The moment when Beezie Madden, McLain Ward, Laura Kraut and Will Simpson stood atop the Olympic podium, accepting their team gold medals, might be the one immortalized in photos and etched in memories.
But it’s the years of moments leading up to the time that they stepped up to that podium that make all four of them our Show Jumping and Overall Horsemen of the Year. Each of the four took his or her own path to the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong, and each of those routes showed the true depth of their horsemanship in and out of the ring.
“I’ve been so lucky to be on good teams, but this was a really exceptional team,” Madden said. “We were excited about our chances going into the Games and excited to be the defending champions. Everyone on our team did a really good job getting their horses to the Games at their best.”
Madden and Ward were the veteran anchors of the team, on Authentic and Sapphire—two horses with multiple championship medals to their credit. Laura Kraut was a veteran of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, but she had a green horse for Hong Kong in Cedric. And Simpson had limited international championship experience and a relatively unknown horse in Carlsson vom Dach.
“It was a great mix,” said Chef d’Equipe George Morris. “Will Simpson is a prince of a person. This was his first championship situation, but he’s no debutante. He’s a seasoned professional. Laura Kraut is a great horsewoman and a great competitor. And Beezie Madden and McLain Ward are the biggest assets you can have on any team, anywhere.”
In Hong Kong, during the muggy evenings of August, these four riders experienced a remarkable confluence of talent, spirit and effort that resulted in great jumping and the gold medal. “There was an immense sense of pride that just came over us when we got to Hong Kong. It wasn’t overconfidence but a real comforting sense that we’d done our homework and we had a real shot at a medal. That feeling, to me, was my favorite memory,” Simpson said.
“I think we all came from similar workman-like backgrounds, where none of us started out with a silver spoon in our mouth, but we had to work to get there,” said Ward. “That sometimes creates a real common bond; we all wanted it from a very early age and had to find a way to get there. It gives you a great sense of constant appreciation of the horses and the people around you.”
Relying On The Anchors
Ward’s Sapphire and Madden’s Authentic were both relatively green 9-year-olds at the 2004 Athens Olympics, but they helped the U.S. team claim gold there, then went on to earn team silver at the 2006 World Equestrian Games (Germany). The two have become the go-to horses for the U.S. team, and both were given byes to the 2008 Olympic short list.
Without having to contend the selection trials, Ward and Madden were free to prepare Sapphire and Authentic on their own schedules. Each had been planning those schedules since they stepped down from the World Equestrian Games podium in 2006.
“Beezie and I have gotten to go to quite a few dances together over the years,” Ward said. “I think we’ve grown quite close, and there’s a strong mutual respect between us and between the people around her and the people around me.”
“You can always count on Beezie and McLain to either go clear or just have 4 faults,” said Kraut. “When you have two people on a team like that, that’s really nice. And they have such great partnerships with those two horses.”
Ward and Sapphire led off as pathfinders in the team round, jumping clean in Round 1 and then just touching the tape at the water jump in Round 2 for 4 faults. They followed that up with a clean second round.
Madden and Authentic were in their usual anchor spots for the team. But in Round 1, Authentic made an uncharacteristic mistake, shaking his head violently on the way to a triple combination and stopping. Madden finished with 11 faults.
“I didn’t worry or panic,” said Kraut. “Beezie, for once, got to have her teammates back her up. Usually, Beezie’s the one who has to pull through in the end.”
“Everybody hates to be the discard score, and if I had come through with a clear round—which he was doing—we
would have had a huge lead,” Madden said. “But, luckily, it all worked out because my teammates were so good that day. It was frustrating that it happened, but thank God it didn’t hurt the team too much.”
In the second round, a clean round from Authentic would have clinched the gold medal, but he just barely touched the tape at the water jump.
But they didn’t have to start in the jump-off, since Ward, Kraut and Simpson had ensured the gold with clear jump-off rounds. Madden and Authentic returned to the ring a few days later to earn the individual bronze.
“The team medal is always the most important, so to do it two Games in a row and be a part of that is fantastic. To add an individual medal is even better,” Madden said.
Neither Ward nor Madden spend too much time basking in their successes; they’re constantly planning for the next challenge. “I gained an even greater respect for Beezie and McLain. They’re professionals who have dedicated their lives to representing this country,” Simpson said.
“It’s not just going in the ring and having nerves of steel and what people see on TV. It’s happening right now, getting ready for [the 2012 Olympic Games]. Horses are being purchased that are going to peak at the right time and be there in three years,” added Simpson.
