of the U.S. Equestrian Federation and as a member of the FEI Eventing Committee, although I ran into him as I was walking the cross-country course on Monday because he was measuring the course for his teammates.
“It’s time for the next step,” he said.
And why not. He has, really, done just about everything there is to do in eventing. Besides the Olympic gold, he won team gold at the World Championships in 2002, the Badminton CCI**** (England) in 1997, and the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** in 2001 (plus two victories in the three-star at Kentucky). He’s also won just about every other U.S. three-day event–the Fair Hill CCI*** (Md.) five times, the Radnor Hunt CCI** (Pa.) three times, the Jersey Fresh CCI**, and the old Essex CCI*. Plus, he’s been the U.S. Eventing Association Rider of the Year and he’s ridden on eight championship teams, including winning the team gold and individual silver medals at the 1999 Pan Am Games.
With all that behind him, David now wants to concentrate on coaching. He wants to coach both individual riders and national teams, “whether for this country or another.” His plan is sort of in the mold of his mentor Jack Le Goff and Capt. Mark Phillips, although he told me his desire to be a coach pre-dated his time spent with them.
“I want to make an impact on the sport in other ways than riding. I want to have an effect on the educational aspect for all horses and all horse sports,” he said. He’s also been making a name for himself as cross-country course designer.
But he’s not completely done yet. No, he’s too much of a horse trainer to stop working with them from their backs. He said he plans to continue riding and competing young event horses. And he wants to dabble in pure dressage and show jumping, to expand his own education.
Still, he admitted that, well, international retirement might not be completely permanent if one thing happened–if some angel fell from the sky and offered him a string of horses (“It would have to be a string,” he said) to aim for four-stars and championships. “I couldn’t turn that down, but I’m not searching for it,” he said.
I asked David if he felt disappointed or awkward being here, unable to defend his gold medal. He said no, not really, because he simply didn’t have a horse ready to do it. “I was amazed that I got as far as I did” with Outlawed, he said with a smile. “He made a big leap up a vertical learning curve in the spring, and then he sort of plateaued, in the show jumping. I mean, he couldn’t have done these two courses–at least not right now.”
Since 1984, four men had won the Olympic gold medal in eventing before Leslie Law was named the newest gold medalist yesterday afternoon: Mark Todd (1984 and ’88), Matt Ryan (1992), Blyth Tait (1996) and David. Since Tait has already announced his retirement at the Burghley CCI**** (England) the first weekend in September, Ryan is the only one we might see give Law a run in 2008 or in the World Championships. And it’s a pretty good bet that Ryan will want to do just that, as he was vocally upset that the Australian selectors left him as team reserve, which finished sixth.