“These are things that I don’t think a whole lot of people see that go on behind the scenes, and that’s what it takes to win gold medals. It’s a long, long road when you’re going on these teams. There are all kinds of sacrifices that are made. Their dedication to the sport and to the country is remarkable.”
Kraut has a been a talented contributor to the U.S team for years, riding Liberty on the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games team and Miss Independent on the 2006 WEG silver-medal team.
There’s no question that she knows how to produce results in the ring, but in the lead-up to the Olympic Games in Hong Kong, she showed the horsemanship and good judgment that lies behind those results. Kraut wasn’t going to go to Hong Kong if it wasn’t the right thing to do.
For the five years that Kraut has ridden Cedric, she’s always known he was a phenomenal jumper. But she had some reservations about him as a team horse.
“He’s green, and he’s quirky. He’s got some odd things that he does,” Kraut said. “He’s always jumped the water jump really high and kind of scared. And he can jump walls funny—he’s so careful that I think he doesn’t always trust the landing if he can’t see it. I know how difficult the Olympics are. I didn’t question that he could jump the height, but I was concerned about the spooky factor.”
Cedric won the Olympic selection trials convincingly, but even then, Kraut wasn’t sure. She took Cedric to Europe and showed him at multiple venues, giving him mileage in impressive atmospheres.
“I think I started thinking more positively after Rotterdam [the Netherlands, in June]. He jumped so well there, and those conditions were as difficult as any he’d see,” Kraut said. “I knew for sure they couldn’t build any bigger at the Olympics, because Rotterdam was the biggest grand prix we jumped. I thought that if we could get through [the Samsung Super League Nations Cup at] Aachen [Germany] and he was good and confident, then I would make up my mind that he would go to Hong Kong.
“I don’t think I ever let on to George that I wasn’t 100 percent sure I would go,” she admitted. “I didn’t want him to not have confidence in me.”
At Aachen, Cedric jumped well and was named to the team for Hong Kong.
• Will Simpson and Carlsson vom Dach parted ways after the Olympic Games in Hong Kong. Double H Farm bought Carlsson and gave the ride to Irishman Darragh Kerins.
• McLain Ward, Beezie Madden, Laura Kraut and Simpson all credited their support teams as being an essential part of their success. “This is not an individual sport. You’re not getting there without an army behind you,” Ward said.
• Anne Kursinski traveled to Hong Kong with Champ as the alternates for the Olympic team. “She was there, putting 100 percent of her time in,” said Madden. “It was a big sacrifice. She really dedicated her time to being the alternate, and that’s a hard position to be in. I know how disappointed she was to not be on the team, but she hung in there and was positive the whole time.”
• All four riders appreciated the support they received from all the U.S. Equestrian Federation staff members in Hong Kong, particularly Show Jumping High Performance Manager Lizzy Chesson, USEF Managing Director of Show Jumping Sally Ike, and team veterinarian, Dr. Tim Ober.
“She did such a beautiful job getting that horse ready for the Olympic Games,” said Ward. “I know there were some concerns about whether he was experienced enough or whether he was the right horse for the job. Obviously, she did a fantastic job.”
Kraut admitted that before the first round in Hong Kong, she was more nervous than she’d ever been.
“I kind of felt like I was the weak link of the team, honestly. Luckily, it didn’t turn out to be that way—we had no weak link—but it was very nice knowing that I had three people with me who I knew were going to put in really solid performances,” she said.
Cedric rose to the occasion, having just one rail in the first round of the team competition and then notching a clean second round that was essential to the score.
“I think her second round in the Nations Cup was one that will not be soon forgotten,” said Ward.
“Cedric and Carlsson vom Dach were two somewhat unknown quantities. They were the risks. They really stepped up to the plate,” Morris said. “Cedric is a young and careful horse, but he won the trials so convincingly and he went so magnificently. We were hoping he would go like he did in Hong Kong. He’s a very good, careful jumper, what I call a freaky jumper.
“Carlsson is a very hot, brave, aggressive horse. I didn’t have the same wonder about him as I did about Cedric,” Morris added. “I wondered more about his rideability, but that got better and better all summer, with Will being in Europe. Will really learned a lot about flatwork, and the horse rode better and better.”
Showing The World
Simpson brought not only a talented horse to Hong Kong but also a bit of comic relief.
“Will was refreshing; it was a good balance between Beezie and my seriousness and his light-heartedness,” said Ward. “He’s got a great outlook. He’d waited a lifetime to get to that goal and, God bless him, he enjoyed the Olympic experience.”
Simpson and Carlsson turned in two eight-fault rounds in the team competition to help the U.S. tie with Canada for gold, but their true moment to shine came in the jump-off for team gold. After Ward and Kraut had turned in clear jump-off rounds, Simpson and Carlsson emphatically put the lid on the gold medal with another quick, clear round.
“I had this feeling come over me of, ‘I can’t wait to show the world how great this horse is.’ That was my mission, and that’s what I stuck to,” Simpson said.
“I saw the distance to the last jump [of the jump-off] from 15 strides away. I just couldn’t wait for those 15 strides to go by before I could leg him off the ground and we could be in the air over the last jump,” Simpson recalled. “And it happened just like that. It was an amazing feeling to be in the here and now, knowing that I could do the job at hand.”
Simpson and Carlsson were relative unknowns before the Games. Simpson found the bay gelding for El Campeon Farms in the summer of 2007, so he’d only been riding him for a year.
“I got to know Will, and he’s an incredible horseman,” Kraut said. “He really studies the horses and tries to ride them the way they want. It was obvious that there’s a particular way that Carlsson likes to be ridden, and that’s how he rode him. I think that’s what makes a horseman great, to be able to adapt to a horse like that.”
Carlsson’s performance at the Münster CSI (Germany) in September 2007 convinced Simpson to travel from his home base in Thousand Oaks, Calif., to Wellington, Fla., for the selection trials for the Games. With that plan in mind, Simpson made some brave choices.
“We started a plan of training at home. We jumped some big courses and decided not to go to [the HITS Thermal Desert Circuit (Calif.)]. I also figured that if I went to Florida too early, I would be tempted to show and jump him. I didn’t want to have him fatigued by the time the trials came. I decided to stay at home and keep things under wraps. By the time we got to Florida, everything was right. We had a fresh, happy horse.”
But perhaps Simpson’s greatest moment of horsemanship came on the morning of the last Olympic selection trial. Simpson was second in the standings on Carlsson and clearly in contention to be named to the short list. But when groom Roger Solis arrived to feed Carlsson breakfast, the gelding couldn’t move his neck.
They theorized that Carlsson had somehow injured himself during a thunderstorm that night. An army of veterinarians, acupuncturists and chiropractors worked on Carlsson throughout the day, trying to get him fit to show.
“When it came time to ride him and see if we could show,” said Simpson. “I said I’d just take it step by step and if he felt at all uncomfortable at any point, that would be the end of it. He got all the way to jumping, and he never flinched; he was fine. But it dawned on me that he wasn’t half the horse he usually was. He’s usually quite a handful.
“So, I realized that he was sound, but he was exhausted. We had to stop—there was no way he could jump a championship course that day,” Simpson said. “We had to take a chance and say, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t go with the horse.’ ”
Simpson withdrew Carlsson from the final trials round and left it up to the selection committee, who had one last subjective slot on the short list to use at their discretion. It was possible that Simpson had lost his chance at the Olympic Games.
“I had to wait and watch the class and then sleep that night—or not—and then wake up and go to this meeting to find out if I’d be on the list or not,” Simpson recalled. “George was very supportive of the decision not to show the horse, but there was no indication one way or the other about whether we’d be on the short list. But we ended up named to the list, so I was really proud of him and the decisions we’d made all the way.”
Once on the short list, Simpson and Carlsson had to prove themselves at three Samsung Super League shows. It would be Simpson’s first appearances on Nations Cup teams.
“It was a major step up for us. George, seeing what was going to be around every curve before we got there, put me in the anchor position for all three shows,” said Simpson.
“That really stepped up the experience level, so we got some major mileage at that level. Carlsson responded just beautifully. He handled everything just right and was fresh and sound the whole way through, so he really proved himself to be the type of horse for a championship situation.”
Rallying The Troops
While Madden, Ward, Kraut and Simpson all had the Olympic Games as a goal for 2008, they knew that it was the homework they did with their horses that would make the Games go well.
They credited their remarkable unity of purpose for their gold-medal performance. “We all were willing—for a long period of time leading up to the Games—to sacrifice a lot of individual results to have that team ready for the Games,” Ward said. “We had one goal in mind. You can’t win every week. You have to build toward that goal, and I think everybody on that team did that very well.”
“Every experience makes you richer as a rider, but I think the biggest thing for me was how great it is when a team is that cohesive,” added Madden. “We have different personalities, but we all got along well and we were all out for the same goal. Everybody had respect for each other and knew it was going to get done. I think we all felt that about each other.”
The backbone of that team was Morris. His quiet guidance made all the difference.
“I think he has the perfect balance of helping us and leaving us alone,” Madden said of Morris. “He has a great talent for rallying the troops. He gives you confidence, but he makes sure you stay on track. He has just enough of an intimidation factor! But he has a way of also instilling in you confidence that you can win.”